Some six or seven hours east of Whittier Boulevard, not too much further than San Jose from the birthplace of lowriding, lies Phoenix, Arizona. South Phoenix is historically the home of Arizona’s largest barrio, a traditional crossroads where styles and ideas from Texas, New Mexico and California mix. Lowrider style rides have cruised Central Avenue for more than 30 years, drawing on a tradition of pachuchismo that has existed even longer among the severe and beautiful desert scenery that the state is famous for.
“Back in the ’60s, we didn’t have the fancy cars,” remembers Max Arboleda, who grew up in South Phoenix. “We didn’t have the thousands of dollars that we put into the vehicle. Lowriding at that time was maybe heating the coils of your ’56 Chevy, then slouching down really low in your seat so only the top of your head showed. That’s what we called lowriding. Then we started seeing the really nice cars.” Like the pachuco style, which first made its way westward from El Paso in the late 1930s, the idea for organizing barrio-style cruisers into clubs came from that same West Texas bordertown.
Although lowriders, and possibly lowrider clubs, had existed on the Boulevard for years, the first Phoenix car club for which records were available was Destini Car Club. Joe (his full name has been lost in the mists of time) first moved to Phoenix in the early ’70s from El Paso, bringing word of lowrider style clubs like the Undertakers and others who were cruising strong.
Phoenix lowriders had access to the Southern California styles sweeping the nation–it was only a half day’s drive to watch rods race in the salt flats, or customs cruise into the Long Beach Coliseum. These were mostly the realm of White Arizonans, however, and while the barrio certainly had its own low and slow rides, they hadn’t really thought about lowriding as a style all its own, a source of pride for the community.
Destini Car Club helped change all that. Chicano community consciousness in the traditionally conservative state–Arizona refused to respect the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., until the NFL threatened to move the multi-million dollar Superbowl elsewhere–was not as developed as in other areas of Aztlan, but cruisers quickly recognized that clubs were good for the barrio as well as the cars themselves.
When money was tight, club members would devote their time, energy and hard-earned cash into one ride that the entire club could be proud of, specializing their skills. One member might be good with a spraygun, while another was learning upholstery work with a local tapicero. Some would even make their way to Whittier, where East Los Angeles lowriding was getting back up on its rims.
In 1976, lowriding entrepreneur Hugh Stillman decided that Arizona was ready to make the hop to hydraulics. The city, then some 700,000 people, was about 20-percent Chicano and supported a large cruising population. After casing Central Avenue to see how much lowriding had come up in Phoenix–even independents were benefitting from the clubs’ growing expertise–he found a location for a new shop. Ted Wells was soon on his way to Phoenix to open the first out-of-state branch of Otto’s Hydraulics.
Although the market seemed promising, plenty of cruisers coming in to check out the goods, local talent couldn’t install Stillman’s patented pumps, dumps and cylinders as well as barrio-trained California cruisers could. There were soon problems with inventory, and two poorly planned, advertised and attended lowrider happenings proved more expensive than Stillman expected. Already spread too thin, Stillman decided to cut his losses and close up shop.
Central’s cruisers, however, had had their first taste of hydraulics and weren’t ready to abandon their toys. The few rides that had been lifted at Otto’s flaunted their equipment on the boulevard, and hopping a few inches above a tall boy caused quite a spectacle in the earthbound town. Soon, dedicated cruisers made the long haul across the desert into Califas, making their way to Otto’s L.A. for the work that they were craving.
Another option presented itself when an underground Chicano magazine from San Jose found its way into the hands of a few dedicated cruisers. Low Rider Magazine featured, among the California-style paint jobs, interiors and other custom tricks, advertisements for mail order hydraulic kits. Places like Otto’s, Low Rider Hydraulics and Andy’s began noticing more and more Arizona addresses on expensive outgoing mail. New Style-San Jose president and Andy’s Hydraulics owner Andy Douglas decided that Phoenix was worth another look.
A trip down to Central in ’78 convinced him. Destini Car Club, which had gone down in 1977, along with Otto’s and several other newly formed lowrider clubs, was back flying their plaque under new leadership. Former member Manuel Mendoza had decided that it was time to get back on the Boulevard, and his fellow members named him president. The revitalized Destini Car Club was ready to take it to another level, as were so many other fledgling and OG clubs. Andy noticed the plaque, talked to the guys and decided that he would be right there to help.
Later that year, Andy’s Hydraulics opened a new store, right off the Central cruise. Joe Montenegro, a former manager of Andy’s in Los Angeles, was in charge. “Cruising was different,” Joe noticed of his new home. “The quality of cars was not as good. But, people were able to hang out on the street. It seemed to me to be 10 or 15 years behind Los Angeles in terms of the attitude of the police, people in general as far as cruising. There were not a lot of problems. People were content.”
Like the golden age of cruising in East Los Angeles, the car clubs got along with one another, the independents rolled peacefully, and the officers didn’t yet relate these young car customizers with the troublemakers who occasionally made their presence known. Arizona wasn’t as wealthy as its western neighbor, but business began picking up none the less, top of the line cruisers learning that only lifts would put them over the top. There was only one catch–Andy Douglas stood firmly against installation, offering only retail equipment and a few helpful hints to the faithful.
After fulfilling his six-month contract with Andy, Joe decided to open House of Hydraulics, a full service shop featuring installation, maintenance and other hydraulic necessities. Joe remembered that back in San Jose, Andy had started off by lifting fellow New Style members at cost, creating sort of a rolling, hopping advertisement for the shop. Joe, a member of Spirit Car Club-East Los Angeles, gave president Ruben “Buggs” Ochoa a call. With his blessing, Joe got started building a Phoenix chapter that would do Whittier proud.
Spirit Car Club, destined to become one of the area’s top clubs, started off with the same commitment to quality and community as the mother chapter. “We discuss potential members’ past history, we try to stay away from bad personalities and the person must have a clean car with Tru-Spokes, Tru-Classics or Zenith wire rims to even be considered. The vehicle and the personality play an equal role. They are then evaluated and voted either in or out.”
Until lowriding publications like Q-Vo, Firme and Low Rider Magazine got their starts in the late ’70s and early ’80s, very few lowriders made it into mainstream publications, especially outside of Southern California. As you flip through your library’s stash of lowriding documents, therefore, it seems as though Central Avenue in Phoenix was suddenly, inexplicably, packed with show-quality rides. This is a trick of history; many of the cars mentioned here had their beginnings in the rich lowriding history of the ’60s and ’70s, as did so many Arizona clubs and cruisers.
Since no documentation of these cars, clubs and cruisers was readily available, at least until the creation of magazines by and for lowriders, it is easiest to begin when LRM’s cameras finally cruised into Phoenix, recording the cars and clubs for future posterity. It’s actually a 10-mile caravan south to the scene, the shores of Firebird Lake on the Gila River Indian Reservation.
In late 1978 or early 1979, hopper Jimmy Borunda hopped aboard a puddle jumper headed to San Jose, hoping to meet with the owners of Low Rider Magazine. Over a meal at Antuna’s with publisher Sonny Madrid, Jimmy made his proposal. If LRM would head out to Phoenix for a California-style Super Show, he’d help them in any way he could. A few months later, after thinking long and hard about it (and asking Andy Douglas how the new shop was doing), Sonny was ready to tango with the firebird.
Sonny sent in his crack team, new accounts manager Alberto Lopez and a man who would have a profound effect on Arizona’s lowriding scene, Johnny Lozoya. The going was rough–although most accounts stress that lowriders had a relatively good relationship with Arizona police, no public facilities were willing to let LRM use their grounds. The Civic Coliseum refused to host what they called a “gang culture” event. “Not one park, auditorium or any type of convention center would allow a lowrider show,” remembers Johnny Lozoya.
Jimmy Borunda was stumped–after promising his services, the Phoenix area had proven completely uncooperative. Finally, he and his brothers hooked up with the Gila River Valley Indian Reservation, who were more than willing to host the show. Some 10 miles south of Phoeniqueria, the reservation was part of the system of Native American tribal nations that cover a third of Arizona’s territory. Recognized as independent from the United States government by the United Nations and more than 100 countries, these nations are sovereign; that is, they don’t have to answer to anyone but their own elected officials. They were down for a lowrider style fiesta.
Reservation officials agreed to build a special “hop platform” for the requisite battle of the hydraulics, also providing areas for parking customs and cruisers, as well as for the many bands and other acts who wanted to perform. Phoenix media announced that a convention of California gangs was going to be hosted at the reservation, quoting area police predicting that a riot would begin on Central Avenue the Friday before the show.
These dire warnings proved to be just police paranoia, peaceful lowriders from Mesa, Tucson and other Arizona lowriding towns pulling up next to El Paso’s and East L.A.’s finest. “Firebird Lake lives on in the minds of all who attended Low Rider Magazine’s First Annual Arizona Lowrider Happening on April 4, 1979,” wrote promoter Johnny Lozoya just after the event.
“The lake, South of Phoenix, came alive with thousands of Chicanos who had gathered from throughout Arizona, Tejas and Califas. Everyone handled themselves very well during the event. Car clubs representing had the opportunity to make some of their first major contacts with the lowrider movement in Aztlan.”
Danny Aguilar of Society C.C.-Mesa built his ’63 Chevy Impala, “Tangerine Extacy,” for the shows, but felt comfortable showing off the artwork by Efrain “Bugs” Gonzalez of Color Creations on the streets. Spirit member George Martinez can cruise his ’72 Chevy Monte Carlo, “Sweet as Candy,” right alongside. The police monitor the Avenue regularly, occasionally shutting it down, but seem to enjoy Randy Lopez’ ’85 Chevy Camaro Z28, “Lady Pleazer,” Danny Ochoa’s “Super ’64” Impala or David Zueta’s “SS Six-Tray” Impala as much as anyone else.
What it really comes down to is a tight-knit lowriding community willing to work together to promote a positive image, cruising the extra mile to earn the respect of the community. Because of this commitment, along with high-quality custom rides and local craftspeople that rank with the best lowrider artisans in history, lowriding in Arizona has a staying power independent of any publication or promotion. If ever Califas lowriding should collapse again, or simply if a lifted cruiser is seeking refuge from overzealous police trying to spoil their fun, there will always be Arizona, a place to show and shine and cruise.