What are “Donks” Origins and Why

A 1970s lime green General Motors sedan with sparkling elevated rims pulled into Davie’s Tower Shops parking lot like a slow-cruising yacht on a recent Friday night. People’s heads turned.

A donk had shown up. Donks are candy-colored, old-fashioned sedans such as Chevrolet Impalas and Caprices with rims that raise them to SUV heights that have been rolling out of South Florida’s urban neighborhoods for more than ten years. On Fridays, you can see them at the weekly car show in Davie, or on weekends, you can see them cruising down State Road A1A. “Everywhere the car goes, it draws attention,” Erik Carrera, 26, a Hollywood auto restoration specialist who owns a fire-red 1971 Impala convertible with 26-inch rims and a used Cadillac engine, said.

Donk car culture is said to have begun in South Florida in the mid-to-late-1990s, with car enthusiasts customizing their 1970s Chevys. 

According to Evan Yates, an editor of RIDES magazine, which also publishes an annual themed issue called “Donk, Box & Bubble,” “surrounding states in the South soon followed.” This year’s issue features elevated cars from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade counties and local businesses catering to donks.

“When you build a car, it’s an expression of yourself that you let a stranger see versus someone you care about and invite to your home,” said Bobbie Jo Lewis, co-owner of I-95 Motorsports in Hallandale Beach, which specializes in modifying these high-performance vehicles. Three donks sparkled outside her shop as she spoke one morning: a bubblegum-pink 1973 Chevy Caprice, a baby-blue 1975 Caprice, and a burgundy 1971 Impala. Each wheel had 26-inch rims. The trend began with 22-inch rims and has progressed to larger sizes such as 28, 30, and 32 inches. “Some people want to ride and shine, and some people understand that this is the next generation of classic cars,” Lewis explained.

The reasons for customizing these vintage cars are similar to those given by proud car owners: style, attention, and individuality. To these car enthusiasts, the older and larger the vehicle, the better. The cost of these elevated rides is determined by the size and brand of the rims, as well as the amount required to modify the vehicle’s frame and suspension. A set of four 22-inch rims and tires costs approximately $4,500, while larger rim and tire packages can cost approximately $15,000. Carrera, the auto restoration specialist, said he discovered his four years ago in New Hampshire. His junk “went from a $3,500 vehicle to a $40,000 vehicle It’s not like buying a brand-new car from a dealership. It’s clean, classy, and not too flashy.”

“Most of the cars you see, the rims cost more than the car,” Lewis of I-95 Motorsports explained. Donk riders define their genre as Caprices and Impalas from 1971 to 1976, but their stylized oversized-rim look has spread to other vintage large sedans like the Buick Skylark, Mercury Grand Marquis, and Ford Crown Victoria.

“They’re not donks, but it’s part of the game of customizing old cars with bigger wheels,” said Michael Ayala, sales manager at Coast-to-Coast Customs in Plantation, where a 1973 sea-green Impala was recently fitted with 30-inch rims. If the term “donk” sounds familiar, it’s because Miami rapper Pitbull used it in his dance hit “On the Floor” with Jennifer Lopez, rapping: “That badonkadonk is like a trunk full of bass on an old school Chevy.”

Why are they referred to as donks? Nobody knows for certain. According to Yates, “some say because the Impala symbol looked like a donkey, others say because of the big, low rear end-like of a donkey, and others say it comes from dunk” like a slam-dunk. These revitalized GM vehicles have spawned a community of car enthusiasts who have been featured in DVDs and attend local events. Some vehicles were on display at Miami’s Miccosukee Resort & Gaming for the 11th annual Kruisin’ Krome Car, Truck, and Motorcycle Show this month.

The vehicles are also popular because they are longer than newer sedans. And the oversized rims look like auto jewelry. “It’s like a bling thing,” said James Anderson, an auto instructor at Hollywood’s Sheridan Technical Center. “The overall appeal is that they like big cars, and most modern cars aren’t big like that.” However, not all of these modified vehicles may have legal ground clearance.

The bumper height restrictions in Florida are based on the weight of the vehicle. If the car weighs less than 2,500 pounds, the maximum height allowed by state law for the front and rear bumpers is 22 inches off the ground. The maximum height for a car weighing 2,500 to 3,500 pounds is 24 inches in the front and 26 inches in the back, according to Sgt. Mark Wysocky of the Florida Highway Patrol in Broward County.

According to Wysocky, 50 bumper height restriction citations were issued in Broward in 2010, compared to 81 in 2009. There were 25 citations in Palm Beach County in 2010, compared to 42 in 2009. The fine for the moving violation is $165. Because the cars vary in weight and size, it may be difficult to enforce. According to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, they have also not been a problem locally. “It’s not a strictly enforced statute, but we don’t know how many of those cars are out there,” Wysocky explained.

Nonetheless, these car owners enjoy putting a new spin on an old classic. “Not everyone can afford a $150,000 car, but you can kind of create your luxury automobile,” Billy Breedlove, who sits high in his apple-red Chevy Caprice with 22-inch rims, said.

A Miami cook, 36, paid $600 for a car six years ago. He spent $15,000 on upgrades such as leather seats and an eight-cylinder engine. “You might find someone with the same model and year, but they’ll be completely different,” he explained. “Your sense of style is unique.”

Donk