Art Cars Unleashed

After 15 years of living in the Houston International Festival's shadow, the Orange Show's Art Car Parade is finally free to cruise solo. For years, participants have complained that the slick presentation and huge scale of the iFest clashes with the grassroots, on-the-streets spirit of the art car "movement."

"It's born out of a sense of fun and people coming together and doing a thing together," says Rebecca Lowe, parade veteran and owner of the art car Tankgrrl's Treasure Chest. "We like hanging out and talking about cars and glue."

Aficionados have long felt that it undermines the Art Car Parade's sense of inclusiveness to charge spectators the $8 iFest admission price. This year, for the first time, the parade will be free. (Of course, wilier locals know the truth: You've never had to pay, as long as you staked out a roadside perch outside the festival's checkpoints. But now there are no boundaries.) Even the Art Car Ball will be held downtown in a parking garage, back where it belongs, with a more populist ticket price.

The parade's newfound independence hasn't stopped the folk-art purists from complaining about the shame and hypocrisy that comes with corporate sponsorship. Pennzoil has been sponsoring the parade since 1998 and this year increased its donation from $10,000 to $100,000. But Lowe has no problem with Pennzoil picking up the check.

"People would have an unrealistic idea of how to do the parade," she says. "It costs money. And besides, who cares if it says, 'Powered by Pennzoil'? Obviously it's not powered by Pennzoil, it's powered by all the crazy motherfuckers driving their cars around."

Some folks have been wondering whether the Orange Show has relaxed its criteria for entries now that the parade is playing by its own rules. "When people find out it's free," says Lowe, "they say, 'Does that mean they're going to let, like, shitty-ass pickup trucks in?' " But she doesn't think we need to worry about wreckers from Joe's Garage riding alongside the famed rides Red Stiletto and the Duckmobile.

Lowe's own '91 Jeep Cherokee is covered with 75 pounds of sand, mounds of glue, glitter and various trinkets and tchotchkes, and she'll be driving it to the weekend's most touching event. "My favorite thing is the Main Street Drag," she says. "It's where five teams spread out and take [the art cars] to schools and hospitals and people who can't make it to the parade." Children often swarm the vehicles, touching them and climbing inside. "Kids really appreciate art cars in kind of a kinesthetic way," Lowe explains.

Historically, one of the Art Car Weekend's best qualities is that it's an event that manages to remain, for the most part, free of cynicism. Smiles are rarely seen on such a large scale. When grilled about the one thing that bums her out about the whole affair, Lowe replies, "Sunday night…it ends."