If you’ve spent any time in or around major cities in the American south, you’ve likely seen one roll by—and there’s a good chance you did a double take. “Was that Impala rolling on tractor tires??” “How in the hell did they fit those wheels in there?” “Am I hallucinating, or was that car painted like a Snickers bar?!”
You’re not high. (Alright, maybe you are high. No judgement, I don’t know your life or what state you’re in. But that was real.) Welcome to the culture of Hi-Risers. You may know them as Donks, or Quan-cars, or Scrapers. Inextricably linked with the hip-hop culture of the south, they are a universe unto themselves. They are as loved by some as they are reviled by others. And while there is plenty of debate about their origin, and what cars specifically qualify as a Hi-Riser, there is no dispute that they are a phenomenon that could not be duplicated anywhere else.
A Car Culture as Diverse as Its People
America is a big place. Its people originate from every corner of the globe. Their ancestors moved here, bringing their hope for a better life, along with the culture of their homeland. Those traditions were mashed up and spun together in our Cuisinart society, blended with the ways and traditions of a thousand other points of origin, and gave birth to new hybrid, new cultures, and new traditions.
To put it mildly, the good old U-S-of-A has an absurd amount of stuff going on, and it’d be pretty much impossible to be fluent in every social dialect that our dubstep remix of a nation has given birth to. And this is uniquely true about our cars. You can know everything there is to know about the Camaro since the first one rolled off a lot in ‘66, but that doesn’t mean you can restore an old Model T. Or swap out the axles on a rusted out CJ. Or stop an oil leak in your aunt’s ‘89 Skylark, for that matter.
As we said in our introduction to this all new All Roads Connect column, cars are a vast universe—and getting to every edge of it would be near impossible. So, if you don’t speak Donk, it’s probably not your fault. But you should pick up a few conversational phrases, because life is cool. And it’s fleeting. And these cars are joyful simply for the sake of joy itself.
Donks vs Hi-Risers: What’s in a name?
You might know ‘em as Donks, but the most universally agreed-upon term is Hi-Risers, for obvious reasons. The first prerequisite for admission is large wheels (often comically so, with at least 20 inch diameter and often up to 30 inches or more), raising the frame, and adding ground clearance. Hi-Risers are typically a V-8, rear-wheel drive American sedan. However, aficionados can be sticklers about the subsets of this genre. Noobs are quick to label any flashy ride on big rims a “Donk”, but the classifications are strict and finite. While all Donks are Hi-Risers, not all Hi-Risers are Donks. Get it?
Donks are Chevy Impalas and Caprices produced between 1971 and 1976. These are the gold standard of the movement. Legend has it they got their nickname because the Impala logo resembles a donkey, but even that is debated. Impalas and Caprices between ‘77 and ‘90 are known as “Boxes”, for their distinct rectangular shape. And “Bubbles”, so-called for their curved shape relative to the boxes that preceded them, are typically Caprices from ‘91’-’96. (Although, the Buick Roadmaster and Cadillac Fleetwood are often included in this category.) Everything else given this signature treatment is simply a Hi-Riser.
Style With Attitude
Okay, so we’ve got the right wheels on the right car. Now what? The rest is actually pretty simple—and at the owner’s discretion. Put in a deafening stereo system. Maybe line the interior in velvet, something purple or an animal-print would be nice. Add a crazy neon light scheme. Super high-gloss candy paint, or some chameleon “flip-flop” paint that appears to change color from different angles. Cover it in decals so that it looks like your favorite snack food from your childhood.
Now ride your Hi-Riser around town. Go to some parking lot car shows. Play rap music (Miami’s Trick Daddy is Rap’s ambassador to the Donk community), and play it loudly. Wave to your friends. Make strangers strain their necks spinning around to look at you. Bring joy and color to your landscape. Look and feel awesome. Smile. Because with Hi-Risers, that’s the whole point.
A Polarizing Trend
It will come as no surprise that Hi-Risers do not bring happiness to everyone they cruise past. Some people flat-out can’t stand them. Jalopnik’s 2016 piece referred to Donks as “The world’s most hated car culture.” (Ouch.) So, what’s the big deal?
The Hi-Riser is a predominantly African-American phenomenon, so there are some uncomfortable cultural implications to mull over there. But additionally, many self-proclaimed purists see them as the mutilation of a perfectly serviceable vintage American car. Or they simply think they’re useless—that a lime green Reagan-era sedan on backhoe tires serves no purpose.
Fair enough, a 1975 Caprice painted like Count Chocula that’s too tall to fit in a drive-thru might not be the best choice for a rescue vehicle. You can’t mount a snow plow onto it. Or drive the Rubicon Trail. But when cousin Willie turned 21 and got his first paycheck from his new job working for the state road crew, the first thing he did was lift his Silverado up six inches and add a grille guard with a skull on it, and a light bar that you could play a night baseball game under. And all that dude does is drive back and forth to Sonic whistling at high school girls, and tailgate scared senior citizens on his way home from Gander Mountain. So, y’know, it’s all relative. Live and let live, people.
A Uniquely American Experience
Plenty of places claim Hi-Risers as their own. Atlanta swears it was invented there. Miami and practically all of surrounding Dade County are certain they put it on the map. And inner-city St. Louis believes they have done more for its rise than anyone else. Its heritage cannot be definitively traced back in a straight line to one place. But one thing is for certain: the Hi-Riser, born of New York’s hip-hop culture, Detroit’s automobiles, and the Dirty South’s brash style and swagger, is an authentically American creation.