By Ray Stern
By New Times
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By Stephen Lemons
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What's the flashiest automotive accessory to hit the road since mirror-plated mud-flap vixens?
Just take a quick spin around the Metrocenter cruising district any weekend night and the answer quickly becomes apparent to even the dimmest bulb: car neon. Thanks to neon tubing hidden underneath the cars' bodies, the vehicles seem to float around the streets surrounding the shopping center on misty clouds of luminous purple, pink, tangerine and aquamarine mist. For the unsuspecting motorist amid this rainbow coalition, the effect is unsettling yet breathtaking, sort of like the otherworldly traffic in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Imagine an unidentified low-driving object and you begin to get the picture.
In the Valley, that scene is focused primarily on the "glow zone," as neon buffs have rechristened the streets ringing Metrocenter. As the night wears on and the novelty of upstaging the Castles N' Coasters roller coaster grows thin, the light brigade adjourns to parking lots of businesses lining the intersection of 35th and Peoria avenues, northwest of Metrocenter. One particularly popular pit stop is the McDonald's parking lot on the southwest corner of the intersection, where on any weekend night as many as a dozen neon-mobile owners might congregate to suck shakes, scarf burgers and talk tubes.
"If you're into neon or you want to get into it, this is the place to be," reports Christian Truelove, a 23-year-old Pizza Hut delivery person checking the action in the McDonald's parking lot during a recent night off from work. "Everybody here knows somebody who knows somebody who has a friend who does neon." Unlike Truelove, who has outfitted his 83 Ford Ranger with green "landing lights" (as the hidden tubes are called), some of his fellow aficionados are no longer content to hide their lights under a chassis. Instead, some also adorn the rear windows and grills of their vehicles with exposed lights like the jagged neon bolt called a "heartbeat," a popular accessory named after its resemblance to an electrocardiograph line. A few hard-core enthusiasts have even begun to install neon inside their cars, turning their interiors into facsimiles of old Wurlitzer jukeboxes.
So where did this neo-neon cruising craze begin? Better you should try to track down the identity of the unsung vehicular visionary who first parked a spring-mounted hula girl in the rear window of his sedan. Although some local cruisers swear the fad originated in Phoenix, others just as vehemently credit such disparate locations as Miami, San Diego and Cincinnati, as well as any number of points along the Eastern seaboard, as the birthplace of the boom.
Even the car-culture press isn't able to shed much light on mobile neon's mysterious origins. Making a "best guess," an editor at McMullen & Yee Publishing (the Anaheim, California, magazine empire that publishes more than 15 automotive titles per month) reports that neon probably first hit the road somewhere around 1987.
But there's little argument as to the identity of the Valley's pioneering neon luminary. That honor goes to Craig Smith, a 30-year-old furniture builder and glass bender who five years ago installed an orange-and-green-neon palm tree in the rear window of his minitruck. Dubbed "The Glo-Rider," Smith's distinctive vehicle was deemed unique enough to rate a full-page color photograph in the November 1988 issue of Truckin' magazine, the cruisers' Koran.
"Putting neon on cars isn't really a new idea at all," explains Smith, who claims he was inspired by a 1956 magazine photograph of a hot-rod enthusiast who had tricked out his motor with neon lightning bolts. "Don't ask how, but this guy had managed to use the spark plugs to fire up the neon," he marvels. "It was really pretty amazing."
Unsuccessful in his own attempts to duplicate that feat, Smith eventually wound up hooking up his neon to a 12-volt transformer and running it off his car battery. Streamlined versions of the much larger, higher-voltage transformers used to illuminate neon, the smaller transformers have also made possible the street-corner neon-art revolution.
More important, the new transformers are considerably cheaper than their technical big brothers, putting flashy tube work within the budget of practically any gear head. A neon license-plate frame now sells for about $70 (add $10 for installation). Meanwhile, a four-tube set of landing lights (complete with the acrylic tubing necessary to protect the neon from street breakage) will set you back about $200 (plus $75 for installation).
Of course, prices and quality can vary dramatically, depending on where the neon is purchased. A custom-order item not two years ago, car neon has grown so popular in recent months that kits are now available through virtually every marketing channel, from mail order to flea markets. One of the first outfits to get into the neon business nationally is Street Beat, a Valley customizing shop that's been offering neon kits (both on-site and via mail order) for nearly two years.
"Today, we're installing neon on everything from piece-of-crap cars to pretty nice ones you'd see in a car show," reports store manager James Hoffmaster, who drives an Isuzu pickup outfitted with green landing lights and four-tube, wheel-well illumination. "During the past six months, neon has just gone berserk."
Hoffmaster estimates that Street Beat will probably install more than 400 car-neon kits this year and sell three times that many by mail. And unless there's a dramatic shift in the store's customer base, most of that gas and glass will probably wind up on vehicles belonging to the kind of neon buff Hoffmaster characterizes as "a 19-year-old Gremlin owner who puts a $4,000 speaker in a $1,000 car." "These are the kind of guys who really love neon," says Hoffmaster. "They're old enough to be able to afford cool things, but still young enough to want them."
Because it's so eye-catching, mobile neon has even captured the imaginations of a few motorists who wouldn't ordinarily get within a dozen car lengths of a monster-truck rally.
Like, for instance, Naoma F., a Valley legal secretary who is not only female (something of a rarity among car culturists) but who also happens to be old enough to be the mother of many of her fellow enthusiasts. A neon collector whose north Phoenix home is decorated with tubular art, the middle-aged Naoma (who prefers that her last name not be used) saw the light after a neon-equipped vehicle cruised past her several months ago. "I saw that and just had to have some for myself," reports Naoma, who now tools around town in a Geo Metro equipped with hot-pink landing lights and a matching license-plate frame. "I love neon--it's a lot of fun. And everyone else seems to enjoy seeing it on the street, too."
Well, maybe not everyone. Judging from traffic citations that have reportedly been issued to a number of car-neon owners, some police officers seem intent on pulling the plug on the traveling light shows. As a result, one of the biggest topics of conversation among the lightheaded set is neon's hazy legality.
Although it's now common wisdom in neon circles that certain color and light configurations are sure to earn you a ticket (according to the law, only emergency vehicles can display a red light visible from the front), there is considerable debate among enthusiasts over the letter of the law. Is red-orange really the same as red? And can the glow from a hidden red tube legally be conceived as light?
"Cops love to hassle minitruckers, and neon is just another reason to pull us over," grouses a 19-year-old cruiser who recently received a police warning about the danger of his "distracting" neon. "Whether or not they actually write a ticket just depends on how big a dick the cop is," he continues. "Just show me where it says it's illegal to put neon on a car."
For the time being, no one can--which is probably why so many neonsters are able to brag about beating tickets. Although Phoenix Police Department did not return telephone calls regarding these traffic citations, a spokesperson for the city's traffic court acknowledges that neon-oriented offenses are beginning to infiltrate his court's docket. Most of those citations, he reports, involve alleged infractions of Arizona Revised Statute 28-921, a near-incomprehensible catchall statute having some tenuous connection to vehicle lamps.
"Unless the Phoenix Police Department has some coherent policy, this just might be each officer attempting to deal with the situation as they see fit," says Jim Scorza, court administrator. "But as far as I can determine, there are no statutes referring specifically to neon lights. I suspect that a lot of this is going to be decided on a case-by-case basis."
Lightening up, Scorza chuckles. "When they wrote these statutes, I don't think anyone was anticipating neon lights on cars.