The ’96 Lowrider Magazine Super Show, held at the Los Angeles Coliseum, was a well-choreographed dance of lowridings past, present and future. Beautiful cars on the cutting edge, celebrating classic lowrider styling were everywhere in evidence. Of the 800 vehicles packing the grounds, Henry Castro’s New Age Cadillac, “Wife’s Enemy,” was Sweepstakes material, although the two finest ’64 Chevy Impalas on the scene, “Loco ’64” and Chito Sanchez’ beauty battled it out for top honors. It will always be hard to beat the best lowriding body style ever built.
“The guys in Detroit had no idea what they were building,” sighs Michael “Box” Patterson, whose very nickname reflects the popularity of the ’64’s boxy body style. “They took all of the original molds and cut them up. They no longer exist.”
“The hot rodders are willing to settle for fiberglass cars, their ’32, ’34 and ’36 Fords,” continues electric wizard Terry Anderson. “But lowriders are into nostalgia. We’ll never settle for fiberglass.” Maybe not, but only time will tell.
The future of lowriding certainly seems to be borrowing more and more from the hot rod set, what was once a sport of just cosmetic customization offering points for souped-up engines; even the ’96 Bomb of the Year, Thomas “Whitey” Neilly’s flawless “My ’38” featured plenty of high-performance extras for the judges to inspect. They were, of course, gold and chrome plated in true lowriding style , as was the NASCAR style, bored over and blueprinted mill of Jorge Castano’s Lowrider Truck of the Year, aptly named “Wild Thing 2000.”
Why this new commitment to high-performance parts in a sport dedicated to cruising low and slow? “Because the car can place anywhere,” explained T.J. Jhagroo, of her family’s newest creation, an ’89 Acura Legend dubbed “Done With Accuracy.” It can go to a lowrider show and have no problem. Then it can go to an ISCA show and still be number one.”
Of course, lowriders aren’t the first ones to borrow from the first wave of what we now call California Car Culture. Detroit now regularly employs many of the innovations pioneered at the salt flats. Today, with lowriding America’s new favorite autosport, neither Detroit nor Japan is shy about borrowing some of the features that define low and slow vehicles.
And, lowriding innovations keep coming. “They are going to start doing things with cars that we don’t even think are possible,” says Klique president Mando Estrada. “It’s like, in the old days, if someone told me that I was going to drive my car on three wheels, I would tell them that they’re crazy. Now there are plenty of cars on three wheels.
As lowriders and fans cruised through aisles of Super Show quality cars, rides like Robert “Pee Wee” Wu’s “China Spice” Euro, Charles Clayton’s ’61 Impala, “Eightball,” already destined for a new Japanese owner, and the first Bomb Truck of the Year, Richard Acosta’s ’51 Chevy, “Blue Angel,” they noticed a red carpet rolled out for the finest of rides.
Present and accounted for were some of lowriding’s legendary vehicles. Ishmael Robles wonderful “Tower of Power,” a bomb built to bridge the gap between kustom and lowrider, glowed with a 20-year-old paint job as impressive as when it first hit the scene. Said collector Bill Paine, who now owns the legendary low, in addition to plenty of classic, rods and customs, “This car gets more attention than any other I have. It’s like owning a Rembrandt.”
The Lowrider of the Year, “Brandy Maddness,” is the beauty built by Klique president Mando Estrada that kick started the Movement a decade before, was present and accounted for. Northern California was represented by one of its finest trophy haulers, Jose Gomez’ “The Tantalizer.” The Duke’s, one of LA’s first car clubs, cruised in with first president Julio Ruelas’ ’39 Chevy Deluxe, which had carried the Zoot Suit cast from notoriety to fame, in as much style as el Pachuco could muster.
Representing lowridings most famous rivalry were two of the most classic classics of all. Lifestyle president Joe Ray’s celebrated Riviera, “Dressed to Kill” looked as good as it did the day that it cruised out of the Gary Baca’s and “Big Ed” Madrigal’s shared paint booth, a collaboration of giants in the custom world. The most famous lowrider of all, former Imperials president Jesse Valadez’ sweet ’64 Impala, “Gypsy Rose,” cruised out of Chico and the Man syndication into the present on old school Cragars, looking pretty in pink.
As some of the most important personalities in the history of lowriding mixed and mingled there on History Lane, an astute observer might have noticed that what was once an impossibility taking place right there on the red carpet. Jesse and Joe, whose rivalry helped push the sport of lowriding into an era of uncompromising quality, shook hands, admitting once and for all that it was all in fun. They had helped build a sport that had become a subculture, a starting point for youth to explore their creativity, leadership skills, and mechanical prowess.
“I’m anxious to see if this lowriding phenomenon encourages young Chicanos to take on careers in mathematics, physics, engineering and design, rather than just cruise through our lives,” director Luis Valdez, of Zoot Suit, La Bamba and Teatro Campesino fame wonder out loud. “We need to go at all speeds. We also need to express ourselves and our own humanity in the deepest and most profound way. That’s Chicano. To be Chicano is to explore the depths of your potential, not to stay in the same place.”
Lowriding, by its very nature, has inspired many young people to become more than what the world expected, especially in the Chicano community. One young pachuco who dropped his ’40 Chevrolet way back when set the standard when he graduated onto bigger and better things, Cesar Chavez cruising into every tiny town in the San Joaquin Valley to organize the United Farm Workers.
“I’ve got police officers, I’ve got attorneys in my club, I’ve got people who are in all kinds of professions, from dentists to one of the producers at CBS, John Lara,” says former New Wave president Roberto “Beto” Hernandez. “We didn’t just fall apart. We’ve got electricians, mail carriers, people in the gas company. These people did something. I’m very proud of our members.”
Some lowriders, involved as the scene grew into a $16 billion a year business, became successful within lowriding. Entrepreneurs like Andy Douglas, Orlie Coca, Robert “Zeuss” Clausell and Box Patterson all started on the boulevard. Others who were interviewed for this book have made their names throughout the community. Ed Flores, founder of Groupe Car Club, now works at the UCLA Law School, helping Chicanos make the transition into the difficult program. He pointed out that his former vice president, Steve Mott, is now a pediatrician. “Rocket” Reyas Rio, still a member of Pharaohs Car Club, is a community activist who still enjoys the occasional cruise. Joe Montenegro, former president of Spirit C.C. of Phoenix, Arizona, began his movie career lifting an ice cream truck for Cheech and Chong; he was recently part of the Oscar winning team behind Forrest Gump’s pyrotechnics.
According to president Armando “Manod” Santillan of El Paso’s first lowrider club, The Undertakers, original members now include a detention officer, an attorney, and a deputy sheriff. “We wanted to stay in the lowrider scene, but we also wanted to do something for our community and ourselves.”
Earning and budgeting money for a lowrider requires a responsible attitude and mathematical skills that complement science, economic and math classes in high school and college. Organizing a car club, electing officers, then acquiring facilities and requesting city permits for toy drives and other events are no small feats; that civics class suddenly becomes much more interesting when you are dealing with real-life politics. It is no surprise that many young men and women rise from the lowriding world to become very successful adults. This level of community involvement means power, which can translate into more understanding and acceptance of a much maligned sport at every level.
“You have a lot of leadership in these lowrider organizations,” noted United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. “First, some of these lowriders are older, and can support what these lowrider organizations are doing. Because of the whole lowrider culture, these people have been able to earn a very strong position in the community. But, they’ve got to get involved politically. Lowriders should be able to have their space, their area where they can cruise.
“Look at the amount of money that your city spends on golf courses and other adult and youth recreation, then compare it to what is in the budget for lowriders. Then when you have a lowrider show, get everyone registered to vote. Let local politicians know what you’re doing. You can say, “Okay, Ms. So-and-so, Mr. So-and-so, we are willing to support you for city council. We’ll come out and help you get elected. But, if we do this for you, you’ve got to give us a safe place to cruise.” As the lowriding community grows, haven for lowriders and lowriding fans will continue to grow.
“Someday, I’d like to open up a restaurant like the Hard Rock Cafe, a theme restaurant with lowrider cars coming out of the walls, the whole history of the Movement,” muses Joe Ray. “It could have plaques on the walls from all of the old clubs, pictures of their picnics, everything that they’ve done. It would be like a Hall of Fame, momentos from the boulevard and music from Thee Midniters. I could just spend the rest of life in there, looking at the way that it was.”
Lowrider shows are in constant jeopardy, threatened by unfriendly city governments who believe lowriding the realm of gang-bangers and worse. This doesn’t just affect big promoters; small scale events like high school car shows, toy drives and charity show and shines are all fair game as these “civil servants” try to stop the Movement. Only by setting aside differences, be they club rivalries or racial tensions, can lowriders form coalitions strong enough to elect lowrider-friendly officials and pressure the city into allowing the show to go on.
There is a debate in lowriding, which continues today, between those who seek the sublime in car shows, and those who consider these immobile constructions “trailer queens” unworthy of the title lowrider. This debate has taken place among the hot rod set for decades; lowriding offers a new twist. Historically, lowriders ignored everything under the hood; performance was not an issue. As lowriders unable to operate like real cars continue to take the trophies away from “real” cars, the focus on cosmetic customization becomes increasingly competitive. Do all of those high performance extras, added on for points, really count if your engine can’t turn over?
Whereas representatives from other auto sports have found allies within the system. The NHRA, for example, received government funding and assess to the public schools throughout the ’50s when filming instructional videos to legitimize hot rodding as a safe, fun sport, rather than a destructive gang-related activity, lowriders have always had to stand alone. Because their cars were not respected at other shows, lowriders started throwing their own shows. They created their own magazines when others would not have them.
And, as lowriders face the future, it will be museums created by lowriders, for lowriders, that will dominate that aspect of the sports scene. It will be lowrider associations, local, statewide, perhaps someday even national, that will win these low slung customs the right to cruise and show at will. It will take every individual’s effort to do it.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, because the impact that you can make on the world may not be known to you for a long time, if ever,” says Ron Aguirre, who first installed hydraulics on a car all those years ago. “I’m pleasantly surprised and happy that what I created with my father and friends is more alive today than in the past. My dad would have gotten a big kick out of that.”