Pimpin’ Gets Cheesy

It is better to pimp than to be pimped. Pimp My Ride, MTV’s almost-engaging automotive reality makeover series hosted by the charismatic Xzibit, a rapper whose winsome smile betrays the intelligent Detroit-born Alvin Joiner behind the gangsta masquerade, shows what has become of the once-proud American car culture.

In each episode, Xzibit does a Publisher’s Sweepstakes ambush on a lucky contestant whose “ride” will be “pimped” by the “crew” at West Coast Customs, a 21st-century chop shop set in the shadow of LAX. (Pimpee: “Grandma, this is Xzibit. He’s here to pimp our ride!” Xzibit, glancing in half-feigned consternation at the camera: “Er, fix your ride.”) After much hugging and screaming, X takes the keys and drives (or pushes) the vehicle in question to WCC, where the Stanislavsky-trained West Coasters moan, groan, and shed crocodile tears at this latest rusted-out indignity. Then comes a conference-table meeting at which each team leader (interiors, wheels & tires, paint, accessories) describes his plan for the car: “I’m going to give this bad boy a set of Giovanna rims wrapped in Pirelli tires.” A choppy montage of deconstruction follows, and the camera sweeps across the carcass before Act II, the rebuild, begins. After the rebuild comes “the reveal,” as reality showmen call it, in which the MTV-gen driver squeals with glee at her new personality on wheels. The squeal must be key, since it’s featured in nearly every promo and cut to commercial, but it kind of ruins the suspense for me: What if the pimpee doesn’t like the new ride?

The show has been a hit since its 2004 debut, winning its Sunday night time slot against basic cable and popularizing the phrase “Pimp my ___.” But from an automobilist’s perspective, either Pimp My Ride has simply jumped the shark, or the age-old American love affair with the motor car has reached a sad state. The MTV generation may still love their cars, but they have decided to see other machines.

Los Angeles car customizing has a long and noble history. Early hot-rodders preserved for eternity the aesthetic of prewar cars with their individualized design elements—fenders, head lamps, hoods, rear ends, each standing alone. Modern cars, by contrast, are of a piece, the culmination of a design trend that can be traced to the failed 1934 Chrysler Airflow but began in earnest after World War II. “Chopping” down hoods and “channeling” bodies was an attempt in the postwar period to bring that prewar aesthetic into the modern age, and the results can be stunningly beautiful art forms. In fact, LA customizing gave birth to the new journalism via Tom Wolfe’s classic essay, “Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby.”

When it began, Pimp seemed worthy of that heritage, paying appropriate homage to the 1970s. They started with a Japanese Hi-jet microvan, a vehicle whose uncommon scale and shape offered a chance for a kind of George Barris kookiness. (Barris is among the most famous car customizers, specializing in wacky TV and film cars such as the original Batmobile and the Monkees-Mobile.) After a groovy paint job, a new two-tone interior, and an absurd chrome spoiler, the car was indeed ready for, at least, a very tiny pimp.

Episode two turned a plain-Jane white 1978 Cadillac into an even pimp-worthier ride. Now, 1978 was a time of serious, sensible cars. The dominant design impetus well into the ’80s would be the grey flannel suit. But by dropping the suspension and adding flashy wheels, a candy red paint job with matching interior, and plenty of chrome and gold, the WCC crew produced a vehicle Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas or Max “Goldie” Julien would have been proud to cruise. They even threw in some Hollywood baroque—a row of hearts for the third-eye taillight, neon in the arm rests, a shoe rack in the trunk—all of which fit the car and the program’s concept.

The Caddy was probably the high point, but the show remains popular with the target audience. Car-wise it has slipped into a familiar routine. We see only the barest glimpse of the West Coast craftsmen, such as Ish, a former gang member who learned upholstery from his uncle. Ish’s interiors combine old-world craftsmanship and a smart sense of color, texture, and design, while his Chicano hoodlum look keeps up the image of an underground chop shop for what is actually a major retailer (West Coast founder Ryan Friedlinghaus reports ten million in annual sales). But because each episode gives us only a few seconds of Ish and the other craftsmen actually crafting anything, Pimp My Ride lacks the appeal of other DIY shows in the This Old House mode. And, unlike in human-based makeover formats, the Pimp contestant (and the host, Xzibit) only appear at the beginning and the end of the show. So the show lacks the sweetness of, say, a Queer Eye.

More to the point, the pimping focus is no longer about the cars qua cars. Instead, it is about the cars as carrying cases for electronics: DVD players, flat-screen monitors, video game consoles, and of course mp3 players and high-end audio equipment. Screens in the dashboard, screens in the headrests, screens in the steering wheel. Walls of screens in the ceiling and trunk. Screens on the outside of the car. The practiced formula is now quick paint job, glitzy new wheels, and then pack in as much TV as possible. But apparently the kids still go nuts for this show. Why?

I have considered the possibility that kids today just like saying “pimp.” Two wonderful cork-popping sounds, separated by a confident hum. Feel your lips when you say it. “Pimp.” Fun, huh?

I rejected this hypothesis. There is something much graver in evidence here. It seems that kids today do not really love their cars the way they should. They love their iPods, they stay handcuffed to their laptops, they are addicted to their GameCubes, but their cars? Mere transportation for themselves and their stuff.

They have fallen out of love with their cars, and for good reason. Through the 1980s, many teens and young adults could have had handed down to them, or bought secondhand, a heavy hunk of Detroit Iron like the two-ton Chevy Impala. Only the driver and one passenger were forced into shoulder straps, and you could fit three or four people across a seat. The bench-backs came up no higher than your shoulders, about as far as a movie seat or a comfortable chair. You could throw your arm over the bench-back, you could chat with your pals, you could listen to the radio, and you could enjoy the ride.

Alternatively, you might have been handed down an old Corolla, or a Civic, a Beetle, or even a Chevette. Now these were little cars, cute little cars, cute little foreign cars (even the Chevette had its origins in Europe). The original 1973 Civic had a wheel base under 87 inches and an overall length of 140 inches. Those dimensions, combined with tighter suspensions and steering, made for go-cart driving, and driving a go-cart is a blast. The 2005 Honda Civic, by contrast, sports a 103-inch wheel base and is three feet longer than the original. Soften up the ride for the American tushy and you’re left with a machine neither cute nor fun nor magnificent in its massive luxuriousness.

The MTV crowd has tried to recover the pleasure of mass by crowning the 7,000-pound Cadillac Escalade king of the road. Yet to ride in one of these modern monstrosities is about as much fun as airline travel, albeit in business class. You ride in comfort, but strangely alone.

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