On a late summer evening with the cool Bay Area breeze blowing, I met up with Miguel Maldonado, the President of True Elegance car club, at his San Leandro home of 16 years. As we walked up the driveway, Miguel explained that he’s been building cars in his own garage since day one. Opening up the garage door, Miguel revealed his 1961 Impala and 1972 Monte Carlo. With all the old photos and club plaques hanging on his wall, it wasn’t hard to tell that Miguel has been Lowriding for most of his life. Pulling up a milk crate to use as a chair, he sat and shared a little of that life with me.

Coming from a family of carpenters, Miguel decided to go a different direction and got into autobody and paint work with his stepdad. At 9 years old, Miguel started helping him work on cars. Whenever he would get side jobs, Miguel’s stepfather would give him the daunting task of taking the car apart while he was at work. His stepdad would say “you don’t need to read a book to learn, you just have to remember how you took it off to be able to put it back.” At one point, Miguel worked after school at an autobody shop, sweeping and developing his skills, before working at Miracle Auto Painting, which he’s been at for the last 17 years. Starting off at such a young age, Miguel knew he would be able to build himself a nice Chevy one day.

His first Chevy was a ’72 Monte Carlo, which he got by doing some trade work. Athough Miguel was predominantly a Monte Carlo guy, he decided that one day he would like to build himself an Impala. He knows all too well that before you can build a car, you have to fall in love with it first. His search began in finding the right year Chevy for his dream build. After looking at all the different years of Impalas, Miguel finally fell in love with the body style of the ’61. What attracted him the most was how, from factory, the 16-piece body moldings would wrap around the car from fender to fender. Since then, Miguel has built six hardtop ’61s, selling two to Japan, with the rest being sold in the Bay Area.

His new goal was to build a 1961 convertible for himself. After shopping around, he found out that the few that were left in the Bay Area were either too beat up or too pricey for his tastes. He knew that the only way he could have his dream convertible was to literally build his own. One day, one of his neighborhood friends that was searching for a ’65 Impala, gave Miguel a lead to two ’61 bubble tops up for sale in Antioch. His wife Geraldine, who’s always supported him in his lifestyle, without the knowledge of Miguel, sold her 1972 Monte Carlo, so that he could have enough money to purchase one of the bubble tops.

After calling the guy and setting up an appointment to go look at the bubble tops, Miguel was informed that other potential buyers were going to go look at the cars that same day. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to purchase his dream car, Miguel woke up, bright and early, at six in the morning on that fateful Saturday. Just like anyone who wants a car, Miguel and his good friend P-nut showed up with money in hand, trailer fully hitched, and ready to buy. Once the deal was made, the car was loaded onto the trailer and was brought back to San Leandro. Knowing Miguel’s plans for the bubble top, P-nut wrote on the side of the car “Project ’61 Convertible” with a marker. Skeptics quickly told Miguel to not cut the car, offering their opinion that he would “ruin a good bubble top.” Miguel stuck to his guns despite the skepticism, and maintained his goal of building himself a ’61 convertible.

After purchasing the convertible kit for $3,000 from Impala Palace, he knew there was no going back. With the car, the kit, and the talent, Miguel got to work on the classic Chevy. After 2-3 weeks of measuring, grinding, and cutting under the guidance of Big Ray from Rebirth Car Club, Miguel finally had his 1961 convertible! After finishing the raw metal, Miguel wondered if he should just do bodywork and paint, or take the entire car apart. Having gone this far, he knew he had to put it all on the floor. With the help of fellow club members Rob, Miguel, and P-nut, the four builders started taking the car apart. Nothing came easy during the process, in fact, it seemed that if the pieces weren’t breaking off, they had to be grind off. From bodywork to rust repair, the car needed just about everything. Miguel believes that “if it ain’t a project car, then it ain’t a Lowrider.” “You need something to talk about,” laughs Miguel. When the time came to put the body back on the frame, there was no one available to help, so Miguel had to improvise. Using an engine hoist to lift the body, and the help of his 13-year-old daughter, Priscilla, and 5-year-old son Miggie, he was able to push in the frame, line it, and square it off.

After many years of shopping at swap meets and different locations, the car was finally coming together. Wishing to stand out from the crowd, Miguel started chroming the undercarriage, powder coating the belly, adding the continental kit, and putting in leather seats, to achieve his desired look.

Why the name “Playing with my Money,” you ask? Being a religious man, Miguel wanted the phrase “In God We Trust” placed on the continental kit. As he sat thinking of a name for the car, a light bulb went off inside his head. The car was green, “In God We Trust” appears on all dollar bills, and he’d spent more than 2 years of his time and money on this project, so it only seemed fitting to name it “Playing with my Money.”

One thing that Miguel can say about his car is that it was cut in his garage, fabricated in his garage, put together in his garage, and built in his garage. “The best part about building a car in the garage with friends is all the memories you make,” reminisces Miguel. “The late nights eating pizza and sanding the car, you just can’t get that by sending your car out to a shop.” Well said, Miguel.

Playing With My Money

Owner: Miguel Maldonado

1961 Impala Convertible

San Leandro, CA

Club: True Elegance, East Bay

Engine: 1997 Chevrolet 350 5.7 liter

Body/Paint: A two-stage lime green was sprayed on the flawless convertible.

Interior: The black leather and tweed interior was stitched together by New Hank Trim Shop Auto Upholstery.

Sound System:
Ron Samaly from Auto Sound System of San Lorenzo, CA installed 3 10-inch Diamond sub woofers and midrange speakers that were powered Rockford Fosgate amplifiers that were all controlled through a Pioneer head unit mounted in the custom front console.

Setup: Two Showtime Hydraulics pumps powered by four American Batteries controlled by two switches

Tires: Remington 155-80R13

Wheels: Sinister 100 13×7 spoke wheels