This feature will definitely bring back some good old memories for all the OG lowriders when we begin to mention the old car club names and car show events that were well known in the distant past. For those not from the Southern California area, or for those who are of the younger generation, this will be more of an interesting look into the history of lowriding, coming directly from one of the founding fathers of the lowriding movement, Steve Gonzales. This story also comes from the era of the infamous cruise nights on Whittier Boulevard and of the movie “Boulevard Nights”.
For the Gonzales Family, the custom car legacy started in 1934 with the birth of Blas Gonzales in La Puente, California. The automobile culture in the family began when Blas’ father owned a gas station and auto shop. Years later, Blas met his wife-to-be, Beatrice, in high school and they would eventually wed and have three boys and a girl together. Blas worked hard at a local auto body shop to make sure his kids had clothes, food, and a good education. Blas would even take his work home where his youngest son, Steve, watched his father work in the garage. When possible, Steve would also get hands-on with the cars, and that is what sparked his love for cars as a child. Even at 5 years old, Steve was sanding cars with his father!
Steve’s first rides came in the form of two pedal cars. Only a child but already infatuated with the lowered custom cars that would cruise around in his neighborhood, Steve took it upon himself to lower his pedal cars, his Hot Wheels cars, his model cars, and his 1972 Schwinn Stingray 5-speed apple crate. Steve would take the spring out of the fork to give his bike that lowered stance. Seeing Anthony Gonzales of Sons of Soul Car Club driving around in his hydraulically lowered ’64 Impala and scraping on the ground, Steve would try to scrape his bike too! He took an extra baby bar and put it on his front tire and he would push down on it at fast speeds so that sparks would ignite. When his father caught him doing this, Steve thought he was going to be in trouble, but instead, his father welded on a plate with two spikes on the sides for Steve’s feet, making it easier to scrape and spark. Soon all the neighborhood kids were asking if he and his father could do something custom for their bicycles!
At the early age of 12, Steve began asking his father about picking up an old Mercury they could work on, because he had seen pictures of his father’s old ’51 Merc and loved it. Steve’s older siblings had already left the nest by this time, so this allowed Blas to have a little extra time and money for his son, Steve. Blas agreed and they spent the next two years looking for the right car. Eventually they found a ’50 Merc for $900. It was missing a lot of parts, but that was okay since this was a project and they were going to customize it anyways. Blas did not stand in his son’s way when it came to ideas for customizing the Merc. One of the main things Steve wanted to do to this ride was chop the top down four inches in the front and seven in the rear. This father and son duo created one of the baddest rides on the boulevard, rebuilding and customizing every aspect of it: rewiring, upholstery, bodywork, transmission, engine, and (with the help of Raul’s Hydraulics) a height altering custom suspension. Steve says that it took them about two and a half years, but it was that time that proved to be “one of the most treasured, sharing, talking, laughing, teaching, and learning moments” of his life. He will always cherish that time with his father. Blas Gonzales went home to the Lord about three years ago and left behind his custom ’23 Ford Roadster for Steve.
At age 16, Steve was driving back and forth in his custom Merc, from school (Cantwell High) and to work everyday. On weekend nights, you’d find Steve hanging out on Atlantic Boulevard in East L.A. where Groupe Car Club gathered on one corner, Imperials Car Club gathered at the Safeway Market across the street, Lifestyle Car Club at the Mobile gas station and Spirit Car Club at the 76 station. Other car clubs would cruise Whittier and Atlantic and Steve is quick to name almost all of them off the top of his head because they also had a lot of influence on him: “Sons of Soul, Bachelors, Orpheus, New Life, The Bold Ones, Brown Breed, Latin Lords, Royal Image, Midnight Classics, Klique, Majestics, Professionals, Suave Bugs, Lady Bugs, Abraxas, Artistics, Thee Illusions, and The Classics from Santa Ana.” Just about every car club had approached Steve and asked him to be a part of their club, but Steve had a personal connection with the Dukes Car Club since he knew OG president, Julio Ruelas. Steve had known Julio since 1973 when he lived down the street from Steve’s grandmother. Steve would ride his bike over to Julio’s house just to talk to him and see his car. Although the Dukes’ longstanding rule that members had to be at least 21 years old was a hurdle, Julio made a special exception for Steve and his ’50 Merc. Steve became quite close to fellow member Chayo Olguin, who was then known as the “Traveling Duke,” because he always drove his car to the custom car events, both near and far.
Steve wasn’t afraid to drive his Merc anywhere and he actually felt that driving your lowrider is what it was all about, especially in the pioneering days. This ideology soon became advantageous to Steve and the lowriding movement. Steve caught the attention of LRM writer and photographer, Robert Rodriguez, who had seen the Merc cruising by on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. Robert approached Steve and asked him if they could feature his ride in the magazine. Around this same time, Joe “Yoya” Ruiz, a main liaison between car clubs and LRM, also connected Steve to the magazine’s staff. With these two sets of helping hands Steve ultimately met the two founders of Lowrider, Sonny Madrid and Larry Gonzales, in mid 1979. The guys seemed to really take a liking to Steve and he offered to help them in their magazine distributions throughout southern California, especially since he knew the area and many people in the custom car scene. Sonny and Larry had the magazine based in Northern California (San Jose) and, therefore, this offer was very attractive to them as they were trying to expand the magazine more into Southern California.
Steve soon found his name on the payroll with LRM’s parent company, ATM Communication, Inc. (also owned by Sonny). Not only would Steve help distribute the magazine in his Merc to local stores throughout Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties, but he also started to go farther out to Northern California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and even as far as Texas! Steve became more than just the Distribution Circulation Manager; he was also a car show promoter, photographer, writer and car show main judge.
Through LRM, Steve was able to travel to places he may have never seen. It was also through his travel and his eye-catching custom Merc that Steve was able to help the lowrider movement grow at an exponential rate. Steve would promote LRM, lowriding car shows and events, and even helped expand the Dukes Car Club on a national level by referring prospective members to Julio Ruelas. Steve basically spread the seeds of lowriding and helped it grow to where it’s at today. “Those times were so much fun,” Steve recalls. “When LRM came to town, it was like the circus was in town! We’d sometimes get there two weeks before the event just to promote the magazine and the upcoming LRM show. We’d give out shirts, magazines, tickets, and party all the time.” When the car show finally happened, Steve would wear his zoot suit while judging the cars. It was around this time that his close fellow member of Dukes, “Chayo” passed on the title of the “Traveling Duke” to Steve… Steve greatly earned it, and deserved it, but yet reluctantly took the title from Chayo.
Many OG lowriders may remember Steve’s Merc through his travels and the countless number of magazine ads, car and event features it appeared in – most famously, his car on the cover of the August 1977 issue of Street Rodder Magazine and his appearances on nationally-syndicated TV series Eye on L.A.
When LRM moved their office from San Jose to East L.A., Steve began working out of that office. It was located right on Whittier Boulevard (across the street from the famous Zorba’s Hamburger stand) on the second floor of a small business complex. Steve loved it because it was close to his home and he had a bird’s eye view of the cruising strip on weekend nights. He got along great with the staff there, including Johnny Lozoya and Steve Casillas, whom he calls “really great people”.
Steve stayed with LRM until it discontinued print for a couple years starting in 1985. During that downtime, Steve landed a great job with the US Postal Service and started a family. He continued to be a part of the custom car and lowriding circuits and even helped keep a particular set of state prison car show events going that Larry Gonzales had started. Steve says that these events were a great way for the inmates to release some tension by being able to talk with the car club members. Guest bands would play and the inmates would feed the car club members food and present hand made awards. Car clubs like Dukes, Groupe, Imperials, Lifestyle, Together and Project Heavy would often attend. These positive, successful events went on for five years.
Today, Steve is 48 years old and has a wife (Kate) and five children and lives in Monterey Park, California. He works for CAST, a security company for on-site movie sets throughout Southern California. Steve still has tons of old LRM paraphernalia, from Lowrider beer mugs to old Lowrider T-shirts. He even kept all his old car show flyers and tickets from LRM and from the big RG Canning, Great Western, and ISCA car shows in the late 70s and early 80s. Steve is also going on his ninth year of having a car show event of his own. The Chariot Ministry car show is a toy fund-raiser held at the First Fundamental Bible Church in Whittier, California, which helps 600 children annually.
Yes, Steve still has his 1950 “Bronze Merc” and says that since some of his kids have recently grown up and moved out, he can spend more time and attention on his low-ride once again. He plans to resurrect it very soon and with the particular plans he speaks of, there is no doubt it will be featured once again on the pages of LRM.