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Recipe for economic survival in turtling times: go with the bling.

The North American auto industry may be reeling, with Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. in bankruptcy and dealerships closing down faster than a Lamborghini on a deserted Saskatchewan highway. But in the niche world of “auto pimping” – popular with the Lower Mainland’s growing legion of gangsters, real and imagined – business is booming.

On the real-gangster front, there’s the story of the infamous Bacon brothers, whose BMW 745i was seized by the B.C. Integrated Gang Task Force in February. “Enhancements” worth  $60,000 had been done to the $100,000 vehicle, including added surveillance equipment, four-inch-thick tinted bulletproof glass and road-hugging suspension.

But the real growth in the market is not so much among the hardened criminals but the punk poseurs. “The young kids today all want to look and sound like they drive race cars,” says Jim Hilton of Vancouver’s Hilton Overseas Auto Inc., which has been supplying import auto accessories since 1956 and will only admit to doing “well” (other body shop operators I spoke with say Hilton is one of the top suppliers for customer accessories in B.C.). These days, Hilton says, his biggest requests are for customized exhaust systems (up to $5,000; “Tuned to any sound you want,” he notes), full suspension rebuilds (about $2,500), and wheels and rims (the top-selling modification “for almost 40 years”).

Tony Yuen, owner of Richmond’s SR Auto Group – another luxury car customizer cashing in on the pimping trend – concurs that rims are “the epitome of car modification,” with second-hand rims at SR Auto going for more than $2,000 and top-of-the-line Klässens broaching $10,000. To implement the whole “vision” of a completely modified car, Yuen says some customers will leave their ride in his hands for up to two months and spend as much as $60,000. SR Auto is in such high demand these days (business has grown 40 per cent since 2005) that he opened a second location in Vancouver last month.

All of which raises the question, How do these young punks, many working a part-time job at Dairy Queen, pay for things like a fitted matte vinyl paint wrap ($6,000 to $10,000) or 25-inch wheels ($3,000)? “A lot of my customers are entrepreneurs,” says Yuen, without evident irony. “Like a penthouse apartment, these cars are a mark of status. To show that you’ve made it.”