Hard Body

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

The act of combining two cars, even two cars with more in common than the El Camino and the Trabant, is unique. Cherry says he's never heard of anyone attempting such a project before, and at every car parts shop she visits, Cohen's explanation of the project is met with either a snicker or a blank stare.

Example: The Trabant has front-wheel drive; the El Camino uses its real wheels. So when the car transforms, it needs a drive shaft that can expand with the car and turn the El Camino's back wheels. Normally, finding the part isn't difficult, but Cohen needs one that can expand, or "telescope," three times as the car gets longer. After a year of false starts, she's finally found a shop — Dick's Drive Shaft in Phoenix— willing to play along. She calls her contact, Ray, to make sure the part is ready.

When she gets off the phone, she says he sounded a little strange.

Grinder, Liz Cohen, 2005
courtesy of Galerie Laurent Godin
Grinder, Liz Cohen, 2005
Liz Cohen
Andy Hartmark
Liz Cohen

"I hope everything is okay. Ray is being weird," she says. She's worried there might be something wrong with the part.

She climbs into her red 1989 Honda Prelude — a car she's had since she was 16, air conditioning not included — and cruises to the shop to pick up her part. Though the project is centered on building the car, Cohen actually spends her time on most days driving all over town, trying to find parts.

"It's unusual stuff I need," she says. "If you go to Auto Zone and say, 'I need a brake-light switch,' they say, 'What year is your car?' And you just can't describe it. They just want to punch it into the computer because they don't know the parts. It's hard to describe that this isn't a car that has a year and a make."

She prefers shops like Dick's, which specializes in drive shafts, that sell only very specific parts catered to people who live to work on cars.

She parks outside the drive shaft shop on McDowell Road near a string of other car parts stores Cohen has become intimately familiar with.

"I can't wait to see this crazy thing," she says.

But then she does see it, and it's not what she expected. For starters, it weighs 32 pounds, which will seriously slow her down on the road.

"What's it like when it's open?" Cohen asks Ray, wondering what the shaft looks like fully expanded.

He hesitates for a second and tells her, "It flutters a lot."

This is not what she wants to hear.

"I need it to work," she says. "If I've got a V8 and I can only go 20 mph . . . ," she trails off in frustration.

In less than a minute, she's on her cell with the factory that made the shaft's parts, leaving a message for her contact on both his office line and cell phone. She will call him back, on both lines, twice a day until she gets him to agree to redo the parts.

"I knew this was too good to be true," she says. "When this drive shaft actually happens, I'm going to throw a party."

In its current condition, it's hard to picture the Trabant taking Cohen anywhere, at any speed. Back from her failed drive shaft mission, Cohen surveys the area to figure out what to do next.

"That was the first setback of the day," she says. "Let me tell you, there will be more."

Without the drive shaft, she's kind of screwed — she can't start building the car's expanding and contracting side panels until she makes sure the shaft is the right size. Funny, because although the shaft is tough to get, Cohen says installing it will take about two minutes.

"It's, like, two bolts," she says.

Cohen has gotten used to frustrating setbacks, and now tries to look at them as just another part of the art.

"The piece really is a process piece," she says.

And she's done some impressive mechanical work so far. She's custom-built more than half the car herself.

With the flip of a switch, the car expands — with a grinding robot sound — from Trabant to a full-size El Camino. The front and the rear wheels are equipped with hydraulics so she'll be able to bounce in true lowrider fashion once the car is drivable. She welded the car's custom chassis herself, installed the hydraulics herself, and rebuilt the steering mechanism, electrical system, fuel brake lines and firewall herself.

Still, she checks in with Cherry before doing any major work on the car, almost like a daughter reporting to her father. (One day, they even wore identical black Dickies.) She's at the shop every day that it's open, and can only use Cherry's expertise during the regular business hours he works — she could never afford to pay him outside of that, and feels fortunate that the shop lets her work free of charge.

When she tells Cherry about the drive shaft disaster, he just rolls his eyes. They decide the best thing for Cohen to do is finish fabricating the console. She's only got a few scraps of metal left to fashion and attach to it before that part of the car is done.

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