God, said Mies van der Rohe, is in the tiny details.
And out there in Las Vegas, come June and the national show-car finals, a Chevrolet pickup named the Soul Taker is waiting -- "They say it takes your soul away just to look at it," says H. M. McMackin, a detail man if ever there was one.
McMackin has never even seen Soul Taker, but word certainly does get around that it's got some re-e-e-e-al nice paint. Forget a four-wheel-drive pickup named Bad Company from up in New York, or Ohio's Dynamite Express; McMackin knows it's Soul Taker he has to beat with Trickie Truck II, which spent last weekend fracturing spotlight beams and winning points among 200 cars, trucks, vans and motorcycles at the World of Wheels show at the D.C. Armory.
The details: McMackin is 35, a hard-eyed, soft-voiced wholesale car dealer from Tampa. Trickie Truck II is basically an $11,000 1979 Ford Ranger Lariat pickup McMackin tore to pieces and put back together with $50,000 in extras such as, say, 37 yards of custom-ordered crushed velvet, buttontufted and bawdy-house red, at $32 a yard, "and that's wholesale," says McMackin.
Plus the pearlized Naugahyde aluminum minum frame seats with removable cushions ("I don't special-order seats, I build them") and the candy-appled pearl paint on the cab with the flip-flop lacquer that gives that purple halo effect; and the $2,000-worth of cut-crystal wine goblets and decanters back in the truck bed next to the white mohair pillow; the three-color pin-striping by "The Cobra" ("You have to fly him in") and the etchings of pelicans and palm trees on the windows by Mark Masta, the nitro-fueled, Teflon-cylindered Chevy 427 high-deck engine twitching with chrome, the sand-and-sea scapes muraled on the sides, nicely framed by 106 coats of cherry-red, metal-flake candy-appled body paint.
"Look here," McMackin says, circling a DO NOT TOUCH sign, under the vacuum-molded plexiglass truckbed cover. "I left this little sliver unpainted here so the judges can see how thick it is."
It is thick as a toenail.
"It took nine months to dry. If I drove it out into that cold weather it would shatter, spider-webbing they call it. That fella down the row there with the 1956 Ford Victoria? He had to take that car back down to metal last year after he drove out into a cold snap in Atlanta."
Not that any of this is going to beat the Soul Taker. What's called for here is some real detail work, McMackin's hole card, widow-maker, piece de resistance.
"Get down there on the floor and have a look," he says.
Not the chromed hubs or even the pearlized gas tank, but: "There's only one man in America that can do it. You see it there on the frame rails, and on the insides of the frame rails, what looks like pin-striping? That's genuine five-color Ming Dynasty heshi brush painting."
Ask any of these 200 owners stalking around their machines with dust rags why they do it and they either clout you with the obvious or veer into the cosmos.
"You git points," says James Hines, who has put $22,000 into a 1948 Anglia, and believes he holds second place in the southeastern region totals from shows up and down the seaboard.
"Every man desires something unique," says Vic Blank, who hasn't slept for three days, with all the wet-sanding he's been doing on his Corvette since he put five shades of blue on it with "3 1/2 miles of masking tape."
Well, fine. But the question doesn't even have to be asked. Custom cars are art, which is excuse enough for them -- an art form which arose in America after World War II, the sculptural equivalent of rock 'n' roll, a word-of-mouth teen-age esthetic, often informed by a mad sense of humor. While Detroit piled the chrome on the bodies, kids in the '50s pulled it off, then chromed the engines. Detroit introduced wrap around-windshields in 1955. Kids chopped their tops until, say, a '49 Merc would be running with a windshield eight inches high, evil-looking as the cockroach Kafka's hero woke up to discover he'd become, after a night of troubled sleep.
That was the period of minimalism, of hyperborean understatement, of a lineal purity still visible over the weekend at the armory in some fine restorations.
The action, in 1979, has come to lie in outrageous color, strange mixtures of the rustic and the sophisticated (seascapes and nitro-fueled engine), impossible and pointless juxtapositions such as one show car called the Pool Hustler, whose top is a working pool table and bottom a drag racer.
Always, however, exaggeration has been mandatory, with a cavalier ease in mixing motifs. And it's all happened before, of course. El Greco, Tintoretto, Bronzino, Cellini... ahhh, sweet, mad 16th-century mannerism, which kicked its heels and sprinted away from the golden-section purity of the Renaissance.
Says the Phaidon Encyclopedia: "In the violent, sophisticated society of the 16th century, the profane and the sacred were ceaselessly contrasted with each other. The composition of paintings were always unexpected... Color was characterized either by discordant tones or dominated by bright orange, strident pinks, and shrill blues... an attraction toward the bizarre... elegant... sensual... unusual..."
The 16th century saw the same use of pointless detailing, the rustication, elongation and audacity. It had a fascination with sinuous line, the serpentina figura. Nowadays, show cars strive for a surly, snaky quality, always meant to disturb and surprise.
"'Non Compuss Menace,' you know what that means?" demands Mike Herring, 24, of Waldorf. It's written on the fuel tank of the Harley Davidson that belongs to his buddy, Dan Ervey. "It means not of sound mind, man, and we're the craziest people here."
The next display down features another Harley mounted on a coffin, out of which reaches a vampire. The tiny, angled gas tank of the bike is painted a particularly fascinating light green, like an electrocuted salamander.
Further down, and more benevolently mannerist, "Jungle Jack" Butler, 52, a heavy-equipment operator for the Prince George's County government, shows off a 1955 Harley Duoglide, in which he's invested $8,000, "and dedicated it to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King," whose portrait appears on the gas tank.
Nearby is the stage where three Playboy magazine Playmates-of-the-Month are to spend the weekend autographing the nude pictures of themselves people have saved and brought in to the show -- they being a bit of body-style mannerism in themselves, impossible juxtapositions, serpentina figura, and mouths candy-appled to a strident lushness.
Sex and the automobile have long been intertwined, of course, and here cars have names such as Sin Twisters and Velvet Vicky. Linda Dixon, a friend of McMackin, exhibits model Fords, including a 10-inch-long Econoline van with a revolving waterbed about the size of a Moon Pie ("Go ahead and touch it, you can feel the water in there") with tiny mirrors glued to the ceiling over it.
Details. "I took the bed off the truck and painted it where it joins the cab," says McMackin. "I have to tell the judges about it or they might not see it.I replaced the fender liners with Chevy fender liners. That spoiler there, in front. Usually you must think of that as something functional, a throwaway. But look at the back of it. Pearlized!"
Ultimately, of course, the most bizarre juxtaposition of all is that this is a truck McMackin has done this to: senselessness, splendor, art for art's sake -- and everyone here, when queried about gas shortages and energy crunches seems to respond brightly that their vehicle gets 19 miles to the gallon.
God is in the tiny details, so forget the Saudi Arabians. Says McMackin: "Show vehicles are what man can do to the ultimate, with talent." But he'll have to wait till June to see if he can do it to the Soul Taker.