Born and raised in San Jose, John “John John” Ponce is a living, breathing testament to the dedication found in lowrider culture. Currently the president of Low Conspiracy Car Club, John John has seen many things during his time in lowriding, including the culture’s growth, and while that has certainly been a blessing, he’s also survived the culture’s tougher times as well.
“There was a time when people really thought lowriding was on the brink of death. Like, when the mini-trucks came; I knew they’d have their time, but I knew they weren’t gonna be here for as long as lowriding culture. I knew that for a fact,” he says. John John’s conviction stems from the fact that his roots are so deeply embedded within the culture; he simply knows no other way of life. “Before I ever got my plaque, I got my Low Conspiracy Car Club jacket. It was embroidered by hand by a woman named Mrs. Brown, and I still have that jacket today,” he says. “I’ll break it out every once in a while, but my kids are like, ‘Dad, the sleeves come up to your elbows!’ I don’t care. I’m still a big kid at heart!” His enthusiasm is genuine, and it probably stems from the fact that the jacket he’s referring to was given to him in 1982 — over three decades ago, yet this veteran remembers the proud moment like it was yesterday.
To know the history of Low Conspiracy Car Club is almost to know the history of LOWRIDER Magazine itself. During the magazine’s formative years, its ties to San Jose were strong, thanks to the efforts of El Larry and Sonny Madrid who began the publication within the same area, which would ultimately breed the club that would define Ponce’s lowrider experience. “Sometimes, I take my kids and drive by the old LOWRIDER office that was here during the days of El Larry and Sonny Madrid. In many ways, the culture is just all part of my DNA and what it was like growing up around here,” explains John John.
Industry staple Zenith Wire Wheels is also located in nearby Campbell, and Heller Park in San Jose is not only the site where Low Conspiracy holds its annual picnic, it’s also the site where the first ever issue of LOWRIDER Magazine was shot. Mutual history aside, the famed intersection of Story and King Boulevards also holds many a fond memory for this lifelong lowrider. “We’d cruise Story and King every weekend and face the San Jose PD like it was routine. I remember getting tickets every weekend,” jokes John John. “I can’t even tell you how many times I had to take the Zeniths and 5.20s off my car every week to get the fix-it ticket signed off, only to just put ’em right back on and hit the streets!”
Before he hit the streets as an official cruiser, John John Ponce was raised on a steady diet of lowrider culture. “Going to the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in ’78 and ’79 to attend the lowrider car shows was crazy,” he recalls. “I was in awe seeing all the lowriders that were built in San Jose. These were the early days, and I remember a green Rivi owned by Steve Miller that had a big following for his club called First Impressions. There was also a bomb-centric club called Chicanos Pride. This was maybe ’73 or ’74, and seeing all of this had me hooked.”
To further fan the flames of John John’s Lowrider passion, his soon-to-be uncle, Jose Paixao, took him to his first show in a lowrider. “It was around 1980, and we went to Union City Car show in his beautiful ’76 Cutlass with Premium Sportways and Zeniths. I knew from that moment on that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” John explains sincerely. “The switches, the culture; all the other cars clubs from the East Bay and San Jose. Zapco stereos with the 18-band keyboard EQ? I remember all of that!”
By 1982, John John had his license and he attended a Low Conspiracy meeting thanks to the same uncle who took him to the Union City show. “I got introduced to a couple of guys, like Jose Martinez, and his brother, and I hung around and kept in the loop with the guys. I finally got my first car, a 1976 Regal that my mom gave me and I took it to a Low Conspiracy meeting and of course I got the red flag real quick! I was only 16 and going to high school, working at a body shop for like $150 bucks a week, but I was determined to meet the club’s guidelines.
“By ’83, my Regal had Zeniths and it was lifted in the back, but I had to get the front lifted before I could fly a plaque. I had it striped by Bob Heinrichs at Heinrichs Auto Body and about nine months later, I got the front lifted, and I was plaqued-down by about mid 1983,” explains John John. “I was so proud to have my car plaqued-out in my high school yearbook.”
While the Regal was his stepping-stone, it would be a ’79 Bonneville that became John John Ponce’s claim to lowrider fame. “I remember driving Jose Martinez’ Bonneville to the Carnales Unidos show in 1985. We took around 20 cars that day, but I was driving Jose’s as he had been dealing with a divorce that was a tough situation. I matured a lot during that time watching him deal with that and also growing myself, being 18 at the time. It was a tough year, but I think Jose knew who I was as a person and saw that I was in it for the long haul. When it came time to pass the keys to me, he didn’t hesitate.” The car would later go on to become known as “The Madd Engraver,” Ponce’s signature ride, which took home many a lowrider title at shows — leaving the competition in its wake.
John’s early maturity propelled him to the forefront of the club before long, a far cry from the times when he and Carlos Lima were nearly a generation behind the founding members. “As long as we kept up with the rules and regulations they were cool with us,” recalls John John. “It was such a helpful atmosphere, guys helping other guys to build and get what they needed for each other’s cars. We wanted to do it all.”
A trip to the Lifestyle CC show at the L.A. Sports Arena only furthered John’s desire to place his club among the culture’s elite. “There was like 20,000 people there, and we decided to make the trip down to the Coliseum show in ’88,” he explains. “We took five cars, trailered four, and drove one, and it was a last hurrah for one of our guys, Rene Montez. He said, ‘I’m gonna drive my car to the show on stocks, I’ll put my Zeniths on when I get there, and after this I’m closing the book on competing and showing with the club.’ He ended up placing, and I remember Mando from Klique really admiring Rene’s 1970 Impala called ‘Obsession.’ He drove it all the way there and drove it all the way home, and you’d swear it was a trailer queen given the shape it was in.”
The impact of being the only club at the show from San Jose, and all three of them winning the sweepstakes was not lost on John John. “It was a touching moment, despite the turmoil the club was in at the time.” Low Conspiracy had lost nearly half of its members during ’86-’87, and yet John’s resolve remained undeterred. “I really have to credit Sergio Martinez for being my right-hand man and rolling with me then, and also Miguel Maldonado with his ’64 holding the club together and representing. We had a great time, and to us, whether there was one, three, or 60 members, it didn’t matter. It was a fun time.”
That resolve stayed with John John over the subsequent years. He was there at the RG Canning shows, displaying his ride on the 40-yard line at the Rose Bowl. He was there at the ISCA shows in Nor Cal competing with the hot rods. He was everywhere, and given his tenure in the club and his determination, he was the logical choice to take over the club’s reins in 1991. “I felt out of place calling the shots, but a lot of the guys wanted to run things through me,” he says. “I still made sure that we always voted on everything as a club. To this day, the hardest thing for me as a president to do is to tell the prospective members our strict design guidelines and letting them know that I’m not coming out of my pocket to get them there [laughs].
“We’re not your ordinary car club; we do things a bit differently and I don’t know if that’s a turnoff for some people who want to check it out, but that’s just how we are. I’ve gotta be true to myself and remain true to the club’s roots and goals. If I start to bend for some people, then I feel like I’m not being true and I don’t want to do that. The club still prides itself on having a lot of clean street cars and sticking to our guns,” John says.
Over the years, Low Conspiracy had a number of memorable cars, like “Disco Nights,” “Night Fire,” “DeathDealer,” “PrideNJoy,” “Slamn78,” and “Obsentatease.” With time comes change, and John John recently attended a fallen member’s funeral service. “We lost an original member this year which was tough, and shaking his dad’s and brother’s hands at the funeral was pretty moving. I let them know who I was and that the car club is very much alive and I got the most gratifying smile that I’ll never forget.”
John John has transferred the same pride he has in his club to his own business, Touch of Class Auto Detail and Upholstery in Campbell, California. “I’ve had the shop for the past 10 years,” he says with a smile. At the shop, Ponce caters a wide variety of clients, ranging from soccer moms to Lowriders to NASCAR drivers like Kasey Kahne’s World of Outlaws team and Brent Kaeding’s Kaeding Performance team.
“It’s fun to service such a wide variety of clients,” explains John John. “It’s long hours and a lot of work, but beyond the car scene, my mom and dad praise me, my sister praises me, my kids, too, and I know I got that work ethic from lowriding. I thought I’d seen it all until I got asked to detail a helicopter [laughs].” Of course, all of those clients are in good hands, considering their projects are overseen by the legendary lowrider who once dropped $4,500 on engraving just for his rims alone!
While the car that wore those rims, “The Madd Engraver,” is known as John’s signature ride, it cannot do justice in defining him or his experiences within the culture. It is because of his genuine appreciation for lowriding and the relationships he has built over the years that he takes his job as Low Conspiracy president so seriously. “I definitely feel a certain responsibility to uphold certain traditions to our younger guys while still letting them create their own identities,” he says. “It can be tough. I also have a hard time relating to some of the older guys within different scenes who say they were part of the San Jose movement back then and I know who was around and who wasn’t. Maybe survivor isn’t the right word, but I’ve lived it, dreamed it, done it to the fullest, and my roots are here forever,” says the proud owner of a cherry 1960 Chevrolet Impala “Hot Rod 60” — a car that has become his most recent calling card.
While the Impala holds his current interest, don’t even bother asking him if “The Madd Engraver” is for sale. “Sell it?! After all the sweat, tears, cold beers, and bloody knuckles? I’m not selling it, no way,” he says emphatically. While the ’79 Bonneville has been retired for seven years, John John still finds the time to see it every other day, have conversations with it, and in time, it’s safe to say that you might see it back out again someday. “With me, it’s not even about the money or people trying to pay me to bring it out; I’m just not ready to bring it back out. When I’m ready, I’m ready, but right now the ’60 is me. My middle son is in love with it now, and he swears it will be his one day, and he’s only 13 [laughs]. My oldest son, John John, is more into the lifted trucks and chrome shocks style, and I love that he loves that style. It’s fun that the kids have different tastes; I never force lowriding onto them.”
John John’s years alone are not what makes him a lowrider original, it is his outlook on the culture and the relationships he’s fostered that transcend the years of work he’s put in. “We’re all in this together and it’s pretty neat to connect with other people who have their own stories and references from their standpoint in the culture and what they’ve seen, and I know that I’m not the only one who feels that way. At some point, you have to put the competition aside and be a facilitator or a leader to others. Just because we are from different clubs it doesn’t mean we have to be enemies. Deep down, we are all one and the same,” he says.
John means it, too, and thanks to help from his uncle Jose Paixao, his mentor Jose Martinez, his ride-or-die ace, Sergio Martinez, and his compa, Wacha, his love for lowriding will only continue to bloom. “I will be building one more car for the club, I think there’s one more in me,” confesses the lifelong lowrider. “If I had one more goal within the culture it would be to close the chapter on my lowrider history in the Hall of Fame. If I can do enough to earn my way into the Hall of Fame, it would be the highest honor, but regardless, it’s just been so much fun. One day, I’m gonna leave all this, but it’ll never leave me.” Spoken like a true original.