Quietly perusing the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, one will be drawn to the human abstract interpretation of God’s creations: the intricate details weaved through a seemingly mundane cityscape and the architectural innovation that highlight Chicago’s history. Then, there is the dedicated feature gallery of Japanese pottery craft. Upon entering the artificial temple, one is greeted by Herculean wooden columns, which provide an ominous introduction of what lies ahead: the very definition of function and form. Vases and dinnerware were skewed and massaged at the artists’ simple command, to provoke the audience’s imagination through a frequently ignored medium. The form itself becomes the soulful expression instead of the function.
Without a doubt, they are glorious representations of craft work.
Words: Michael Vernon :: Pictures by NWMotiv Staff
These basic properties are followed and transformed by a section in the automobile tuner community. Referred to by various names throughout the countless ages, the stance scene is as old as the beginning of the twentieth century. Harley Earl was an innovator in design at General Motors. Churning out concept sketches such as the 1951 LeSabre and the world’s first concept car, the 1938 Buick Y-Job, Earl garnered worldwide attention for streamlined sheet metal, futuristic design and a love for low-center of gravity. Up to this point, automotive design was stuck on carriage-inspired properties (with some exceptions, such as the land speed record-setting 1926 Sunbeam Tiger).
It was this creativity that gave the charming Clark Gable an idea for his 1934 custom-body Model J Duesenberg: give it a bit of a drop. It’s not scraping and it certainly isn’t going to be the lowest, but the appearance of sporty elegance in such a big-bodied car is further accentuated by the exclusion of wheel gap. This allows the lines the freedom to flow unencumbered, beautiful and yet forgotten by modern standard. The picture speaks for itself.
The son of the modern automobile production line maker, Henry Ford, went about making cars a little bit different from his father. Edsel Ford was more interested in form and, as one letter put it, “Father makes the most popular car in the world. I would like to make the best car in the world – Lincoln,” and what cars they were! The most incredible departure from the Model T was a one-off project that was and is a perfect example of how wheel fitment sets off the character of a car. The speedster did not sacrifice form or function for Edsel’s pursuit of the “best” car.
Edsel’s undying foresight for beauty resulted in the creation of the Zephyr and Continental. These exquisite machines are still being chopped, lowered and imitated with intense results. Harry Westergard is one of many men who contributed to the disembodiment of sheet metal, was a progressive force in customizing one’s automobile and most notably, was one of the founders of the hot rod era. Westergard’s humble creations are considered some of the most cutting edge of the era. By taking bits from Lincolns, Packards, and just about anything he could get his hands on, Westergard would create a piece of rolling art that exuded wonderment to those lucky enough to garner a look.
This is not much different from the present day. A revolution by middle-class car enthusiasts was taking hold of how a car should look and handle from the privileged individuals with limitless amounts of money and connections. The advent of the Internet saw a resurgence of the lowered car, albeit generated by a much different type of owner. With the combined efforts of countless blogs and forums, YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, and e-commerce, the automotive world was to be connected with all the trials and successions that went along with it.
The 1990s held body-kits and neon underglow as hot, sought-after commodities. It was a time where huge power in the streets translated to fiery competition. That is not to say that ride height was not important, just disastrous if one worked out the formula incorrectly. The risks were high with cut springs and the prices were astronomical, mainly because they were designed for race tracks. Those that did have a lowered car were often either very courageous or incredibly well off. A Northwest tour de force in the stance scene, Tony Dau, became intrigued by the luxury VIP stance scene in Japan. The craft of altering big-bodied Toyota Aristos to Honda Odysseys, of altering a family car to a luxury barge, is very much a rich man’s game in Japan. Tony, who is one of the co-founders of Northwest fitment family, LoweredClassMen, has gone through countless cars to end up with his latest creations: the veritably bulletproof Subaru STi and the tuner-friendly Honda S2000.
Tony dictated the 48-hour modification process of his Subaru for Formula D: “I was contacted by Josh Mackey to fill a spot at Formula D. William Bakajin (another member of LoweredClassMen) and I worked nonstop; I am a bit of rare parts whore. I bought parts before I even had the car. We didn’t cut any corners building this car. We just knew what we were doing.” This want for perfection inevitably concluded with divisive but incredibly gorgeous looking cars. “I work at Boeing,” Tony explains, “I am not rich but I put everything into this: it can definitely be called a lifestyle. But you have to do it right. Everyone and their mom is driving a busted [sic] Nissan. All it takes is a set of wheels and drop (that is another story in and of itself). If the car looks good, sits right, and is not done half ass/cut corners, it could be a stance car.”
It is not just Japan that is influencing American tastes. Europe’s striking automotive cornucopia stems from their roads. The concrete speedways have produced decade’s worth of clean style that has cultivated a term of its own, called “OEM+.” Sticking with a formula that includes using high-quality, factory-produced external bumpers, mechanical workings, cabin dress-up and swapping in higher-end OEM parts, Volkswagen Golfs can receive as many looks as a Mercedes-Benz. This subtle manipulation works very well with being lowered. The practice is followed not just by tuners but also by the German automotive behemoths. As if they were made of gold, to be lowered is not just a status symbol; it’s very much the norm. As a longtime stance practitioner, Mike Tolliver has only known of the low lifestyle even when it went underground in the 90s. “I’ve been into German cars since the 90s, and I’ve only known of them being low. The guys in Europe, Germany and Austria: they’ve been doing this “trend” for about 20+ years.”
The owner of 20 or so cars, mostly Volkswagens and of their luxury partner, Audi, Tolliver is invested in seeing the Northwest thrive as a car hub. As acting CEO of Happenstance Event Productions, he has produced StanceWars, PNWSpringMeet, the Old School Reunion, and co-produced Tailored Seattle with fellow car nut, Dave Meister. Generating these events is just tip of the iceberg for Tolliver.
He also judged the some of these events. This has made him question his own expectations in the fitment scene. “I want quality cars at these events,” Tolliver explains. Even through Mike did not personally judge Tailored Seattle, he wanted it to come “from a mature perspective: but how do you judge one stanced car from the next?” Tolliver waxes philosophy, “Is it wheel fitment? How low they are? The type of car itself?”
The old conundrum raised its ugly head. Just as one may find themselves drawn to an inviting Monet instead of a neo-classical and challenging Picasso, they both have merits and detriments. Personal opinion has no place when one is judge and jury which is why Tolliver came to this conclusion: “I don’t wonder what car is going to break my neck. Sure, it may be nice and wonderful to look at. I want to be the guy in the car breaking necks, That is the deciding factor. Which car do I want to be seen in?”
This is the essence of modern-day tuner culture.
Securing the privilege to own a properly good-looking automobile and then performing risky and unsafe mechanical work that takes the basic function out it is becoming an ever-increasing concern. It is a set of combustible opinions from those that believe a functional car is more gratifying than one used to gain popularity due to appearances. Kelly Campbell of Speedware Motorsports wouldn’t exactly put himself in either camp, but believes that the stance scene has gotten a little bit out of hand. “I believe a car can look just good with performance and function. I am not against fitment. My daily driver, a Golf, is low, has poke and stretched tires. You just have to pay to play the game. There are so many people doing their own suspension due to the connection of the Internet.”
Sooner or later, though, someone will be seeing a shop like Speedware, to fix problems due to incorrect camber, offset, and various other suspension settings. “A lot of these problems can be alleviated if (the person) did the job right in the first place. Zip ties on fuel lines, breaking oil pans, ruining tie-arms and camber bolts, skimping on parts and taking your friends’ advice instead of thorough research leads to these unsafe problems.”
Tony Dau would agree. “If you can’t commit to proper parts, you need to get out of the game, it’s not for you.” To combat this lackadaisical attitude and not using the Internet thoroughly, the rise of a new style has been culminating in the background for the past decade according to Tony and Kelly. “I call it meaty flush. Wide tires that are not stretched on functionally-sized wheels with lots of sidewall,” Tony proclaims. Taking cues from the long-running Time Attack racing series, the fusion of a progressive look inspired by the track and the need to be a presence in the midst of drift setups and VIP cars is breathing fresh air into the stance community. It is not overly aggressive in fitment and certainly not just for show, but more the intent is the focus. The feeling that resonates from the car and the driver is one of knowledge. One will respond to this matured and aged spirit with a new-found respect.
From muscle cars to British roadsters to even a custom-built Nissan 240sx, the definition of form and function is blurred into a synchronized partnership. The automobile has become a malleable medium for the creative minds that don’t want their art to just hang in a museum. Not content to go from point A to point B, the modern-day automobile is in a fight to justify its own existence. Fuel efficiency is paramount in the halls of carmakers like Ford, Nissan, and Porsche. The stigma that hybrids and electrics have to be boring and look the part is ever-present in the minds of consumers. There is hope though and it lies with the aftermarket communities like stance. Just as Edsel and Westergard went about turning the young automotive world on its head with their innovations and firsts, the same can be said for the tuners of this new generation of cars. This ever-embracing family encourages the pursuit for uniqueness and self-expression through thoughtful implementation. Knowledge is key and being honest to oneself is tantamount. A properly good-looking car will follow this formula. Divergence to set one’s own definition of function and form is just a sliver of its purpose. Just as Japanese ceramics have advanced to the point of being an accepted art standard, so will the stance movement become a model for future production cars.