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Joanne might be the only local who loves to maneuver through traffic. "It's just me and the road, me, the road, music, driving," she muses. "I love being in the car."
At first she wasn't interested in buying the Scion because it looks like a shoebox on wheels (xB owners affectionately refer to their vehicles as The Box). But the shape began to grow on her, and she realized she could do anything she wanted with it. "It's a canvas," she says, "an artist's canvas."
Her mother, Pam Braga, a Miami Police officer, says, "I was definitely kind of shocked that she wanted to get into the cars. But she's always been doing things that guys do."
Being a graphic designer, Joanne decided to transform the car into the vehicle version of Sesshomaru, a Japanese anime demon-creature, when she purchased it in 2005. She's crazy about anything Japanese; she even designed the intricate tattoo of a blue koi fish that graces her left forearm.
Like most male tuners, Joanne didn't have the tools or space to do the physical work herself, so she penned some sketches, took the car to an auto body shop in Miami, and explained her idea. Sure, they said, we can do that. But after six months and several thousand dollars, the shop had done nothing but gut the interior. Angry, Joanne took her car back and found another mechanic.
Eventually a guy named Jaime Hernandez of Tuner Solutions in Fort Lauderdale morphed the car into her dream. Joanne wanted the car's suspension lowered — or, in car lingo, "dropped" — two inches. She also wanted the body widened. She installed $1,000 headlights from Japan, a 1,200-watt sound system, six-by-nine-inch speakers, custom-embroidered seats, DVD screens in the visors, and 18-inch rims.
Initially the xB was a grayish silver, but she had it painted a silvery gray-lilac hue (Joanne, who is slightly color blind, says the official name of the color is "maple") that shimmers and changes in the sunlight.
The best part, in her opinion, is in the front: a custom fiberglass fitting that makes the car look like it has three bumpers. Head-on, the Scion appears to have a large, toothy grin. The car's entire front end — bumper, headlights, grill — was made in Japan and took six months to be shipped to the United States. It is modeled after the front of a Nineties-era Nissan Skyline R34 (which was sold only in Japan). "No one has ever done this before," she says proudly. The vehicle's rear is also custom-built to "look aggressive and angry," Joanne says. She dubbed it the "Nisscion," a hybrid of a Nissan and a Scion.
The interior is spotless. That's because Joanne cleans it once a week when it's in storage. On weekends of a car show, she spends nearly six hours buffing, dusting, polishing, and spiffing up every possible inch of the vehicle. "I use a toothbrush on some areas," she says, "and a business card to get wax out of the cracks."
There's no eating or drinking in the Scion, ever. "That's taboo," Joanne says, narrowing her eyes. Like other women who have chopped, cut, and rebuilt the bodies but not the engines, she doesn't drive the car over 65 mph. Uneven asphalt, stray rocks, or bad drivers could damage it. "I drive the xB like an old lady," she admits.
She doesn't sound like an old-school gearhead when she coos upon seeing a black Plymouth Prowler on the street. "Oh, look, how cute!" she gushes. "I can be kind of girly about cars."
To get from her apartment in downtown Miami to her job as a graphic designer at Tiger Direct, a computer superstore, Joanne drives a Honda 2000, a red convertible with a black stripe down the middle — which gives some motorists the subtle signal she's open to street racing. On a recent day, while she's cruising the Palmetto Expressway with a reporter, a silver Volvo pulls up. The driver, a Latin guy in his twenties, nods at Joanne. "He wants to race us," she says, adding she won't with a passenger in the car. "If I'm alone, fine," she says. "I once went 142 on I-95."
In many ways, Joanne is like other 25-year-old women: She works, has a husband, and hopes to have kids someday. But the car obsession has taken over her life. She keeps the Scion in a storage unit in West Miami-Dade, more than a dozen miles from her home. She drives it only when she's going to shows. "I haven't bought new clothes in two years," she confesses. "I don't believe in $500 shoes or a $500 purse. I do believe in $1,000 Skyline headlights. They are the Prada of the car world."
Joanne is unsure how much longer she can sustain her love of cars, what with the monthly car payments and insurance. She wonders whether she should give up the Scion, as her parents suggest, and save for something more practical, like a house.
Still, she longs for national recognition and seems to be on the verge of getting it: Scion asked her to participate in a commercial — but it was filmed in Nevada, and she didn't have the money to haul the xB there. "She's put all of her heart, energy, and money into this," says Pam. "I tried to raise her to know that she doesn't need a guy to do anything — that she can do anything she puts her mind to."