Southwest car customizers: for some, precious memories and others, entertaining irony

Why would anybody want to ruin a perfectly nice new automobile fresh off a Detroit assembly line with doo-dads, details and junk?

Ask Jan Elftmann and she'll tell you such cars are not perfectly nice -- they're perfectly dull and no match for art cars. "We don't consider our work as ruining cars," Elftmann said. "We see them as blank canvasses on which we create art. It's a matter of personal expression."

Elftmann, is the owner and creator of the Corky, a 1987 Mazda pickup whose exterior consists of 10,000 wine and champagne corks. Her cork car has cruised the streets of Minneapolis for eight years. Elftmann is also the curator of the art car parade, an annual event sponsored by Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. This year, 80 cars took a spin down Lake Street on a bright Saturday in July, to the delight of those watching from the curb. Entrants included a Velcro car with pedestrians stuck to it, a turtle car and a gasoline-propelled sofa.

Though it only took a few months to glue the corks to Mazda's metal, it was13 years before Elftmann had enough of the wine stoppers to cover her vehicle. Super Glue did not work, but Liquid Nails, a silicone adhesive, did the trick.

"People admire it as a piece of art and do not vandalize it," she said, "although someone once tagged it with blue lipstick."

The corks stand up to Minnesota winters quite well; their only nemesis seems to be wayward squirrels who occasionally gnaw on the plugs, thinking they are food.

The most frequently asked question she gets is: did she drink all those bottles herself?

The answer is no. Such a feat would require eight glasses of wine a day for approximately 15 years, she said, and while she said she didn't mind the imbibing part, the cost intimidated her.

Pam Christian's art car might better be called a political car. The Lyndale resident transformed her cobalt blue 1991 Dodge Colt with green paint, campaign buttons, bumper stickers, political paraphernalia and laminated newspaper photos into the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Art Car. She calls it a mobile monument and vehicle for change that was conceived shortly after the senator's plane crashed Oct. 21, 2002. There is even a portrait of the couple painted on the hood.

Although Wellstone was a famous lefty who worked for alternative energy, an internal-combustion memorial is not as contradictory as it might seem; after all, Wellstone's aged green bus became his campaign icon.

Christian deliberated for two weeks about whether to transform her car because she wasn't sure if she was ready to deal with the potential attention it would draw every time she went out to buy milk. However, she had support from a friend and artist, Mina Leierwood, who helped put it together.

"Though I never worked on his campaign, I looked at him as a kind of icon," Christian said. "Everyone has a story to tell about Wellstone. When you drive a car like this, you always get to hear them. There is even a little mailbox near the gas tank to receive any comments that passersby might have.

"There was something about Wellstone and the way he kept his spirit," Christian said. "People who know about actual political decision-making tell me bad things about him like the way he changed his mind on certain issues, and pork barreled certain projects, but I still think that there was something special about him."

The car is parked in her back yard now. Its brakes are not so good and funny noises come from the back axle when she drives it, so it is only brought out for special occasions.

While these women delight in using their cars as a vehicle for promoting art and political statements, car customization has traditionally been a male preserve. For them, driving a car that might be seen as ironic is not cool.

For such individuals, the Southwest touchstone is Al Hagen's Yesterday's Auto Sales at 2800 Lyndale Ave. S. Since 1983, Hagen has been selling a showroom full of vintage cars from as far back as the 1930s to the 1970s.

"The rule of thumb is that guys want something that was popular when they were between the ages of 17 and 22 years old," Hagen said. "That's when cars made their first impression on you because you were a young driver.

"There are certain cars that have appeal regardless of one's age like the 1957 Chevy with its fins and sleek design," he said. "It's an icon. Everybody coveted the 1957 Chevy."

His showroom features such models as a 1940 Buick Special with an overhead V-8 ($10,000), 1948 Willy's Jeepster ($10,000), a 1964 Corvette Roadster with a 327-cubic-inch engine and four off the floor ($25,000) and a 1956 Bel Aire whose two-tone body matching its two-tone red-and-white seats. The convertible sells for $54,500. It has a 265-cubic-inch V-8 engine with leather seats.

"Detroit can't afford to make cars like this anymore," he said. "To restore the chrome on that 1948 Lincoln alone would cost $10,000. Some have lines that make them look like works of art."

Hagen said these cars are toys and, for many, a dream fulfilled. They are basically for evenings and weekends and summer fun-car outings. One must also have a contemporary car to get around the city and through winter since most wouldn't damage their expensive rides with road salt.

Speaking for both art car aficionados and vintage vehicle fans, Elftmann said when you start driving such cars, it changes you because you realize that people are looking at you and that you are no longer anonymous. She thinks it is a potential remedy to road rage.

"Perpetrators should be forced to drive art cars for a year because it would change their life," Elftmann said. "All of a sudden, you notice that people are waving and smiling at you. You can't pick your nose when you are driving, and you have to be a little more courteous because people know your car, remember you in parking lots and what you do in traffic.

"You have to be quirky to defy convention and what constitutes normal," she said.