Neon craze hits Baltimore area

LATEST AUTO ACCESSORY IS A REAL GAS

December 13, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

John Morgan has the world by the tail: he's 19, has a steady job and his 2-month-old car emits an eerie purple glow.

The underside of his fire engine red Sunbird GT didn't always glow purple. Believe it or not, the Carney resident plunked down more than $400 this week to make it look like it just floated in from Jupiter.

Four neon tubes mounted out of sight along the car's underbody are responsible for the strange light. After just a few days in operation, the owner is pleased to report that the neon is a hit with his peers.

"I've had a lot of people I don't even know stop me on the street and compliment me," said Mr. Morgan, who works at a grocery story deli counter. "I'll probably be driving with it on most of the time."

The latest craze in automotive accessories is called car neon and it's been sweeping through Baltimore this year, after already catching on in such car capitals as Florida and Southern California.

It's hip. It's cool. And it's pretty darn strange.

"It's kind of a flying saucer effect," said Ted Klein of Klein Auto Works Inc., a downtown car shop. "It's an effect. It's novel. We get a lot of inquiries about it."

Various manufacturers offer neon kits -- four tubes, a transformer, a toggle switch for the --board, and wire -- ready to install. The tubes come in a dozen or more colors including

lavender, pink and orange, but local installers report that red, blue and purple seem to be the most popular.

Putting it all in place takes two to four hours. The automotive repair, customizing shops, and car stereo dealers that offer neon installation generally charge between $375 and $450 for the basic package. It costs more if you want them to operate off your alarm, or strobe with the beat of your stereo.

The neon tubes are wrapped in stiff plastic sleeves as protection against the weather, not to mention the rocks and debris tossed up from the road. Most also come with a warranty of two years or more.

"It really looks great, especially out in the rain and mist," said Russ Doten of Irv's Car Radio in Reisterstown. "Mainly, these are bought for cars that are kept fantastically clean and already have custom details like wire-rim wheels and a nice paint job."

Leonard Lozoskie, owner of L&L Motors in Dundalk, said his patrons are generally men in their teens or 20s. Their cars vary from fancy sports models to modest compacts and sub-compacts that might be 4 or 5 years old.

"It's more for the younger crowd," said Mr. Lozoskie. "I guess the kids like it."

Don't tell that to Frederick Green, a Brooklyn resident who describes himself as "51 going on 12." Instead of the standard 12 feet of neon, he's had 45 feet of the all-purple stuff installed on his 1966 Pontiac LeMans (admittedly not all underneath the car) at a cost of $1,200.

That means neon in the trunk, neon around the license plate, neon under the hood. He's quite proud of it -- or at least he was. Two weeks ago, a longtime friend and friendly rival topped 60 feet of car neon, and Mr. Green feels a bit slighted. He vows to add more neon soon.

"People who don't even know me have heard about my car," said LTC Mr. Green, who works for an electrical insulation company and goes by the moniker "Purple Fred" when he's cruising Ritchie Highway.

But car neon is not all bright lights in the big city. It's really only caught on in the Baltimore area this year, and some neon-o-phites have been cited by police for violating the state's motor vehicle code.

Neon per se is not addressed in the code, but there are legal restrictions on colors and visibility of lights on a car, and interpretations seem to differ.

Last week, a District Court judge in Baltimore County fined Heath Hall $415 for being a repeat neon-related offender. It was just the latest of Mr. Hall's travails. He and his green Toyota MR2 with purple neon have been pulled over five times in six months by county police officers, he said.

"The last time the cop told me it was a distraction," said Mr. Hall, 19, a soft drink sales representative. "Heck, if there's a blonde walking down the street, that's a distraction. It's crazy."

Capt. R. Joel Underwood, commander of automotive safety enforcement division for the state police, agreed that police departments in the Baltimore area have had differing views of whether neon lights underneath a car constitute an equipment violation.

Equipment violations typically include such things as glass that is tinted too darkly or custom headlights that are too bright.

An informal opinion issued by an assistant attorney general in October suggested that neon is OK as long as it's not red or blue, the same colors used by emergency vehicles, he said.

"As long as they don't use red or blue, we don't have a problem with it," said Captain Underwood.

Steve Moxley, manager of The Audio Connection in Towson, said he always advises customers that they might get ticketed if they use the neon on the road. He said the warning has yet to dissuade anyone from having it installed.

"It seems like this is a fad that's just starting to get rolling," said Mr. Moxley, who estimates his staff has installed at least 50 kits in nine months. "People have followed me at stoplights and tapped on my window to ask how I got it. It's a head-turner."

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