David Lin's shop has been closed for hours when a father and his teenage son peer through the glass and knock.
Lin unlocks the door and tells them, apologetically, that he isn't open for business. But after a moment's hesitation, he can't help himself: "What were you looking for?" The dad explains that his son has just bought his first car, a '94 Civic, "and wants to get a little more performance out of it."
They've come to the right place—and then some.
Lin, a native of Taiwan, customizes Japanese imports at his shop, called Inline Four, near Little Saigon, turning them into rockets on wheels.
In one sense, what he's doing is nothing new. During the Depression, Southern farm boys converted Fords into the classic American hot rod, the Deuce Coupe, in order to outrun federal revenuers. The Deuce was followed by the Chevy Bel-Air in the '50s, factory-built muscle cars such as the Dodge Charger (of "Dukes of Hazzard" fame) in the '60s and the 5.0-liter Mustang in the '80s. (In the '70s, thanks to the gasoline crunch and new emission controls, street rods mostly idled.)
The souped-up Japanese autos—J-cars, as they're called—first appeared on American streets a decade or so ago. That's when Lin got hooked, hanging out with his older brother Ming. "We'd take his car to the Buddhist temple in Little Saigon on weekends," Lin recalls. "That's where everybody went to show off their cars."
For "tuners" such as Lin, the show was—and still is—under the hood. Forget fancy spoilers and gaudy trim. "The cool thing is to have your car look normal," says Xuan Van Nguyen, who has a custom '92 Honda Civic and hangs out at Lin's Westminster shop.
A $3,000 set of chrome rims isn't uncommon on a J-car, but what really excites purists are nitrous oxide-injected engines and other unseen enhancements that can make a J-car move like a race car. "We're not just a cosmetic company," Lin says.
Lowriders, Lin adds, are good examples of those who prefer form over function. "They'll drive by and look at you to make sure you're looking at them," he says. "We're going to zoom by you—and maybe you'll catch our taillights."
The teenager surely hopes his Civic will move like that. Out in the parking lot, the boy pops the lid and, under the orange glow of tungsten street lights, Lin and his brother lean in.
"Oh, this is sweet," Lin says. "Real sweet. You're going to have a lot of fun with this car."
"That's just what we were thinking," says the father, patting his son on the back. Everyone is bent at the waist, silently imagining what the engine could become.