American cars make room for imports at the annual Portland Rod & Custom Show

Twenty-seven years after the first Honda Accord set the U.S. auto market on its ear, imports have come of age.

They've been made into hot rods, with blinding speed, outrageous paint jobs, zero ground clearance, stereos big enough for Shea Stadium and a cult of their own. And many are Hondas.

Want proof? Visit the fourth annual Portland Rod & Custom Show, which features an Import Challenge on Saturday, Feb. 16, with more than 100 Hondas, Toyotas, Acuras, Mitsubishis, BMWs and Audis on display.

They'll join 300 American hot rods and customs at the show, which is expected to draw 40,000 motorheads in a four-day span that began Thursday, Feb. 14. Fans can admire rainbow metallic paint; footwide, white-letter tires; exhaust headers like strangled chrome snakes; and 700-horsepower, supercharged aluminum motors. And those are just the imports.

And while traditional 'deuce' coupes, '40 Fords and '55 Chevys are chopped, channeled, nosed, decked, pinched, tucked and rolled, import customizers have different aims.

Import customs have full fiberglass body kits, turbocharged or supercharged engines with variable valve timing, reprogrammed fuel injection and ignition systems, lightweight fiberglass seats with four-point harnesses, lowered suspensions and 'thin' tires barely able to protect their 18-inch mag wheels from chuckholes.

Headlights and taillights are routinely adapted from different (and frequently more expensive) imports.

'It all goes around'

Rod & Custom Show organizer Dan Cyr observed that time marches on, even faster than a V-8 Chevy in a quarter mile.

Teen-agers drive old cars because they're cheap, and the younger generation grew up with imports, Cyr said. Recent accidents have cast street racers in a negative light, but Cyr is philosophical that the problem can be solved.

'It all goes around,' he said. 'Kids were getting into similar trouble Ñ wrecks and deaths on the highway Ñ in the '60s. That's how Portland International Raceway got started Ñ to give them somewhere to go.'

The import street racers got their own late-night drag races at PIR last fall, a program that will be expanded this spring.

Allie Persitz runs the 4-year-old Team Impulse, which is organizing the Import Challenge in concert with the rod show. Persitz will have a radically modified, lavender 1999 Honda Civic Si turbo on display.

'This is the first time anybody thought to do two separate shows,' she said. 'Most of the cars are based on older Hondas and Toyotas because most kids into this are under 25, and that's what they can afford.'

But that's just the entry price, she says, and it's easy to end up spending more than $50,000.

CRXs started it

Plus One Motor Sports, 6600 S.W. Macadam Ave., has been building import hot rods and selling accessories for 16 years, though the hobby started earlier in Japan.

'The first Honda CRXs got people going over here in the 1980s,' sales technician Jackson Light said. 'There were plenty around and lots of parts available.'

There's a lot of potential in modern import engines, Light said. Sophisticated aftermarket computers can remap ignitions and adjust fuel-injection systems to better than double horsepower. And the latest in-car computers plug into the same outlets as stock units.

But old-timers often don't respect imports, he said.

'It's tough to have your pride and joy picked apart by old guys,' Light said. 'In 40 years, I'll probably be the same when something new comes along. I hope I'm not that close-minded, but I'll bet I am.'

Along with the rods, roadsters and customs in the main show, there'll be a 1936 Auburn boat-tail speedster from the movie 'Dick Tracy,' a 1950 Mercury that starred in the Nicolas Cage film 'Gone in 60 Seconds' and a pink '69 Cadillac driven by Robert DeNiro in 'Casino.'

Saturday's Import Challenge also will feature a hip-hop dance team and a $150 break-dancing contest.

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