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You're driving south on Highway 101, hitting 70 mph as you zoom through San Jose. All of a sudden, up ahead, you see an odd-looking van-type thing, painted purple, with what appears to be a flying saucer dome on top.
You slow down to take a look and notice that the car in front of it is tricked out, too. It's a red VW Bus covered with plastic skulls, bullet casings, pictures of Jesus, and who knows what else. Then -- hold on, applying brake pressure now -- you realize there's actually a whole string of cars covered in junk: four, five, or more.
You pass a BMW with bobble-head dolls glued to the trunk. Then you're next to a little car covered in toys and a plastic pony dancing violently on the hood. Some hippie's driving it, and there's a kid in the back seat with a tousled, Partridge Family-gone-wild haircut.
Who are these people? Where are they going? Why would someone do that to his car?
Leading the pack is the most exquisite machine of all. It's an electric-blue Buick shaped like a horseshoe crab, its bottom built out with corrugated steel. On the roof are what look like dismembered animal heads. Plants grow out of the trunk, and pictures of dogs adorn all the windows.
A man with a devilish goatee and black straw hat is behind the wheel, his hatband printed with a flaming eyeball. He's Philo Northrup, the Moses of this peculiar tribe -- a dashing, hawk-faced, Errol Flynn type, with his wife, Joanne, and two skinny mutts riding beside him. A digital animation producer by day, Northrup spends his free time cracking himself up by gluing random objects together to make absurdist sculptures. In one, titled A Basic Corn Piece, a Neanderthal man from a plastic model kit emerges from the center of a country kitchen-style corn-on-the-cob wall plaque.
But what Northrup really loves -- what he says gives his life "fundamental meaning" -- is turning cars into drivable art. The hobby started in 1983, when Northrup was in law school up in Eugene, Ore., driving a crappy Chevy Vega that didn't "feel fun." He dressed it up in zebra stripes and mounted a pair of deer horns on the roof.
He didn't anticipate the reaction he'd get. People stared, pointed, smiled, laughed, and gave him the thumbs-up as he passed. For Northrup -- who, like many artists, loves to be noticed, but at the same time is a little shy -- this pleasant feedback was addictive.
"It makes people so happy," he says. "Everywhere I go, people are stopping to look at my car, taking pictures of it, telling their friends about it later."
He ditched the idea of becoming a lawyer and moved to Los Angeles to become an artist instead. But the arrogance and elitism of gallery owners and the art world didn't jibe with his down-home sensibilities.
Northrup, 42, is a private man. He doesn't enjoy selling himself and clams up a bit if you ask him personal questions, like why he and Joanne decided not to have children.
"The practical realities are daunting," he says. "We're doing a lot of art, travel, investigating ...."
But get him going on his favorite subject -- the crazily decorated vehicles known as Art Cars -- and it's like you're talking to a born-again Christian or someone who just discovered hallucinogens. When he's working on Art Cars, Northrup says, his "rational brain turns off, like meditation. I feel fulfilled. Excited."
The Vega died, but Northrup decorated his next car. And his next.
He taught himself how to attach ornaments that would survive at freeway speeds. He learned how to caulk drill holes so rain wouldn't leak in; how to bolt on sculptural elements rather than just gluing them; how to use lightweight materials to avoid weighing the car down. He discovered how to add flashing lights and neon wire, by juicing them from the car battery. He even figured out how to grow plants in planter boxes affixed to the car's body in strategic pockets where there wasn't as much wind.
"Art Cars are a process of self-discovery for me," says Northrup, with a stonerlike laugh. The start-sticking-stuff-together mentality of Art Cars fit perfectly with his low-key approach to life and art.
His latest creation, "The Buick of Unconditional Love," is a kind of Buick casserole: a 1986 Buick Park Avenue modified with fenders from a 1941 Buick and bullet-shaped front-end ornaments from a 1959 Buick. In a back window is a photograph of his dead dog, Fungus, with Northrup's heavy-lidded eyes and torso Photoshopped onto the hound. An urn of Gus' ashes sits on the shelf behind the back seat.
"I guess you could say the message of the car is, 'Are all men just dogs, and is that a bad thing?'" Northrup once said.
His caravan rolls on, headed for Fresno.
The automobile has long been a powerful symbol in American culture. For decades, ad execs have propagandized us that we are what we drive. In the 1950s, people began turning the message on its head, converting their wheels into mobile mirrors of their personalities. The American Graffiti era gave birth to hot rods and custom paint jobs, then to lowriders and muscle cars.