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‘Wild Wheels’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 21, 1992

When Harrod Blank challenges a parking offense in traffic court, it ain't about the ticket. It's about discrimination -- not against him, against his car. The problem is, his VW bug is covered in . . . stuff. There's a plastic globe and a giant black fly on the hood, for instance, not to mention an oversized sunflower attached to each side, plastic petals whirling furiously in the wind.

"Wild Wheels," which Blank wrote and directed, is a tribute to all unconventional car owners. As we find out over 60 amusing (even touching) minutes, Blank is not alone. This is the wildest collection of wheels you ever saw. There are cars decorated with buttons, beads, shells, even faucets. The tailfins of one 1960 Cadillac are bedecked with plastic flamingos. There's a car paneled entirely in mirrors, another rendered in wrought iron, and yet another -- the vehicular equivalent of a Chia Pet -- covered in grass.

A pickup truck bears a huge cross dedicated to Jesus Christ. A mangled but still functioning car called "5:04 P.M." is a memorial to the Loma Prieta earthquake whose late-afternoon tremors caused a brick wall to fall on it in San Francisco. There's a psychedelic bus, a Mustang convertible made to look like a hippopotamus, a motorbike made to look like a cow (it's called a Cowasaki). The list is endless.

There is no particular pattern to the drivers. They are punk-attired, sullen women from Texas. They are ex-hippies, or born-again Christians. They are black and white, old and young, eccentric and entirely normal. But they all call themselves artists, dabbling in anything from the absurd to the surreal, from folkloric to religious. Sometimes they just dabble in junk.

"If there's a dead rat," says one car artist, only half jokingly, "I'll grab it and glue it on the car."

Even though these eye-catching conceptions reflect a goofy sense of fun, there is frequently a serious and meaningful motivation behind them. One woman cherishes her psychedelic bus because she conceived a child in it. A car covered in horse figures represents the sobriety project of an alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in 16 years.

An amiable driver has garnished his vehicle in pearls, amethysts and other jewels to honor his dearly departed wife. A cheery fellow with an Amish beard and cap, whose toy-festooned automobile attracts young passersby, claims to have been beaten as a child.

"God told me to put 'em on," says the one whose car is covered in faucets.

It's surprisingly affecting, right at the beginning, when Blank loses his traffic court appeal, and has to pay the court clerk $24.50 for traffic school (an alternative to the fine). He's essentially being punished for the object of his affections, something that happens to him all the time. Yet it doesn't stop Blank, or the others. And just how far drivers plan to go with their wheeled passions is best demonstrated by Cowasaki owner Larry Fuente. His ultimate goal, he says, is to go to India. His reason is simple. Over there, the cow is considered sacred.

"Wheels" is preceded appropriately by Karen Davis's "Over the Hedge," a nine-minute documentary about house owners who have individualized their shrubbery. There's shy Andy Silver, for instance, a hunched figure in overalls and sporting an obvious toupee, who has turned his bushes into -- depending on your opinion -- sombreros or flying saucers. Both movies uncover a universal need for individualism or self-expression, no matter how strange the finished work.

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