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Automotive Section June 15, 2007
Shwarma Shuttles: Russia’s Rice Rockets?
By Yasha Levine Browse author Email

Everyone in America has heard of the "Rice Rocket," and if you haven't heard of them, then you have surely heard their annoying, high-pitched muffler sputterings as these tricked-out Hondas and Toyotas race up and down the street.

The Rice Rocket, whose name derives from America's rich culture of racist slurs, started to become its own phenomenon sometime in the late 80s, right around the time that younger Asian-Americans finally turned away from their parents' strange penchant for mid-sized American-label cars, and instead snapped up used Japanese cars as the foundation of their Rice Rocket. The first Rice Rockets (or "Rice Burners") were decked-out Asian motorcyles, but soon the term came to encompass imported Japanese cars modified for East Asia's version of New Jersey aesthetics.

Over time, Asian-Americans learned to fashion their own Rice Rockets from used Japanese cars bought in the Land of the Free. With just a few cosmetic changes, Asians could make over their wimpy Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas into fierce racing machines. Rice Rockets could be customized in accordance with a person's financial means, and taste for flash.

Large Asian families were forced to bend to their immigrant-sons' demands to be cool, allowing a few requisite "Honda Racing Team" stickers to plaster the bumper, along with a and a loud "high-performance" racing muffler to make it sound meaty. Those with a little more cash would get a spoiler, lower the car by a few inches and add a fresh coat of paint, preferably bright yellow. Those that were really loaded would throw in a serious stereo system with huge subwoofers in the trunk, install a pair of "racing" seats, new "racing" wheels with expensive "racing" tires, and replace factory installed headlights with tricked out futuristic "racing" lights that glowed blue.

Connecting with something deep in America's car culture, the Rice Rocket phenomena immediately took off. By the early 90s Rice Rockets spread like wildfire across America's Heartland. White boys from Arizona to Florida snatched up Honda Civics and tricked them out for bragging rights.

We've noticed a similar movement developing in Russia. It started a long time ago with proud car owners and bored Caucasian gypsy cabbies adding little personal touches to their Zhigulis. They'd accessorize their cars with taped-on reflectors, stylized windshield wipers and extra-long mudflaps.

But ever since foreign cars started flooding Russia, people who still stuck to driving shitty Ladas, Zhigs and Volgas have upped up their cheap modifications. More and more Zhigs have started morphing into an entirely new species of car, what we call "Shwarma Shuttles." Some feature wooden spoilers, others hand-painted "Lada Racing Team" logos on their sides, elaborate fake chrome hubcaps, and blinking ultraviolet lights along the edges. But with gopnik-chic growing among Russia's middle class, the Shwarma Shuttle is poised to move up to another level. Shwarma Shuttles are no longer tricked-out with discarded scraps lying around the dvor. Influenced by Rice Rocket Hollywood films like The Fast and the Furious, Russian kids are pimping their Ladas and Volgas on a professional level wicked enough to lock racing fins with the most souped-up Rice Rockets in greater LA. And that got us thinking: If you pitted a Rice Rocket against a Shwarma Shuttle, which would kick the other's ass?


Name: Mike Nguyen
Ethnic Profile: 2nd generation Vietnamese American
Place of residence: Daly City, California
Occupation: Associate at Kragen Autoparts
Quote: "Rice Rockets are more than just cars: they are a way of life."


Name: Muradyan Mkhedze
Ethnic Profile: Ethnic Georgian
Place of residence: Moscow, Russia
Occupation: Graveyard shift parking lot attendent, mechanic
Quote: "While the rest of the world sleeps, I sail the skies in my Shwarma Shuttle."

Make: Honda Model: Civic
*Hong Kong-style dragon nostril air intakes means this car is built for high revving, perfect for street racing.
*5-inch drop and air-defoiling skirt decrease wind resitance and improve handling.
*The faded checkerboard pattern is an automatic babe magnet, cuz Asian chicks love dudes that can play checkers.

Make: Lada Model: Devyatka
*Made especially for women drivers. Tinted windows protect your girl from strangers' eyes, and special 5-inch lift is meant to withstand MKAD potholes at up to 150 km/h.
*Girls from Chelyabinsk favor reflective racing squiggle and chrome exhaust pipes salvaged off American big rig. Sparkle means you get noticed over a five kilometer radius.

One look at the beefy big rig exhaust pipe on this tiny little Lada, and quite frankly, no Rice Rocket would stand a fucking chance.

Make: Acura Model: Prelude
*This is for the purists. The huge Orca fin means this car is built for one thing only: Maximum Speed on a straightaway. This Acura is a drag race winner built for racking up pink slips, and pink visuals.

Make: Lada Model: Devyatka
*If I did not say it, you would never guess this is a Lada. Ha! This is the newest Lada body design. Everything, including the fin made from salvaged MiGs, is made in Russia, except the hand-crafted paint job. That is work for the Tajiks.

Cheap richter set fin makes the Rice Rocket's seem downright faggy by comparison. Add to that the shameless pairing of flame decals with racing stripes, and it's "Sorry Charlie" (pun intended).

Make: Honda Model: Accord
*Old school look. Orca fin spoiler, chrome tinted glass, see-through tail-lights and original Honda white paint is a low budget Rice Rocket that's A big hit with FOB Asian chicks, and Mexican mamacitas.

Make: Zhiguli Model: Devyatka
*This is our Euro-tour Shwarma Shuttle. Made to look like a sporty Hyundai. So sported-up and decked-out with fins, hubcaps and tiger striping, no one would know you are driving a Lada even if you took an a roadtrip.

This was a close one that required three rounds of voting, but in the end, the Rice Rocket's Kung Fu fin and tacky chrome rims beat out the Lada's understated flash.

Make: Acura Model: Prelude
*This Rice Rocket owner has clearly been working double-overtime managing his dad's AM/PM. Modified carbon-fiber hood and Lambo door kit don't even begin to tell this fully-souped up Rocket's story.

Make: Zhiguli Model: Shestyorka
*The owner of this Shwarma Shuttle didn't just go to a store and buy a Lambo door kit. He made it himself, just as he stole the wheels from a BMW. Topped out with fog lights for cross-steppe road tours. The ultimate Shwarma machine.

No contest at all. There is more honor in one of this Shuttle's mudflaps than in all of California's collective Rice Rockets. We have seen the future.

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Yasha Levine is an editor at The eXile. You can contact him at
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