Donk the World

Philadelphia's car outlaws battle for respect on the streets.

By Christopher Maag
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted May. 19, 2009

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Don't mess with Terrance Robinson and his Ford Grand Torino 500.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

With previous vehicular crazes, this transition from lower-class menace to middle-class respectability took a generation or more. Those guys had to wait to see their competition on the streets, or read about it in a monthly magazine. 

Donk, the Internet’s first underground car scene, found its competition on constantly updated websites like 

“Every car culture goes over the top to get recognized, and then people in the scene react to that and do something more subtle,” says Scotto, who is now editor of Rides magazine. “What takes most car cultures 10 years took donk five.”

Which is why Max Jean-Gilles is willing to spend thousands of dollars on a white Cadillac that will look pretty much the same when he’s done with it as it did before he started, save the massive wheels. No self-respecting professional athlete can be seen in a bright purple Monte Carlo jacked 5 feet in the air! But a 1990s Cadillac with 26-inch rims contains just the right mixture: outlandish and unique enough to claim membership in the city’s donk culture; respectable enough to drive to the golf club without getting thrown out. 

“Gotta get my 4-inches,” Jean-Gilles yells as he finally leaves the Wheel Thing parking lot. “Gotta be different! It’s the only way to do!”

The Kensington Big K-Mart parking lot at the corner of Westmoreland and Aramingo is the perfect place for cruising, the first spot north of downtown where the skinny streets and rowhouses of old Philadelphia flatten out into the horizontal landscape of modern America, rolling north past the McDonald’s drive-thru, the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru, the Dunkin Donuts 
kiosk inside the BP gas station, the Auto Zone, the Petco parking lot—all this wide-open, car-friendly space. 

And here comes Chris Lamberson in the only car big enough to make this place seem small. It’s an apple red 1969 Cadillac that’s a full foot longer than the yellow painted lines of K-Mart’s parking lot spaces. The car has shiny oversized wheels. Lamberson presses a knob and the entire Cadillac slowly sinks until it almost hits the pavement, thereby meeting all the requirements of the modern “donk and slam” scene. 

But there are problems. Lamberson gets out and talks to Hector Santiago, who co-owns a donk shop called J&S Customs. Santiago stands next to his sea-foam green Chevy Impala, which sits at a normal height atop 26-inch rims. 

“Everybody wants to know how I got the wheels so high with the car so low,” Santiago says. He opens the trunk and cranks the stereo, blasting out a bass line powerful enough to jiggle internal organs from 20 feet away. 

Lamberson, 30, shakes his head. “Man, my car ain’t even halfway done!” he screams. “My system sounds terrible next to that!”

He walks down the row of tricked-out cars to Mick Bethune’s cream-colored Lincoln Continental, which has hydraulic pistons powerful enough to bounce the entire car off the ground. Lamberson shakes his head again. Instead of hydraulics, his car uses cheaper air bags, which are too slow to bounce.

“See what I mean?” Lamberson says. “My shit don’t pop like that.”

A 1994 Chevrolet Caprice wagon pulls in and circles the lot. 

“Man, Caprices don’t get no respect on the streets,” Lamberson says. “It’s all Impalas or nothing.”

The Caprice stops right next to Lamberson’s Cadillac. Out steps Ed Guttierez, 21, a street cleaner in Center City. His car has a white sticker across the rear window that reads “Broad Street Bullies,” the car club Guttierez started two months ago. Otherwise it’s a pale blue, completely stock piece of crap. 

That will change. Guttierez hopes to turn his ugly station wagon into one of the best donks on the Philadelphia scene. He will spend about $20,000 on this car, which wasn’t even running when he bought it for $900. 

“I’m gonna donk and slam it with 24-inch rims,” says Guttierez. “After that, I can’t really say because somebody else will go out tomorrow and buy it. Thank God for Craigslist.”

For hours everybody walks down the rows of cars, looking for ideas to steal. Jay Riera’s Buick Regal with wire wheels, flat black paint and a plasma TV in the trunk. Dwayne “Lefty” Hooks’ 1968 Impala with baroque paisleys in gold fleck paint. Even a little Honda Civic on oversized rims. Dozens of men turn and laugh.

“Those cars will never get the respect that a big classic donk will,” Yates says. “But it’s proof that the donk thing is spreading everywhere.”

Everywhere, all at once, right along with design-your-own sneakers, purses, iPod skins, messenger bags, T-shirts, all of it for sale at 2 a.m. on Donk is Internet commerce in car form, eight cylinders of growling, supercharged flash-and-dash, the information and manufacturing economies merging to make personalization the ultimate value-added, middle-class competitive sport. 

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. lalaw9833 said... on May 19, 2009 at 10:35PM

“It's good to know where some people's priorities stand in these tough economic times we are dealing with.”

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2. Eric said... on May 20, 2009 at 08:44AM

“When I see cars like the ones mentioned I don't think drug dealer. I think, "Wow, I guess that's how we spend our money." I understand the concept of growing up poor and wanted a "dope" car but come on now. I have yet to purchase my first car...why? Because I don't need it, I am a firm believer in public transportation and walking.

Although if I won something on the Price is Right, I would gladly accept it :).”

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3. MC1968 said... on May 20, 2009 at 11:02AM

“Yeah, meanwhile they are probably living in dumps.”

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4. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 11:48AM

“worst article ever, thse ppl are pathetic”

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5. floridastyle said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:10PM

“this style comes from florida, though the rims are not as large as the ones here in florida and the cars are not as lifted as those seen in the miami and orlando area. let the people enjoy their lifestyle how they wish. who cares if you think its a waste of money. we dont tell you how to spend your money on. you probably blow your money on iphones, ipods, xbox's and playstations. to each his own.”

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6. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:14PM

“First I think the statement - "The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45" is racist, in that the comments are direct to AA men between the ages of 17 & 45. Well than does that mean that every law binding, tax paying citizen in Phila who did or did not grow up in a poor city. AKA Ghetto is POOR. Dang, where are we going with such talk? So does that mean that "PW" stands for Poor Whites? and that's who reads it because of such ill-regarded comments the editor made.”

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7. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:14PM

“First I think the statement - "The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45" is racist, in that the comments are direct to AA men between the ages of 17 & 45. Well than does that mean that every law binding, tax paying citizen in Phila who did or did not grow up in a poor city. AKA Ghetto is POOR. Dang, where are we going with such talk? So does that mean that "PW" stands for Poor Whites? and that's who reads it because of such ill-regarded comments the editor made.”

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8. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 07:11PM

“@ MC1968: "Yeah, meanwhile they are probably living in dumps." ---------- Wow, you sure showed them, didn't you? I guess it's "If you can't join them, denigrate them," huh? Look, I don't think that this is the best way to spend one's money (and it's certainly not something that I would do myself, even if I could afford to do it), but I wouldn't look at one of these guys with their tricked-out cars and have my first thought be "They are probably living in dumps." No one's making you pay for it, so stop hating.”

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9. DJ CHOC said... on May 21, 2009 at 04:08PM

“wow it's crazy how i'm the one with that trick out tahoe in the pic and now i'm sitting here reading all your comments and all of u sound like the rest of these people in the streets i'm sorry haters if u can't do it like i can do it and to the people who think i live in the dumps go head and keep assuming because while u waiting for that next hot iphone to come out with all the extra features i will be riding right by you while u snapping pics for your next screen saver lol blog about that clown”

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10. Anonymous said... on May 28, 2009 at 04:26PM

“@DJ CHOC: You just confirmed every negative comment readers have made so far. I live in a neighborhood where one of these "donk" shops are. It is a complete blight on the community. There's constant loud noise, junk cars parked everywhere, trash all over the place, barking dogs, etc. But all that is ok, because you have your tricked out Tahoe and people who don't are "haters". The article was horribly written, not because of it's topic, but the way it seemed to reinforce firmly held stereotypes about inner city AA males. It also appeared to glorify how AA men with children, possibly living in low income neighborhoods, are frivolously spending money on cars. I found it striking at the beginning, the comparison of the white man's Toyota and the black man who had the car that stirred a look of fear on the white man's face. Unbelievable. Some of the terms and phrases used to describe the black man's car was snorting, blacked out windows, enormous, growling and menacing. I just can't understand why anyone would make a negative assumption about you? Not that it matters what others think, but how about a little consideration of the image and values you portray to our youth??? How about contributing positively to the neighborhoods you seem to selfishly do business in??? I have more suggestions, but I guess I'm just a "hater". I'm curious to know how proud you will be of that Tahoe twenty years from now.”

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11. DONK KINGS said... on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:05AM


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12. ChevyRidinHI said... on Jul 31, 2009 at 12:19PM

“People spend their money how they want. Some lift trucks some lift cars some fix up hot rods, lowriders the list goes on. In the end we are all the same. MEN WITH THE LOVE FOR CARS. On another note. As far as cars with big rims goes. I didnt grow up poor, in the ghetto, or slums. I am 24 and I make $85000 a year working for the government. I am in Pensacola, FL just to pinpoint my location.”

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13. Evan Yates said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 06:40PM

“What a bs article and borderline racist. Christopher Maag totally took what I told him out of context and twisted around my words to make it seem like I was talking negatively about these cars. Christopher called me pretending to do a positive article about a new trend he was noticing and contacted myself and others so he would have the proper side of the story, or so he led us to believe. I should have just let you do your own research but I figured I would help you set the record straight, in hopes this particular culture would get some respect. Christopher, you need to man up and admit that you LIED. The MAIN thing I told you is that this particular culture IS NOT CALLED 'DONK'. I mentioned THAT many times, Christopher. I told you exactly what the definition of each type of vehicle were. I should have known this type of article would be the result. Very shady, Christopher.”

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14. Frustrated said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 11:00PM

“This article is a fail in so many ways. Considering the fact that I've been involved in this "game" since it started, I'll educate you a little bit. First off, the term "donk" refers to 71-76 Chevy Caprices and Impalas ONLY. Donk does not refer to wheels. You cannot "donk" a Cutlass. You can't "donk" anything. A donk = 71-76 Caprices/Impalas and that's it. Anything else is just a car on big rims. The term was actually derived from "dunk" which referred to the way the Imapalas/Caprices rear-ends were "dunked" down in the back. The 71-76 Caprices sat with this stance from the factory. The term didn't come from "ba-donk-a-donk". That's just a ridiculous assumption. LOL. Smack yourself. Next time you want to know about this "culture" then ask somebody from South Florida, the home of it.”

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15. fuk_your_article_cuz said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 11:58PM

“This article is as gay as the cracker who wrote it. Ol lollipop sucking, childrens isle book store creepin whitey”

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16. Matic said... on Sep 7, 2010 at 12:25PM

“This is honestly one of the most condescending, misleading articles I have ever read. Pure garbage. I hope they kept this bullshit online. The "journalist" should be ashamed. To write a good article you need to submerse yourself in the culture. This shit sounds like something who hung around but was scared to ask or say too much would write.”


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