Philadelphia's car outlaws battle for respect on the streets.
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 layitlow.com.
“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 etsy.com. 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.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino