“We do everything custom – bodywork, paint, airbrushing, upholstery, airbags – everything but the motor,” Joe told me.
I had met Joe beside Highway 29 in Pensacola, Florida one morning, while I was visiting my wife’s cousin who lives a little north of the city.
As is my habit, I was out early, driving the tiny Korean car I had rented at the airport. (Have you ever noticed that cars that are modestly powered, shall we say, frequently are engineered so that the accelerator pedal has violent tip-in? I could barely keep from spinning the skinny fronts on this thing, and yet once rolling it took a couple blocks to reach 60MPH.)
I hadn’t had much luck trolling for unusual wheels until this eye-searing red 1973 Chevrolet Caprice convertible rumbled into range. I did a quick turnaround (uncomfortably close to an oncoming cement truck, I realized half way through the maneuver) and started tailing the big red Chevy.
Out on the divided highway, he cut into a turn-around in the median, then shot upstream about 10 yards on the wrong side of the highway, diving into the driveway in front of a nondescript brick and tin building. He then proceeded to back the car around park it nose out - perpendicular to the road, to serve as a product-placement beside the stream of passing motorists.
By the time I whipped the little Rio around and hopped out, he had gone into the building, but his rims were still spinning, flashing in the rising Florida sun. That same sun had me wondering how to get a decent picture of this red hot machine.
That’s when I heard Joe behind me.
I was a bit puzzled by his statement that the shop does custom “airbags”. Joe schooled me by demonstration - "airbags" are in fact a system that uses compressed air to raise the body of the car up on the wheels.
(A high school friend had an old Citroen DS with a similar feature – except it was hydraulic. We used to get a kick out of pulling up next to someone at a red light and then lowering or raising ourselves and watching their reaction. As if the shape of the DS wasn’t a weird enough site in rural Michigan.)
Joe owns the 1976 Impala you see here. He stepped around to the drivers’ door. As he began to open it, I thought it was a “suicide” door – opening from the leading edge, rather than the trailing. I thought that was a pretty radical customization, but when he had the door open maybe 30 degrees or so, he began to lift it. I was amazed when it opened scissor-style, like a Lamborghini.
The opening revealed an interior that had been stripped down to the bare metal. There were no seats. In order to demonstrate the airbags, Joe swung himself in, and sat down on door sill. I didn’t see how he actually activated the airbags, but the front end of the Impala began rearing up and the back end followed closely.
Soon, the entire body was riding in four-wheeler territory, and Joe was watching to see if the Kia driver was duly impressed. I’m sure he enjoyed my expression of childish joy at the ridiculousness of this machine.
Joe flashed me a wide grin, every one of his teeth edged by a millimeter or so of gold metal.
"Come back in a month," he suggested. "You won't believe this car."
All contents copyright Jeffery Blackwell 2010