blown Chevette
Yikes! Stuffed and blown Chevette. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Well, hell. The sleeping giant has awoken.

If ever there was an indication that DarkNights, the annual performance- and custom-car show held North of Toronto every year, has become something much more than a niche event for car freaks and import enthusiasts, it’s that General Motors was there this year, in a very big way. Scattered across the Markham Fairgrounds were almost twenty GM vehicles, from an extremely souped-up Chevy Aveo to the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, a couple of pimped-out Cadillacs, and even the new C6 Corvette. And not only were the cars there, not only was the company there, but none of it looked out of place. GM got its whole production dead-right with a graffiti’d-up wall behind the Cadillacs, a DJ spinning good music in behind the supercharged Cobalt SS pre-production car, and knowledgeable people to talk to you if you wished.

That none of it looked out of place says as much about how DarkNights has evolved as much as it does about the seriousness with which GM approached the event. What was once, in my memory, a bunch of souped-up Civics and Integras parked in the middle of a field is now not only the import-car show of the year for North America, but is really also the epicentre of where cars and urban culture collide. You may find it ironic that the show was located on a field at Major Mackenzie and McCowan, but pounding the gravel between the vendor booths, the car-club displays, and the stage was enough to convince anyone that DarkNights has become about a lot more than cars. What clothing there was on display (sometimes, on the models peppering various vendors’ stands, not very much at all) was as important as which wheels, wings, and paint jobs the cars were sporting.

Like previous years, the car show was just the beginning. Unlike some other shows, DarkNights lived up to its name, realizing that many of the most interesting things happening in that space between cars and youth and music happen nocturnally. The real action began when the sun went down, as parties broke out underneath the tents that the car clubs have set up, as performers (this year’s lineup included rappers Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes) took to the main stage, as bikini contests butted up against freestyle-rap battles and engines revved for effect deep into the night. This wasn’t a car SHOW so much as it was a car PARTY, a slightly-less-defiant-now celebration of music and automobiles and style that’s quickly finding itself going mainstream.

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show

Scene from 2004 DarkNights custom-car show
Click image to enlarge

You can tell by just how much money there is here. While slightly older, highly-modified import cars dominate the show’s main field, there’s an increasing presence of high-end sports cars like Vipers, Corvettes, and even the odd Porsche and De Tomaso Pantera. Souped-up SUVs (Hummer H2s are still popular despite how much gas costs these days) are everywhere, as are options to bling-up everything from your kids’ scooters to your ATV to your speedbike. Grand Touring Automobiles, a downtown Aston-Jaguar-Bentley dealer, found the show important enough to bring up a Continental GT and Vanquish, and Picture Perfect Motoring, a high-end audio installer, had an impressive display with some very classy Escalades (including a front-end that had been grafted onto an H2), an M3, a Ferrari Modena, and a Lamborghini Gallardo. As kids who souped up their Civics have grown up and started making big bucks, they’ve naturally turned their attention to bigger, faster, and more expensive cars, and the smart vendors are following them straight to the bank.

The increasing corporate presence – did I mention that Toyota’s TRD stand was one of the biggest, with parts laid out underneath a tent and 50 cars tucked into its green space, including a couple of supercharged concept Echos and numerous owners belonging to the “Toyota Nation” – and the infusion of big bucks into the scene has done little to dull its sense of vibrancy and innovation. To be sure, a lot of the cars that I saw at DarkNights weren’t the best-finished, weren’t even in particularly good shape. Like any custom-car show, there were only a few, beautifully-executed, wonderfully-integrated standouts. But no matter what the level of execution, in every car, you could see the spark of inspiration, that slightly outlaw spirit that keeps pushing automotive design and engineering forward.

Certainly, in years past, DarkNights (or more specifically, some of the people who show their cars at DarkNights), have had a contentious relationship with law enforcement. Drivers have complained of being harassed by police officers looking for any excuse to give them a ticket, and connections have been drawn between the crowd here and illegal street racing – which, if you look at the primarily-cosmetic modifications to most of the cars, is patently tenuous. This year, the level of tension seemed to have ratcheted down a notch compared to last year, with police officers (the one wearing his full bulletproof vest and weapons the only incongruous, and slightly disturbing, note) strolling through the grounds, chatting with exhibitors and drivers, and generally seeming to try and understand what was going on here rather than judge it too hastily.

I was, initially, impressed, until I started heading for home along McCowan Rd., and noticed that there was a parking lot just north of Highway 7 full of police officers that were busy inspecting cars they had presumably pulled over. Then a block further south, I noticed a couple of other officers walking through the traffic, looking at and into cars, and then sending them over to the parking lot if they suspected something – what, exactly? – looked suspicious. It was deja-vu all over again, from past years where the police lined up right by the entrance gate inspecting cars and giving out tickets; this year they had widened their net to several kilometres away from the actual event, which made DarkNights itself look like a much friendlier place, but some of that old tension was very much in evidence in that parking lot as drivers sat in their cars and fumed, waiting to be talked to, watching their cars being given the fine-toothed-comb treatment.

Nevertheless, the scene there still had a quieter, more low-key feel to it than what I had seen in the past, and that’s probably largely born of the continued mainstreaming of tuner-car culture. All of us – the authorities as well as the general public – are more aware these days of how prevalent the customizing trend is, and understand it better than we used to. Similarly, people who modify their cars, whether through years of experience or through the increasing publicity surrounding the issue in the mainstream media, also are more fully aware of the potential risks they face in modifying their car, and then following thousands of others to the most well-publicized show in the country. So on both sides, now, there seems to be a tacit understanding of not only what the other guy is up to, but of how they’re all trying to find a way to relate in the grand scheme of things, make all of this work for everyone.

See, the thing is, the people that are involved in the customizing scene can no longer afford to have their culture tarred with the outlaw brush. In the past, when tuning was a subculture, that rebellious element served to buy street cred for hot products, but these days, as tuning has become a culture rather than a subculture, there’s simply too much money at stake. The more legal your mods are, the more people that will consider them, and ultimately, the more you will profit.

Let’s face it: for companies like General Motors, outlaw is not where they want to be. They want to put their tuner products – Saturn Red Lines, Street Trends Chevy Optra5s, and Escalades with 20″ wheels – as far into the mainstream as they can, and probably wouldn’t have touched DarkNights if it had been the same rebellious, counter-cultural party it once was. Want proof? DarkNights is no longer just a show; it’s a magazine (DKNmag), too, and they’re even selling DKN-branded carbon-fibre body kits.

There is part of me that wants to bemoan the increasing corporate presence in what was once something that was very much an insider’s thing, something you either got or didn’t. But it’s hard to do that, because when I walked around DarkNights, there was still so much imagination, so much inspiration, on offer, no matter who was showing it off. Hankook tires had a blue Tiburon with the most amazing paint job I’d ever seen, and some enterprising guy from Crappy Car Customs had dropped a V8 and 14-inch slicks into his orange Chevette; to a car nut, one was as fascinating as the other, and both sat alongside numerous other cool cars that had been either built in someone’s spare time in their garage, and cars that had cost their corporate developers hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop, prepare, and show.

Besides, in a way, the co-opting of tuner culture is an ultimate expression of how successful it’s been in propagating itself throughout our lives. And if there was on the fairgrounds last week a bit of sadness my part about the gorilla-like inevitability of the corporate stampede into what was once something that was once so very counter-cultural, there was also curiosity, and excitement, about the possibilities that big money, and big resources, could bring to a scene that managed to be one of the most vibrant when it was operating at a grassroots level. The big guns may have decided that there may be a lot of money to be made in tuning, but that doesn’t necessarily bode ill for anybody; it could be the best thing that ever happened to tuning, if the accountants don’t manage to completely overwhelm the creative geniuses behind some of the stuff I saw.

It’ll be interesting to see what the show looks like next year.

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