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Old-school hot-rodder pimps ride with satire

Vern Cox opens the hatchback of his 1978 Datsun F10, a work in progress.
 (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)
Vern Cox opens the hatchback of his 1978 Datsun F10, a work in progress. (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)

We’ve all seen it, been stuck next to it at a stoplight as its throbbing bass wears on our peace of mind like an abscessed tooth – a subcompact car with the brilliant colors of a betta fish and flippers to match.

The sneaker-like branding on the rear window reads “No Fear,” but all that comes to mind is “no manners,” or “no clue,” as the traffic light turns green and the tiny car speeds away, its throaty exhaust pipe groaning like a sink disposal that’s swallowed a tray of silverware.

The spectacle used to baffle 52-year-old Vern Cox, an old-school hot-rodder who believes what’s under a car’s hood is more important than what’s reflected in its paint or thudding on its stereo. Motors take a back seat in modern car culture to wheel covers, whale tails and decorative lighting, which do little or nothing to improve a car’s performance.

Few people hot rod anymore; they “pimp,” a teen culture term that reflects a desired flamboyance and even tackiness found in rap music. Rappers borrowed the garish style from managers of the sex trade.

For $350, Cox bought a 1978 Datsun F10 a few years ago and set out to out-pimp the pimpers. But the Spokane Valley man is pimping his ride home-style. From hood emblem to taillight, the car is now pimped out with household items.

“Just about everything the boys do with their cars, I try to make for mine,” Cox said.

Cox’s tailpipe sports not one but six economy-size coffee cans, which telescope stogie-fashion beyond the lower lip of his rear bumper. His rear spoiler is constructed of plywood. The hood scoop on the front of his ride is an old Spokane Chronicle newspaper box donated by a local muffler shop. His “body kit” – a term that describes the skirting used to make a car appear as if it’s hugging the road – consists of coffee tins, flattened out and screwed to the Datsun’s sides.

Cox even has two bleach bottles mounted to the F10’s trunk and rigged with valves and hose tubing. The setup is a spoof on the nitrous oxide systems used by import car racers to give their cars a boost in acceleration.

“After I put the can on the tailpipe and then built the wing, I started seeing the phone cameras come out in my rear view mirror wherever I stopped,” Cox said. “I had a guy in a semi get out and take a picture.”

Just as photogenic as the pimped-out F10 is Cox, whose tattooed frame tips the scales at more than 250 pounds. He sports a medium-length beard braided with red, white and blue beads to make an American flag pattern. His dachshund-poodle cross usually rides shotgun.

Occasionally, Cox is challenged to a race. The retired Kaiser Aluminum employee is aware that not all pimped-out rides lack mechanical improvements. He pushed his little car to 100 mph on the freeway once only to have his doors blown away by a pimped-out ride. But most pimped-out cars are just for show.

You can tell a modern-day hot-rodder from someone who merely pimped out their ride by looking at their fingernails, Cox said. A set of black, cracked nails and scraped fingers hanging from a car’s steering wheel indicates to Cox that the driver has been under the hood.

Import automobiles were as natural a choice for modern teenage car culture as the Model T was for teenagers in the 1950s. They’re what a half-century ago was known as vintage tin, the mass-produced, cheaply priced dregs of a motor culture that drove them for a decade or so before looking for a new set of tires to kick.

The difference, as any old-school hot-rodder will tell you, is that this younger vintage is in better shape than those discarded flivvers of yesteryear. For $1,000, you can pick up a 16-year-old Volkswagen with enough Fahrvergnügen left in the tank to chirp the front tires. A used Toyota with six digits rolling across the odometer is probably still good for another 100,000 miles.

But the answer to where the greasy fingers have gone isn’t behind the darkened windows of a bass-throbbing import. The answer is on the curb of every American main drag and in the glove box of every auto.

On the curb are the easy lubes and tire shops that change our messy fluids and coordinate our cars’ tires, chores once performed in the driveways of the nuclear family.

In 1968, when Cox was on the verge of driving for the first time, there wasn’t a single easy lube listed in the business pages of the Spokane phone book. And in the glove boxes of America’s cars were owner’s manuals, complete with performance details about compression and gear ratios. The books gave owners what they needed to know to change their own engine belts and motor oil, to gauge their own spark plugs. Manuals in today’s cars warn owners that changing their own oil could void their warranties. We stare at our reflections in the paint jobs of the cars we drive, with our clean hands buried in our pockets.