Hard Body

Liz Cohen's infiltrating the lowrider world — and calling it art

Cohen knows her project seemed totally off the wall at first: "They thought I was crazy."

But they took her in and named Bill Cherry her mentor. Cohen credits her project's success to Cherry's help. "I couldn't have done this without Bill," is something she repeats over and over. The first order of business, they told her, was to strip the car.

"They gave me some tools to use. It must have been hilarious. I used all hand tools — didn't think to use air compression. I didn't ask for help," she says. "I think that was a rite of passage."

This Chevy V8 engine replaced the Trabant's lawn-mower-size two-stroke.
Andy Hartmark
This Chevy V8 engine replaced the Trabant's lawn-mower-size two-stroke.

Cherry was gruff with his new protégée at first. This is a man with a toolbox taller than Cohen, filled with thousands upon thousands of tools. He has 35 years of car knowledge behind him, and he doesn't exactly have time for amateurs.

"She didn't have a clue," he says. "I laughed right in her face."

Taking a drag of his Marlboro Red, Cherry remembers the first time he saw the car.

"It was a pile of parts and stuff, and they were like, 'This girl wants you to help build this car,'" he says. "Uhh. Okay. Whatever. What's it supposed to do? 'Well, it's going to expand and contract and go up and down.' I was like, 'I don't have time for this. Go down the street.'"

But he came around after someone told him the project was impossible. Cherry owns tools so specialized, one of them is made just to fix the door handle of a 1927 Pontiac. He's been "taking shit apart and putting it back together" since he was a kid growing up in Michigan. And he finds the word "impossible" rather stupid.

"The only thing that's impossible is convincing yourself that you can do it," he says. "It's simple common sense. You look at it and go, 'Okay, this piece has to go right there. Why doesn't it go there? This piece is bent, this piece is missing.' Whatever. This piece still has to go there. If you just use some common sense, you can figure out how to get it put there."

With Cohen, he's sarcastic and pretends to be irritated by her questions, but he's clearly warmed up to her — "She's all right," he says.

Cohen clearly admires Cherry. She shows off his toolbox, opening each drawer with reverence.

"Check out this organization," she says. "If I take this out and put it back over here, it will be back the next time I come back."

Cherry lets her use his tools — a big deal since most body men spend a lifetime, and a ton of money, buying their own.

It's not just the tools that Cohen appreciates. She's positive that if she didn't have Cherry's knowledge to help guide her, she would never finish the project.

"There aren't many people in cars that have the skills Bill has," she says. "Bill isn't just a body man. He's a master mechanic, an engineer. He can build a car from the ground up. It's insane that I hooked up with a place that has someone like him."

The two have bonded to the point that when Cohen went to Stockholm for an exhibition of her work in progress, Cherry came with her — though he insists he's not into art, especially the kind on display at Färgfabriken.

"They had this thing in the ceiling that dripped wax. You take a ceiling fan, put some candles on it and light 'em," he says. "It'll do the same damn thing."

Even Cherry will admit Cohen's learned a lot since she came to the shop, but both the car and her technical knowledge still have a long way to go. Plus, the sheer complexity of the project, and the parts needed for the car, has thrown up some major hurdles.

It's about a week before she leaves for a French gallery showing of her work, and Cohen is excited. Today she is picking up her drive shaft — a part she's been waiting more than a year to get. The problem she's having is one common to her project: She's attempting to combine two cars that couldn't be more different. The Trabant was mass-produced as the "people's car" for communist East Germany. It's tiny and economical. It runs on a two-stroke engine. It putts around at about 40 mph, tops. The El Camino, on the other hand, is the all-American pussy wagon — tons of space, a big engine, the works. This leads to some obvious mechanical snafus as Cohen works to merge the cars. So far she's managed to weld a custom chassis that transitions the car from Trabant size to El Camino. Sliding on a double acting hydraulic, the car grinds open, exposing a complicated network of hoses and cables. Cohen has yet to attach the car's El Camino side panels, a mechanical feat that's going to take some creative thinking, considering the limited amount of space available when the car is in its Trabant form. She's going to have to find a way to get the panels to accordion in on themselves when the car is a Trabant, yet expand smoothly when the car becomes an El Camino.

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