Public Perception, Persona, Profile, Reputation, StatureAs a young man growing up in the city of El Monte, California, Carlos Carbajal was exposed to things like the music of the ’60s, the Chicano movement, the man out to get the minority, and just living the life of a young Chicano. During the late ’60s, when lowriding was gaining momentum, Carlos met with a few young vatos who would play a pivotal role in him becoming a lowrider. One of those people was Ruben “Buggs” Ochoa, who was inducted in last year’s Lowrider Hall of Fame as a Craftsman Honoree.
During a lowrider happening in downtown L.A., Carlos met up with some classmates from Cathedral High School, his alma mater. “In my junior year of high school there were some classmates who had cars with plaques, although I wasn’t really into them at the time,” Carlos says. “I kept in touch with my friends, eventually got interested, and bought a car. I was really into the paintjobs, the alpha jewels, and the flake tops. I ran into a buddy of mine named Sammy Alvidres from the Groupe Car Club who said to go check them [his car club] out and go to a meeting or one of their car shows. So I went out there and that was the first time I met Ruben Ochoa. He was there coordinating all the cars. There were a lot of guys from my high school getting their cars ready on turntables for shows and so on. Buggs began telling me about his painting style and we became friends that very day,” he says. Later on Carlos picked up a ’69 Chevy Camaro and approached Buggs about painting it, to which Buggs said, “Yeah, you just gotta wait in line.”
Even though a ’69 Camaro was more of a muscle car, Carlos had a certain vision for it. It took many nights for the car to be painted, which involved several months of picking up Buggs to go out to the shop and have him lay out the tape for the patterns and other graphics. Carlos also needed connections with the upholstery and began scheduling other car stuff, all of which made it easier for the project to move along. “I did the custom lights on the rear with Frank Cordova’s help. He used to be really good friends with the car clubs whose members were into lowering their cars. He did my frontend work. At the time Camaros had round lights, but he put in square lights for me. I won a lot of paint awards being in a semi-custom category, plus it helped having a Buggs’ paintjob. It was one of the best, and even the Imperials [Car Club] who had quite a few customs of their own were in awe of it because it was a unique type of car,” Carlos says.
Within a six-month period of his getting into the lowrider scene, Carlos was initiated into the Groupe Car Club. That was in 1974. “After I was in, I was voted head of the car committee, having to coordinate 150 members into car caravans, checking on dirty tires and plaques. If there was something wrong with their cars, I was in charge of that, which wasn’t an easy job,” Carlos says.
Carlos has not only dealt with a lot of cars, but a lot of sometimes-tough personalities and egos, but just like Buggs, Carlos is a peacekeeper. “I wasn’t into the [car club] wars. I liked to keep it cool, but sometimes we had to do what we had to do to back up our car club, and we did it,” he says. Carlos prefers that everyone work out their differences with other clubs at the car shows in a peaceful manor. He feels that the cars will “speak” for themselves as to who is the baddest that day. “Back then there was only R.G. Canning and the ISCA [International Show Car Association], which were Anglo car show circuits that I later judged for,” he says. “Then later on I became a judge for R.G. Canning.” During one of the Canning events, Carlos was showing his Camaro and was approached by the judging staff and their Chief Judge Mr. Straussberg who asked him to help them judge lowriders.
Lowriders were being acknowledged at these mainstream events and people were noticing that this slice of the custom car world would be more valid as time passed. The ones who really had the vision were Carlos and his buddy Buggs. “We felt it was injustice to the lowriders at these ‘white boy’ shows in general. This was before Lowrider magazine and Q-Vo magazine,” Carlos says. “Buggs did the first show with the Imperials Car Club at the Great Western Exhibit. Later on Buggs approached me, and with the financial backing of my late father we did the Great Western Show [ourselves] the following year. By then we had formed Show and Custom.” In order to have the possibility of having a car show at any facility the guys had to have a formal judging body to conduct any kind of sanctioned event. “We initially formed 21 categories, which R.G. Canning didn’t have. They were very minimal as late as 1980.”
Creating classes like Best of Paint and having a hop at the shows were natural. The Show and Custom crew were the first to host an indoor hydraulic hopping contest with the biggest award at that time being the Club of the Year award, which wasn’t based on most members but on most points on the cars. The prize was sometimes $1,000 for First Place, $500 for Second Place, and $200 for Third Place, and then Best in Show would get $200. The points system was policed during the season and the show circuit was filtered down to the best clubs, similar to the format of the Playoffs or the World Series. At the end the finals were held, which would later be adapted by Lowrider magazine shows.
As for learning the craft of judging a car show, Carlos gives full credit for his education again to Buggs. “I learned a lot and give credit to Buggs for the way I learned how to judge cars. He got me involved in the judging aspect, and judging for R.G. Canning enabled me to see work like the Bob and Sons interiors and the Crazy Art paintjobs. The best of the best were out there at that time and were winning. Like anything else I got better as I got more experience. Years after I got out of Groupe Car Club we [Buggs and Roland Rios] had our own crew and were judging up and down the States.”
Back then there was some racism in the judging circuits. Lowriders were becoming more powerful on the circuit, just like raza was making waves in mainstream America. “The white boys beat the Chicanos when they shouldn’t have, as far as in the paint or undercarriage categories. I would speak up but I was always out-voted,” Carlos remembers. “So that’s why Buggs and I got together to do something about it. I have to believe we were the beginning of the end in the R.G. Canning car show during the lowrider circuit around 1978 or 1979. Then we started getting strong with shows in Bakersfield, California, and the first actual lowrider-themed show at the Great Western Exhibit in Los Angeles back in 1978. That was a big show. Every club was there, even R.G. Canning had a booth to oversee what was happening at our show.”
After that, the Canning machine threw a few car shows but that time period was the demise of their shows. By the mid-’80s there were a handful of events but none as notable as the growing Lowrider shows. “Unfortunately we didn’t have the capital or experience in doing more major and costlier events, and that’s where Go-Lo and Lowrider magazine were able to take over. Up until then the Show and Custom crew had been throwing events from San Diego to Central California and were the strongest in the SoCal region. They were met with no resistance, so when the events went to the various cities and venues they were treated with respect and admiration. “They treated us like gods. Many were so far behind the times with their styles in cars. For example, if we took a car from today it would be from another planet. That’s how receptive they were when we came to town. With the car we had back then, we would even be winning today,” he says.
With some of the innovative treatments done on cars back then, new classes and categories had to be made relevant to whatever you had, whether it was an OG bomb or a lowrider bike. “We added Full Custom-all the categories for bombs, trucks, 4x4s, subcompacts, for basically everybody.” As for his way of approaching and judging a vehicle he says there’s a lot to take in from a custom ride like a lowrider. “Basically the quality of the car and the uniqueness of the vehicle. Right away, as I would walk into a show I knew already who was going to win without even judging. It’s like a sixth sense, but I still have to see and judge the car on the finish, check the doorjambs, etc. There are a lot of similar paintjobs, so it has to be striking and unique for it to draw me in and see what it has going on.”
As for what can make or break a car, with the judging system Carlos implements on his sheet that it’s all about a points system. “Let me give you an example,” Carlos says. “At one of the shows I judged out in Bakersfield there was a member of a certain car club who gave me a bad time. His car was nice. It was a bomb that had the original upholstery but it had holes in it. There was another bomb there that day that wasn’t as clean and should’ve beaten the prior bomb mentioned, but since the second one was showing engine and had a display, he out-pointed this guy who then got all pissed off and started yelling at me and telling me how long it took to find this part and that part, but I explained to him that the other guy had more points than him, bottom line. That was Buggs and my philosophy: What’s fair is fair.”
Around 1980 the Show and Custom crew were moving along making waves. R.G. Canning tried to trip up their efforts by going to the various venues and spreading rumors on how these guys were bad business. “They actually went to the facilities and told them not to do business with us. This was around 1975 or 1976. In 1977 we finally got into some venues but it still wasn’t that easy. When we got there the county sheriff would block us out because we lacked the manpower to operate such an event. So the mayor would be involved and that’s when my father would get involved because politically he was connected,” Carlos says. His dad was president of the Mexican Chamber of Commerce for Los Angeles and had ties with the people who ran the Great Western Exhibit venue. “There were a lot of obstacles and we had threats. He backed us up, attended the events, and was there for us, and so was Buggs’ family … It was a family driven venture.”
After that Carlos hooked up with Lifestyle Car Club and Joe Ray who put together some shows at the L.A. Sports Arena. Ray and his club had their hands full dealing with promotions and sponsorships to help fund the large events. Places like the L.A. Sports Arena would want a guarantee of a certain amount in attendance but since they now had a track record it was “easier” to book a venue. “I’d have to bring in the paperwork of the various shows we had already done as proof, which was a big help, so we’d make sure we had a million-dollar insurance bond before we could sign the contracts,” Carlos says.
Back then there weren’t really any haters. People were happy to come to the events and they also appreciated the efforts of Carlos, Buggs, and their production company. But like anything else, all good things come to an end. “Other people started doing shows and there was more competition, but we were one of the first to have an actual judging system and judging crew. We had nothing to hide so we stuck around after the show so people could talk to us and we could answer complaints … We had people yelling at us, but we made time to listen to them. They were there all day, just as long as we were. When the sun came up till they rolled into place, we’d have to categorize them. It’s a tough job for a crew of 10 to judge sometimes as many as 500 entrees.”
It was a sacrifice for Carlos to enter the world of judging lowriders since he had to part ways with the Groupe Car Club. In order to avoid having conflict with members of other clubs, as well as his brothers in Groupe, he and Buggs decided it was best to be as neutral as possible. “I saw it all back in those times and I think I’m legitimate enough to say that I believe from 1973-1976 Groupe East L.A. Car Club was one of the best car clubs of all time. We had dances, cars, the biggest club, and at the time a lot of clubs were jealous of us, and like five clubs wanted to get at us. We had the best times. As a lowrider, before I die, I’d like to have another car and have Buggs paint it again and fly plaque one last time.”
As for leaving his mark in the history of the lowrider culture, we asked where he saw himself in the scheme of things. Carlos says, “We definitely had a place in time. I believe Ruben Ochoa is a pioneer and had the vision and I came afterwards. As a professional, whatever personal beef I had with a car club or individual I would put aside. I’m not judging them, I’m judging the car. If they deserve to win, so be it, which is what set me apart from other judges.”
These days Carlos is busy at work in the printing business, spending time with his children, and is a big football fan-especially of Cathedral High School and its football program. His friends, like Buggs and Roland Rios, continue to keep him in touch with his lowriding roots. “My passion is to build another car with Buggs, nothing too elaborate, just something nice and clean, possibly a ’69 Impala. I was thinking of going with an OG alpha jewel top and a candy body, a lot of flake with some patterns, something eye-catching. I do like the color green. Maybe I’ll put some Tru-Spokes on it and cruise out there again.” We look forward to that day, knowing that since he’s a judge he knows how to build a winner.