Cruising into History under the Law’s Nose.
“X-Sonic” was sporting a new blue and platinum Larry Watson paint job with style, and owner Ron Aguirre was leading San Bernardino, California’s Krankers Car Club on a caravan through Los Angeles. They were on their way to the The Renegade’s 1959 Memorial Day Car Show at Veteran’s Stadium in Long Beach. The custom-crazy crowds had no idea that they were cruising in on a crash course with history. Neither could police eager to enforce Vehicle Code #24008, the new law against lows, used by overzealous officers to discourage events just like this one.
“There were probably 15 to 20 of us, driving down the San Bernardino freeway into Los Angeles. We saw some cops coming the other way,” Ron remembers. “The motorcycle cop cut across the center divider and made a U-turn, pulling us all over. By the time he got to me, I had raised the car up to legal height. And it was really low; it had sidepipes and everything. He came over and looked at the car.”
“I could have sworn that this car was too low,” said the officer, scratching his head. “It’s just the style,” Ron replied, without even breaking a sweat. “It just looks like it’s really low.” The officer, skeptical, crossed the divider to the other side of the freeway. Ron dumped the valves, dropping the car to a cool cruising height. The officer turned around, and had to believe what he saw–nobody outside Aguirre’s immediate circle knew about the top secret hydraulics. As he walked back, Ron smoothly pumped the car back up to a street legal stance.
“Boy, that thing sure looks different on the other side of the freeway,” said the cop, shaking his head. “Go ahead, you guys.” Ron smiled crookedly while the rest of the club tried not to laugh, and fired that Corvette up. The rest of the ride went smoothly, and the Krankers cruised into the auditorium just in time for move-in. “There was a concrete barrier around the track that had to be cleared,” Ron remembers. “All of the car owners had to block their cars up to clear that barrier except me. I drove my car up to the barrier, pushed the button to raise the car and drove it over the concrete. Well, you wouldn’t believe the cheers and commo-tion when I did that.”
“It dropped to the ground, then surprised everyone by silently raising the body,” remembers Pharaohs member “Rocket” Reyes Rio, a spectator later inspired to open one of the first lowrider specialty shops in San Bernardino. “They just couldn’t believe it,” agrees legendary painter Larry Watson, also in the stands that fateful day. “There was no technology in those days, and he made a car go up and down; what was he, God or something? How did he do that? What was going on here?”
That’s what everyone was trying to figure out as Ron’s friends and fans crowded around the car for a glimpse of the miracle machinery. But. it wasn’t for any trophy that Ron and his father had installed the hydraulic Pesco pumps and Sidewinder valves salvaged from retired B-52 bombers on his lowered Corvette. Ron was too low for the law–custom cruisers were required to roll at a street scraping stance, something every automotive enthusiast of the era aspired to. But the law stated that “no part of the vehicle be lower than the lowest part of the rim.” That changed every-thing for borderline legal cruisers like the X-Sonic.
“Some jealous cop called up north to Sacramento and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a lot of lowered cars here and I think that they’re illegal,’ ” explains Larry Watson, also a favorite target of local law enforcement. “In September 1959, the new law came out, 24008,” he remembers with a grimace. “Anything below the base of the rim is illegal. And the Lakewood sheriffs had a pool running for me, a contest. One guy was smart. He just looked up my record, found out where I lived. I got pulled over five or six times before I got to my shop, because that law came out.” Larry Watson would eventually have his California Driver’s License permanently revoked for refusing to settle for stock suspension. But this was 1959, and his brand new Cadillac was still the ride to watch out for on the streets of Los Angeles. Law enforcement officers, like the steady stream of automotive publications pursuing him for cover stories, were keeping a close eye on the cantankerous customizer.
The Clubs, the Shows and a Trip Down Whittier Boulevard As new wave customizers inspired a generation of customizers to invest in chrome and wheels for their stock bodied cars, the times were conspiring to take these young cruisers to the next level. While it was difficult for some of the hot rod clubs, like the Lone Wolves, to get away from the bad reputations that their early gang affiliation lent them, others, like the Krankers, were building bridges within their communities. The notorious Roadrunners were now acting as security at the racing strips in the high desert, while custom clubs like the Renegades and the Tridents, a club formed by students at Bell High School, located just south of Los Angeles had begun to throw large and lucrative shows throughout the Southland.
Cruising had become increasingly diffi-cult as Sacramento’s concerned politicians handed down more and more laws against custom cars. Altered suspension, loud pipes, street racing; any of these offenses would earn you a glove box full of tickets if you wanted to show off your pride and joy. It wasn’t long before some of the car clubs, frustrated that they had no place to show off their work without legal hassles, decided to throw the first car shows. At first, the high schools provided a haven for the harried teens and their rides. Students at Bell High School soon realized, however, that the events were lucrative as well as fun, and a group of Bell students, who had formed the Tridents car club, decided to take it to the next level.
“Throughout the early ’60s, it was the Tridents Custom Car Show,” remembers Rod Powell, famed Northern California custom car painter. “The absolute glory, the ultimate ego, was to get your car under a light scale, to be out on the center floor. Those lights would just make your paint 10 times of what it was. It was a real fight, a real struggle, to see who would get the glory.” R.G Canning, another graduate of Bell High School, was also producing car shows worthy of the era’s finest rides. Every club wanted the recognition that these shows, supported by an ever-increasing number of automotive publications, could offer.
“It was still the Roadrunners, the Challengers, all those hot rod clubs,” says Robert “Beto” Hernandez, who served as the president of both New Wave and later Klique Car Clubs. “But some of them started making their cars lowriders just by putting on that style of rims and tires, but it would still have a 350 or 440 motor in there. Then they started moving toward Whittier Boulevard.” What the west end cruisers saw on Whittier was beginning to influence their own style, and an exchange of ideas was beginning to roll.
There were plenty of places to cruise in Los Angeles–Tweedy Boulevard down in South Gate, Van Nuys Boulevard up north–but police were always forcing the long, colorful caravans into new areas. Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles had provided a place for car customizers to show off their rides since the pachuco era, but had never really been “the spot” for this new breed of car clubbers. As the area was developed by merchants eager to take advantage of Los Angeles’ growing Mexican-American popula-tion, however, it began to show promise of becoming one of the ultimate outlets for cruisers eager to show off their custom rides.
Whittier Boulevard had been targeted for retail development in the early 1950s, a reaction to the rapidly growing population in the area. The companies, both local and national, built their shops close to the road, flooding the area with light to attract after-work shoppers. Customs looked incredible cruising through the area, the city’s glow reflecting through candy and metalflake to the beauty of the car beneath. It was the new cruise, the eastside edition, and provided a place for customizers of all races to come together and communicate their customizing ideas.
Chicano cruisers didn’t always get to see the Larry Watson paint jobs, Ron Aguirre’s hydraulics, or the custom tricks of George Barris and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth up close and personal. This community was, as a whole, more blue collar than cruisers from the wealthier westside; most would have considered an afternoon at a car show a luxury, not something that they could easily afford. As a result, many of the most inventive customizers in East Los Angeles hadn’t seen the seminal vehicles gracing the covers of the automotive publications first hand. Now, suddenly, there was a strip springing up right in their own front yard, a mobile car show free to the public with access to anyone able to roll.
The customizers had borrowed the pachuco’s low stance and turned it into a national trend. On Whittier Boulevard, the sons and daughters of the zoot suiters saw exactly how much had been added to the original suspension modifications, from bizarre body mods to pristine paint jobs, all enhancing the body lines that they themselves loved. The Chevrolet was no longer a high rider’s castoff, it was the custom of choice. Chicanos, again realizing the worth of rides still rusting in the garage, began bringing out their parents’ old custom cruisers, sinking to street level for a trip down Whittier Boulevard.
“These early Chevys were really the roots of lowriding,” writes Pat Ganahl, respected automotive journalist and editor of The Rodder’s Journal. “Fastback Fleetlines were really special, but any body style was accept-able, including four-doors. Full lowering was a must, flipper wheel covers were standard, lakes pipes and spotlights were common, and no engine modifications were needed other than a split manifold and rapping dual pipes for the stovebolt six. Dechroming was still in vogue, many cars made it to Tijuana for inex-pensive white tuck and roll with contrasting piping, and paint usually came last, leaving primer spots in the meantime.” And, as Whittier’s custom cross pollination continued, summer evenings on the boulevard began to awakened some-thing more than love in the hearts of young Chicanos.
A new style, a hybrid of the full customs and the original barrio cruisers was catching on, called “street rods” by some, for lack of a better term. Many eastside cruisers had been bitten by that same bug, though retaining the pachuco’s reverence for original body lines enhanced with that street scraping stance, but things were changing, slowly. There were still differences; street rodders still tended toward bigger engines and better paint, as they usually had access to more funds. On the other side of the river, customization continued to improve. Chicanos challenged, perhaps, by the sight of full customs in their own neighborhood. Still, however, colored primer was in style, and other cost-cutting eastside innovations retained their popularity.
In order to streamline the body of the car, most automotive enthusiasts in search of center stage at the shows, like the hot rodders before them, removed all of the extra goodies from fenders to chrome strips to emblems and hood ornaments. “But, when the lowriders started coming on really strong,” remembers Rod Powell, “they started leaving everything on. It was just the style. I grew up taking everything off, but this was just developing. Some guys would take all of the emblems off, or take the door handles off and leave all the emblems on.” These early “lowriders,” however, refused to assimilate, insisting that the more factory original extras made their way onto the ride, the better.
Car customizers were scandalized by these upstart cruisers’ use of fender skirts and other original accessories, but they soon began emulating, even imitating, the look. These stock-bodied cruisers lent themselves to accessorizing far more than the customs. The body modifications that customizers loved had made it difficult to use easy bolt-on accessories. These new enthusiasts, however, were pursuing the new style with a passion and an eye for design.