Lowriding was dealt two potentially deadly blows as the ’70s came to an end. The release of Boulevard Nights gave Los Angeles Sheriffs and police across Aztlan carte blanche to arrest and even harass lowriders, although only a tiny percentage of them were even affiliated with gangs. To many officers, driving a lowrider car, combined with wearing certain styles of clothes, marked a young Chicano as a potential criminal. The Constitution forgotten, the police may have thought that their barricades would stop the Lowrider Movement in its tracks. What they also forgot in all of the excitement, however, was the lowriders can hop.
“When the boulevard was shut down, it sent shock waves across the country,” explained Roberto Rodriguez. “The gathering of Raza everywhere practically became outlawed. Worse, it spread from city to city across California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas, even Nevada. It was the same everywhere, but East L.A. was unique because nobody did anything about it. In San Diego, the Low Rider Council and the Committee on Chicano Rights filed a lawsuit to prevent the closure of Highland in National City. In Phoenix, quick action by the lowriding community prevented the closure of Central Avenue. On Central in Albuquerque, the Raza took a different approach–they negotiated with the police department. In San Francisco, the Raza filed a lawsuit against the city to open the Boulevard.”
As Robert attests, Los Angeles lowriders couldn’t get it together in time to prevent the closure of Whittier Boulevard. One of the largest cities in the world, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of car clubs scattered throughout the city, without any central form of communication other than Low Rider Magazine, which was losing relevance to the community as the ’80s progressed. Moreover, Whittier was the first boulevard closed; cruisers didn’t have time to prepare or a precedent to follow. In later years, as word of successful fights in other cities filtered back to Whittier, East L.A. cruisers would give it a try. But, by 1982, the laws were accepted by all authorities. The Boulevard would remain closed.
But Los Angeles remained the center of lowriding, Whittier or not. Why? Because crafty cruisers couldn’t be kept in the garage for long. If the streets wouldn’t have them, decided Los Angeles lowriders, then they would simply take the cruise to a whole other level.
Two prominent lowriders, owners of the two most celebrated and award-winning lows in Los Angeles, agreed that blame for Whittier Boulevard’s violent closure fell squarely on the shoulders of their fellow cruisers. “Whittier was a good thing,” Imperials Car Club president Jesse Valadez told LRM in a 1980 interview. “But, it got out of hand. Too much violence–the Sheriffs didn’t close the Boulevard, the people did. It was our fault. The people have to pay for it now.”
“Gangs stopped the cruise,” agreed Lifestyle president Joe Ray. “If you wanted to get back at anybody for something, you would find them there on the Boulevard. Everybody would go down there. They’d bumperjack your car and not care if your kids or old lady were in it. Or they’d shoot at it.”
Jesse and Joe were elite lowriders, and their cars, “Gypsy Rose” and “Dressed to Kill,” respectively, had turned heads at every street light and by 1979 were the centerpieces of every show. Both had learned to avoid the Boulevard in their valuable lows–after Jesse’s experience with the first Gypsy Rose, the ’63 Impala destroyed by jealous rivals one night on Whittier, he was a little more careful on the Boulevard at night. As for Joe Ray and his club members, they had long since decided to build their cars mainly for the shows, almost ignoring the street scene.
But the Imperials, lowriding’s oldest and most respected club, had been built on their commitment to cruise. Many of their cars featured high-performance modifications and all of them were ready to caravan at a moments notice, for any wedding, quincianera or other fiesta that might enjoy their rides. Their supremacy was based on this rough and ready attitude, combined with high quality of their rides. But, as shows were becoming more popular, and cruising more dangerous and illegal, the times began to change. Their unwillingness to work with “trailer queens” threatened to cost them trophies. Show cars have the luxury of an almost decadent commitment to customization that daily drivers just don’t have. This, however, was a sacrifice that Jesse Valadez was willing to make.
More established automotive cliques, from hot rods to street customs, had already faced this debate. Is a car built to show, or to cruise? Jesse Valadez made it clear to his members that their rides would never be trailered into a show–besides, their cars still swept sweepstakes at every lowrider show, or at least in the lowrider class of every R.G. Canning and International Street Car Association (ISCA) show that they entered anyway.
“To me, a lowrider should be in the street. That’s a lowrider. The shows are different. There’s more money involved in show cars. Before, it was just paint and maybe interior. Then it was undercarriage, chrome and all that. I can see the reason why that hot rod owner is not driving that car. I wouldn’t either. Competition makes a car undriveable. You’re going to fix up your car for the garage and for the shows.”
But competition was the name of the game, whether on the Boulevard or at the Great Western. The Imperials knew it, but they knew that even in their street cars, they remained on top of the Lowrider Movement. They didn’t hesitate to tell the world.
“We used to meet behind Pep Boys,” remembers Joe Ray of the fledgling Lifestyle, “and we would cruise by the Imperials. They would clap their hands at us, and show us that they were number one. And we’d hide behind Pep Boys.” Joe Ray took this as a challenge.
Gypsy Rose and other Imperials show stoppers were the cars to beat, and these older veteranos of the cruise weren’t really taking the show scene too seriously. They were only having a little fun, trying to inspire younger lowriders to be their best, but they had pushed this young man over the edge, forging a lowrider of steel that would force lowriding to a new level of professionalism. Joe Ray began whipping his club into shape, demanding no less than excellence in paint, interior and hydraulics setups, explaining to his charges that this club came first, before work, friends and, if need be, family.
“If you lose and somebody else wins, you clap and you give them their time and their moment,” he explained. “But for me, if somebody is going to get that spotlight or win that trophy or take that torch, it had better be somebody from the club. I was made like that when I got into this. You remember all those things, the clapping, the trophies in your face, a lot of things that were said.”
Inspired by the Imperials’ challenge, Lifestyle began investing in all new cars, going full custom within months. Joe asked nothing of his club mates that he wouldn’t do himself. His celebrated ’73 Buick Riviera had already cruised across the silver screen in the 1978 sleeper Corvette Summer. To challenge himself further, he invested in a far larger canvass for his vision. “Purchased in late 1978,” wrote El Larry, “Joe drove the ’79 Lincoln Continental to his parents’ home, and much to their surprise, the next morning the Mark IV was dropped on its frame in their driveway, having been lifted overnight by club members ‘Spy’ and ‘Angel.’ Spy had a complete chrome front and back setup and turned Joe onto it, to guarantee that the ride would hit the streets juiced. A couple weeks later, a dark candy red finish was sprayed on, along with a matching Bob and Son’s interior.”
Other Lifestyle members soon followed suit, lifting, wiring down and candying their rides almost immediately after driving them off of the lot. Many more custom tricks were expected to follow, requiring a financial sacrifice that would eventually include the driveability of their investment. If the car couldn’t hack it on the streets, but still brought home trophies, that was fine. Competition, not cruising, was this club’s focus. In their effort to become number one, they would even try to monopolize the skills of master automotive craftspeople.
“Some clubs didn’t like other clubs,” remembers master painter Gary Baca of the era. “As soon as you’re a part of a club, like Lifestyle or Imperials, there was always friction. I had done one car for the Imperials and it became a big thing to Lifestyle that I was doing an Imperials car. I said, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter–he came to me, I painted his car.’ That’s that, you know? I didn’t sign a contract, put myself on retainer. I just didn’t want any part of that.”
1979 was a watershed year for lowriding. If the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department thought that the Lowrider Movement would falter with Whittier’s closure, they were proven wrong by the summer of ’79’s four-star show season.
Low Rider Magazine had already organized shows throughout Northern and Central California, and had pulled off a major coupe with their successful Phoenix, Arizona, show at Firebird Lake. In 1979, inspired by Spirit president Ruben “Bugs” Ochoa’s success throwing full-on lowrider shows and concerts at the Great Western Auditorium since ’77, Sonny Madrid decided that it was time to take on Southern California. The Super Show was extraordinarily successful, more than 20,000 people showing up to check out the rides, in particular their sweet ’65 Chevy Impala that Fresno’s John Veleri had tricked out into the “Lowrider Limo.”
Heavily advertised in Low Rider Magazine, some of the nicest show cars in Northern California chose between driving or trailering down their top entries. Larry Rivera, president of Midnight Sensations, didn’t like to miss a chance to show off his ’72 Impala painted at Sal’s Customs. Sal’s also took care of New Classics president Tom Zabala’s ’77 Olds Cutlass Supreme, “Too Mean Tangerine.”
Salinas was also in the house. Ruben Arzua’s ’69 Impala, “Hot Stuff,” was showing off that Jimmy Olivas paint job to perfection. The New Style crew, every one of them lifted at Andy’s, was on the road, including new president Manuel Garcia’s ’76 Chevy Caprice, “Technikolor.” With paint by Bugs and an interior stitched in at Rogelio Cevalos’ House of Lowriders, this was a NorCal ride to beat. More than 20,000 fans, friends and cruisers made it to the event, which was covered by no less than five networks and media from around the world.
These shows were becoming incredibly popular, providing a safe, legal alternative to a cruise under siege. “Car shows ended up really helping the Movement,” explained former Groupe president Eddie Flores. “You’d set up fancy lights, see interiors and see what other people were doing in a safe haven. It created competition, which is always good.” Competition without bumperjacking, club rivalry without anything more than mad dogging–like hot rodding before it, lowriding was on its way to becoming a gentleman’s sport.
The tradition of the hop was by now an institution at events from LRM’s to R.G. Canning’s, and by 1979, thousands of dollars were at stake. Superstars like Mark Spancel, “Rag Top Ralph” Carrillo, “Old Man” Frank Cordova, “Pump Eddie” from Norwalk, Gary May, Jesse Munoz, San Fernando Valley’s “Traveling Man” and Ernest “Ford Dog” House emerged from the crowd, winning trophies and admirers throughout the lowriding circuit. They were all charging their batteries, strengthening their A-arms and gearing up for a decade at the hop.
Whittier wasn’t the only Boulevard under siege. From Story and King in San Jose to Central in Albuquerque, New Mexico, traditional cruises were being attack by police forces from above and sabotaged by gangbangers from below. Lowrider happenings would only grow in importance as we ushered in the ’80s. Although it seemed that something had been lost, the spirit of the free, rolling car show with roots in ancient Aztec/Mexican traditions like the paseo, there were definitely advantages to this important change in lowriding’s direction.