Customizing Cars, a Career and Even a Show on MTV

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Ryan Friedlinghaus had a love for transforming ordinary cars into flamboyant metal sculptures with supercharged engines, $8,000 tire rims and intricate, airbrushed paint jobs.

So, six years ago, Friedlinghaus opened his car-customizing garage, hoping to find customers desiring souped-up cars in a city popularized by famous rappers and movies featuring tricked-out rides.

Friedlinghaus, a Las Vegas native who is 28, joined forces with Quinton Dodson, a beer truck driver from Long Beach who shared the same passion. Quickly, the two friends and their small crew became known around Compton and surrounding communities as the place to go “pimp” their rides.


Then, Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal brought in his black Chevy Suburban for a supercharged engine, new chrome rims and taillights molded to resemble the Superman logo. Other celebrities followed, including music star Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

Now, Friedlinghaus, Dodson and their crew -- who go by names such as “Shady,” “Q,” “Mad Mike” and “Big Dane” -- have gained a measure of fame themselves.

They are co-stars of the new MTV reality show “Pimp My Ride,” in which the gang at West Coast Customs remakes people’s pieces of junk into works of art.

The show, which premiered in March and is filming its second season, has changed their lives and made a local landmark out of West Coast Customs’ Inglewood shop. They now work under the glare of cameras, and business has increased so much that they complain they have no social lives.

“I don’t have a life. This is it. This is my home,” said Alex Pico, 27, who installs suspensions and other car parts.

But they are determined not to let the public glare change their lives and work.


“I was always into cars. It was always my thing,” Friedlinghaus said. “I just want to make money and have a good shop.”

Friedlinghaus, known at the shop as Shady, was a teenager when he decided what he wanted to do with his life. Always a car fanatic, his dream was to create a super car-customizing garage that would do all the work -- painting, metal fabrication, suspensions and interiors -- under one roof. By the time he was 18, the car-customizing craze was beginning to take off and, with $5,000 he had saved from working at his father’s liquor store in Laguna Niguel, he opened West Coast Customs in the same city in 1994.

Dodson worked as a truck driver and delivered beer to the liquor store. Just after Friedlinghaus’ business opened, he and Dodson struck up a conversation and soon realized they were both fanatical about customizing. Dodson started coming from Long Beach several times a week to hang out at the auto-body shop and talk about cars while another friend helped with the work.


“We lowered cars, put on accessories, wheels. Little things. Simple stuff,” Friedlinghaus said.

He soon realized that suburban Orange County was never going to generate enough business because customizing wasn’t that popular.

Enter Dana Florence, known as Big Dane. Florence arrived at the Laguna Niguel shop one day with his Ford pickup truck. He asked for hydraulics that would allow the truck to bounce up and down. Friedlinghaus installed an air ride suspension, which uses an air pressure system to create a smoother ride than basic hydraulics. The technology impressed Florence.


“It was something that I had never seen before. It was new and different from what everybody had in the ‘hood,” Florence said.

Florence, who grew up in Hawthorne, said he knew many people in the area who were getting their cars customized, and he gave Friedlinghaus an idea.

“He told me there’s more money for cars in Los Angeles,” Friedlinghaus recalled. “They buy a car and jewelry before homes.”


So in 1998, West Coast Customs moved from the Orange County suburbs to the outskirts of Compton. Business began to improve immediately as word of mouth spread. O’Neal’s assistant arrived with the star’s Suburban a few months later -- and the legend grew even more.

The shop began trying new things: adding flat-screen televisions, the latest in stereo equipment and crocodile interiors to the luxury cars that were brought in.

O’Neal became a regular, eventually ordering work on 25 cars, including a Bentley and a Lincoln Navigator that received custom sub-woofer and television systems.


The company moved from Compton to Olive Street in Inglewood four years ago, a space with much more room to stock the parts, equipment and cars that fill much of its 6,500 square feet. Throughout the moves, the clientele changed, as well as the employees. About 20 men work there now. Aside from Friedlinghaus, Dodson is the only original left. Florence, who kept in touch with the owner, joined the crew 2 1/2 years ago as security -- he’s the 6-foot, 4-inch, 310-pound ham seen on the television show -- and recently moved into the sales department.

The man with the plan, Mad Mike Martin, signed on almost six years ago.

When a customer comes in with a car, Friedlinghaus and Dodson discuss what should be done to create the art the customer wants. Then they go to Martin, 34, the one who concocts the craziest ideas.


“If you say it, if it comes out of your mouth, I can do it,” said Martin, who lives in Carson. “I don’t care what it is, how farfetched the idea, whatever it is. That’s the skill level we’re at, at West Coast Customs.”

MTV noticed.

“We were looking for a shop that had some notoriety, and we knew that West Coast Customs had as a client base 50 Cent, Steve Harvey, Jesse James,” said Lois Curren, executive vice president of MTV series entertainment.


MTV began filming in October and the show premiered in March on Sunday nights.

“We fell in love with Ryan, and the employees are amazing,” Curren said. “It was a very busy, fully functioning garage. Shaquille had a car in there, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is the real deal.”

“Pimp My Ride” became No. 1 in its time period in basic cable for 12- to 34-year-olds and it was the top-rated auto program on television, Curren said.


Unlike on the show, Friedlinghaus is quick to say, “We do new high-end cars for high-end customers.” The work they do easily adds up to thousands of dollars for one vehicle. Rims alone can cost $8,000, stereo systems can run $10,000, and most customers ask for multiple installations at once.

With so many new clients and a camera crew to accommodate, West Coast Customs is moving up, once again. The crew and equipment are relocating to a bigger building on 104th Street near La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. There will be a separate room for the “Pimp My Ride” show.

Dodson said no matter what happens, one thing will remain the same.


“We’re a family and a crew before the show, after the show. When the lights go out, we’re still here.”

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