The Emerging Styles.
World War II had devastated most of the world’s major econo-mies–global powers in Asia and Europe were beginning the long and difficult process of recon-struction, a process that would take decades. It was up to the United States to help them rebuild, which meant everyone who wanted one had a good job for the first time since the stock market crashed back in ’29, touching off the Great Depression. It was time to party, to cruise, and to build the best cars that the world had ever seen.
Detroit kicked the trend into gear. In February of 1942, all automobile production had stopped, the assembly lines devoted entirely to the war effort. Because gas had also been rationed since ’42, the few hot rods still on the streets were keeping their runs short and sweet. All that was about to change, however. Young men returning from Europe received an early version of the G.I. Bill, known as the 5:20 program, putting an extra $20 a week in their pockets. Even better, all of those beautiful old cars, Chevrolets for the pachucos and Fords for the rodders, were cheap and plentiful as the wealthy, eager for a brand new ride, dumped them on the market.
The car of choice in East Los Angeles, California, at least among the younger set, was still the sleek Chevrolet. Prior to the war, choosing a Chevy over a Ford was an economic consideration; they were cheaper and more plentiful. But, even after with the G.I. Bill’s subsidy, most Mexican-Americans continued to go with the “bowtie.”
Although other makes and models were fine, so long as they were kept clean, restored to mint condition and dropped in the weeds, the ’39 Chevrolet remained the most coveted car of all. “The ’39 Chevy makes the best lowrider,” explains Sleepy Lagoon resident Fernando Ruelas, president of the oldest lowrider club in America, The Duke’s. “It’s more of a gangster look, an Al Capone car. Suicide doors, and the headlights and fenders–everything comes to a point as a ‘V,’ starting with the grille, head-light, taillights and bumper. It’s a good design, the best design that they built. They had the ’37, the ’38, the ’40, but the ’39 was the one that took it all. And their suspension is really good, coils in the front.”
That was important, considering the major modifications preferred by these veteranos. They were exploring a new trend in automotive customization, one that didn’t revolve around what was under the hood. Already stylish Chevys lent themselves to cosmetic cus-tomization, more so than the Fords favored by the upscale roadster set. The idea was to get your car looking as sleek as a hot rod, but with enough plush extras to encourage the opposite sex to go for a cruise; it was a hobby not only the pachucos, but automotive enthusiasts across the country found irresistible.
The style had started in Sacramento back in 1938, a car built with a hot-rod’s lines, but ignoring that need for speed. Customizer Harry Westerguard slammed his ’35 Ford to the ground with a spindle kit, then chopped the roof. The effect was aerodynamic, fast looking, and Harry didn’t stop there. With the help of a young, local piano player by the name of George Barris, who had taken to hanging around the garage, Harry went even further.
“He took off everything, not only the accessories, but everything, including the factory chrome,” writes lowrider historian David Holland. “Then, to further the smooth look, they would fill in the body seams with lead, or metal from melted coat hangers. Then, Harry created the ‘pop’ door, and the smooth hood sides were made.” But, if you took a look inside, it was hardly the stripped down, light and uncomfortable interior favored by the hot rodders. Harry put a premium on comfort, perhaps a suggestion of his number one shotgun ride.
Others across the country were also looking to the racers for inspiration, wanting to drop their rides for the look but, like Westerguard, keep their ride comfortable. Even with the plushest interior available, this could prove to be a problem. “I lowered my ’41 Buick new,” remembers Bill Hines, who would later work with custom king George Barris, becoming a master customizer in his own right and an automotive hydraulics pioneer. “I had the springs cut down, or lowered, for about two weeks, but it rode so rough that I had to take them out and put new ones in. I was probably the only one in Detroit doing it then.”
Cosmetic customization, which improved on the hot rod look without the expensive (and illegal) extras under the hood, was popping up across the country, but only on isolated rides. After World War II, however, such custom inno-vations became more widespread, dropped, chopped cruisers popping up from El Paso, Texas, to East Los Angeles. By 1948, clubs composed of what could be considered either early customs or lowriders were organizing throughout Southern California, while plenty of independents proudly put the finishing touches on their own sleek rides. Some of the era’s finest rides were coming out of East L.A., the result of high quality handiwork on the part of old school cruisers.
After spending that kind of time restoring a beautiful car, cruisers needed a place to show off their handiwork. By the late 1940s, Los Angeles lows had cultivated a few prime cruise spots just perfect for displaying those ever-improving rides. Olvera Street downtown, Old Chinatown and especially Lincoln Park, now the site of Plaza de la Raza, were some of the favorite destinations.
“Lincoln Park used to have boat rides and a big carousel for kids of all ages,” remembers David Holland. “Plus, it had carnival type rides, the Ferris wheel, the whip. It had taco stands, raspadas, popcorn stands. It had dancing al aire libre and also a dance hall. There was a lot of live music, mariachis and trios which the Raza came to hear. Guys were picking up on girls, girls were flirting with guys, people were just walking around and having fun.”
For cruisers who wanted to take a longer trip, there were places like Rancho Daniel and the rivers near Pico Rivera. Cabrillo Beach, Long Beach, Tin Can Beach and Seal Beach were also popular places to show off your ride. The cars were getting smoother, too. “In the ’40s, there wasn’t a lot of money in the Hispanic community,” explains customizer Ron Aguirre. “They fixed up their cars, but they would never go to the major shows. Then, around 1950, everything blossomed and went really wild.”
Some of the favorites to customize were the newer models, although the ’39 Chevy Deluxe retained its allure. The ’48 Chevy convertible and ’48 Fleetline, the ’50 Chevy hardtop and, of course, the ’49 and ’50 Mercurys were all prized. One of the baddest looks in the barrio was to paint your rims Chinese red, with moon hubcaps and maybe outer rim caps, if you were lucky. Smaller tires were less expensive than the big skinnies that the racers would use, and they brought the car a few precious inches closer to the ground.
Throughout the late 1940s, and especially after the end of the Korean conflict in 1953, Los Angeles’ growing industrial base had become something of a Mecca for Mexican-Americans throughout the Southwest looking for better paying jobs. “Los Angeles was once the largest automobile-tire-glass manufacturing center in the United States, outside of Detroit,” notes Brenda Bright. “Five of the seven automobile plants were located in the central manufac-turing zone just south of the downtown cities of South Gate, Vernon, Maywood, Commerce and Pico Rivera.” This meant good paying jobs, perfect for veterans with plenty of hands-on mechanical experience or mechanically inclined young people just out of high school.
Things were really changing, those immac-ulate Chevrolets attracting attention, envious looks rather than the fearful gazes the pachucos had inspired, from customizers of every stripe. And, several new schools of cool car customization were springing up, and sinking down, on both sides of the Los Angeles river. A break was taking place among the rodders, and it wasn’t just about respectability. It was about what a car was really for.
Going Custom How Low Can You Go?
“In those early years, there was no such thing as rods or customs,” explains Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, one of the all-time great car customizers. “They were all labeled hot rods, even the lead sleds. As ’47 and ’48 came along, you would see more guys taking the later fat-fendered Fords and Chevys and filling in the nose and the deck emblems with lead and lowering the back ends. Then, choppin’ the tops so the terms lead sled or ‘sleds’ became popular. Sleds weren’t fast, they just looked cool. They were more for cruisers out scouting for babes.”
Lead sleds, those 1949 and ’50 Mercurys that just looked so good chopped, dropped and nosed, had inspired a new generation of automotive enthusiasts to look at cars in a whole other light. Pioneered by guys like Roth, Bill Hines, and especially “kustom” king George Barris, customizers hardly even looked under the hood as they transformed the silhouettes designed by Detroit’s finest into mobile works of art. Cutting and welding, chopping and dropping, not to mention the leadwork and body filler involved, were the currencies of the custom world.
“Hot rods were built for go; customs were built for show,” explains Pat Ganahl, editor of The Rodder’s Journal. “Many rodders couldn’t understand why someone would waste so much money on lush paint, plush upholstery, and all of the bodywork done in lead, which made these big barges that much heavier and slower. Though they were operating at a dif-ferent economic level, the customizers were actually doing the same thing as the rodders: taking a relatively expensive car and turning it into something more luxurious and exotic than factory top-of-the line models, while at the same time giving it a personalized, creative design different from any other car on the road.” And, with the advent of nitromethane, street rodders were no longer building their cars to be the fastest; those who made a conscious decision to keep their cars street legal found themselves performing cosmetic modifications, although they still paid atten-tion to what was happening under the hood.
George Barris was soon overwhelmed with interest in his rolling works of art, and needed to farm out work to others skilled in the transformation of fine automobiles. Gil and Al Ayala, brothers and Los Angeles customizers who had chopped and certainly dropped plenty of rides in their time, were tapped to help Barris pioneer a new Movement. Many of the rides featured in books and magazines about George and his equally talented brother, Sam, were actually built by the Ayalas, who later became legends in their own right.
Al and Gil Ayala’s Body Shop in East Los Angeles was one of the best places around to go when you wanted to get your Merc into ship shape, or any shape at all. Louis “Luigi” Bettancourt’s ’49 Mercury was one of their masterpieces, chopped a smooth 3 inches for that sleek bathtub look. Every harsh line was rounded off, the lights Frenched, emblems and handles shaved, the beauty dropped 6 inches by C-notching the frame and using lowering blocks. The Custom Movement brought numbers of enthusiasts from both sides of the river together for the first time.
“My hero is James Dean, and he drove a ’49 Merc,” explains lowrider Steve Gonzalez. “He played it super cool.” Young Mexican-Americans, like all Americans, saw James Dean, Elvis and American car culture as rebellious, sexy and exciting. The pachucos had been too cool for the hot rod set, but customs, which were dropped all around as barrio cars had been for decades, painted and comfortable for the boulevard, were more their speed.
This was still the ’50s, and lowriding was still in its formative stages. But cruisers growing up in East Los Angeles, watching their brothers throw bags of sand in the back of the family Chevrolet, heard the name Ayala discussed with reverence. Many custom tricks copied in national magazines were created at the Ayalas’ shop, and the barrio cruisers knew it. This sense of pride turned them onto the Custom Movement more than any other automotive trend, inspiring them to use variations on custom shapes and themes on their own rides.
Mexican-American and other Los Angeles youth, heirs to the pachucos’ savvy saunter, had finally found a means of automotive expression that they could relate to. They didn’t except the Custom Movement stock, however. They needed to transform even that, integrating their own custom traditions with this new trend, creating their own examples of automotive excellence not likely to be confused with anything on the West side of the Los Angeles river. This would be the foundation upon which all lowriding was built.