Keeping the Movement Hopping.
The long-awaited Lowrider History Book is still in the works and we hope to have it published sometime this year. In the meantime, we are presenting a series of excerpts from the History Book that will hopefully answer a few questions regarding the history of the sport and give an indication of where we’re heading as we cruise into the future.
If lowriding has a single defining feature, it would have to be those high-hopping hydraulics that move your ride front, back, side to side, and up on three wheels. This is not to say that every true lowrider has to have them; in fact, only 10-percent of Lowrider Magazine readers actually own those precious pumps and dumps. But what dreamer doesn’t pore over those gold-plated setups on display at the shows or captured on film, wishing that one day his or her own low will rise to the occasion? In many ways, lowriding was born when Ron Aguirre’s ‘57 Corvette, “X-Sonic,” lifted itself into the Long Beach Arena, when the gasps of the crowd committed the concept of automotive hydraulics to history.
By the mid 1960s, there were several innovative entrepreneurs installing hydraulics throughout the greater Los Angeles area. “Al’s was where all of the Black guys were getting lifted,” remembers hopping champion Ted Wells. “In the early days, you understand, some White guys used to come over there, but as time went on it was mostly all Black. Keep in mind, Al Sullivan would burn a hole in your framework. He didn’t cut it with a torch, he just burnt a hole.”
Eventually, young men like Carl Watson, Terry Anderson and others who learned at Old Man Al’s knee would go on to make their own reputations installing hydraulics, spreading the influence of lifts even further. Steve Lee, a resident Orange County, California, hydraulic wizard, used the same method as Al Sullivan, punching holes into the frame of Orange County cruiser David Woo’s ’57 Chevy.
Although David was pleased with his lifts, cruising up and down–literally–the boulevard, he had a better idea, one that wouldn’t leave such enormous scars on the frame of his classic cars. When he opened his own little shop on Redondo Beach Boulevard in Hawthorne, he decided to do it differently, actually drilling the holes for a cleaner look and a stronger frame. Soon, other Los Angeles County pioneers in hydraulic installation, like “Bear,” who successfully adapted a power steering pump for hydraulic use, Don Lasar in the south county, Vince Bacardo in East Los Angeles and even Carl Watson in Compton, were adopting the new technique and building cleaner setups.
Bill Hines was a long-time customizer who had caught wind of this new development in automotive engineering. One of the original customizers, he opened his first shop in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1940s. When he heard about the “kustom kraze” out west, he hopped into his dropped, chopped ’51 Ford, “The Bat,” and headed west to learn from the best. George Barris, who had witnessed the creation of California’s first known lowrider when he worked for Harry Westerguard, eagerly took him on.
“In addition to being credited as the pioneer of Frenched antennas in the ’50s,” wrote LRM technical editor Dick DeLoach, “Bill is also one of the first men design a hydraulic lift system, in 1964. ‘I got the idea from Louie and Ron Aguirre in San Bernardino.’ A good setup would run about $200, but installation time was about a week.”
Cal Nelson’s, the first surplus store to become hip to the happenings of the early ’60, actually came out with their own special automotive cylinder. “They were 2-inch cylinders,” remembers Bill Hines. “That was a pretty good cylinder. I used a lot of them. I used the old ‘dumb-dumbs’ and long johns, and cut them off. I put another shaft in it–at that time I made my own–and had a double O-ring. It’s hard to keep O-rings on a cylinder. They used to put a lot of dents in the cars, up against the A-frame, but I never had any trouble with mine.”
“We’d buy aircraft landing gear and make our gear parts cheap and modify them,” says Bill. “We’d make our own pump units and tanks. I always did high-quality everything.” Bill invested in Pesco pumps, “dumb-dumb” cylinders and Adel dumps, still coveted for their strength and speed.
“The last Adel that I bought was $22.95,” remembers Bill. “I sold my last ones for $500 apiece. Now they’re making fake ones–they’ve got fake guns on the inside, but they look exactly the same.” But, in the late ’60s, Adel “candlestick” dumps were the most expensive piece of equipment necessary for a top-notch setup, and this new breed of hydraulics engineers often passed time complaining about their price. They didn’t yet realize what an investment these indestructible Adels were.
“The Adel square dump was everything. The new dumps can’t compare to what the old dumps could do,” gushes “Old Man Frank” Cordova. “It stops slow and gets to the valve and floats. They were accurate. It gave you more control at the switches, but you had to be a good handler. You had to be prompt or otherwise you would hit the ground and put a shock through the frame.”
In 1968, an incident involving faulty hydraulics convinced members of lowriding’s oldest and most prestigious organization to swear off lifts forever. The Imperials Car Club-East Los Angeles was having a beach party one Saturday night, when member Alex Valenzuela and his date, Cynthia Hernandez, decided to cruise down to the store. “They were cruising about 50 mph, northbound on the Pacific Coast Highway,” read the tragic Imperials newsletter.
“The Riviera was cruising in the far left center lane, just then the left hydraulic lift gave out. The Riviera collided head on with a ’64 Chevy Malibu. The members and their girls who were following Alex’ Riviera were horrified to find out who the occupants of the southbound ’64 Chevy were. The car that Alex’ Riviera hit head on was none other than his own club member, Mike Molina, and his girl, Vivian Valdez.” More than 200 cars, from several clubs, showed up at the funeral. “Myself, I wouldn’t put hydraulics on my car,” sighs Armando Valadez, president of the Imperials at the time. “It was hard. We took it hard.”
Despite news of this horrible accident, which sent shock waves from Whittier Boulevard through the rest of Los Angeles, the public’s appetite for lift was hardly curbed. By the late ’60s, cruisers were loading up on batteries in the hopes of moving around faster, “dancing.” The #6 hoses, smaller than those used today, were put under even more stress, especially after cruisers discovered that by linking the batteries in series, they could raise the PSI even higher and give the ride a real pounding. It sometimes seemed like the surplus yard setups couldn’t take it anymore.
A safer source of hydraulic equipment was discovered by enterprising lowriders, the pumps used to operate the tailgates of large trucks. Called “screamers” in Texas because of their high-pitched whine, and “gates” in California, for obvious reasons, they had their advantages and disadvantages compared to the old Pesco standbys. “The advantage to gates was the built-in dump,” explains Julio Ruelas, co-founder of the Duke’s Car Club. “With that, you really didn’t need the second dump, either. It was also easier to convert everything to electric, which I did in 1967.”
A new sport was lighting up the night, lowriders making a leap of logic into the scrape zone. It probably all started when someone’s brand-new setup suddenly lost elevation, dropping to the hard concrete while the car was still in motion. Before the driver could cruise to a stop, he must have noticed the long rivers of sparks flowing from behind his low.
Soon, the ominous grind of metal against pavement was echoing through Los Angeles alleyways, because that original scraper was back cruising the boulevard the minute that he’d cleaned up the oily mess in his trunk. At first, lowriders were willing to sacrifice their front crossmembers and rear bumpers to achieve the ultimate scrape, sometimes attaching rollerskate wheels on the back to cut down on wear and tear.
“Then, some hip homeboy came up with the idea of welding small steel blocks (usually about 2x3x3 inches) under the front and back of the car, which could be replaced when they wore out,” writes Dick DeLoach. “The ‘scrape plates’ or ‘blocks,’ as they were called, worked great and were a vast improvement over replacing worn car parts. Those pavement pioneers used carbon steel for their plates because it was cheap and plentiful. But carbon steel is relatively soft and the plates still had to be replaced after a few good scrapes. A harder metal was needed that wouldn’t grind down so quickly.”
Industrious scrape fanatics got to work, testing different metals and alloys in an effort to pinpoint the perfect plate. This experimentation yielded a great deal of information–different metals had very different properties, some softer but yielding more sparks, others trailing a glow of white, reddish or even greenish embers into the Los Angeles night. As the ’70s progressed, the two top choices for scraping action were magnesium and titanium, “chosen because of their hardness and for the flood of brilliant white sparks which they give off, even though both were more costly and harder to come by than carbon steel.”
While the homeboys perfected scrape plates, hydraulic systems were also coming up. Nobody knows who first got their front end off the ground, but it’s safe to say that the event took place on Crenshaw sometime during the early ’70s. Now, Whittier was still a no-man’s land, ominous black and white police cruisers threatening enormous tickets to anyone who passed the same point more than twice in an evening. Worse, gangs disguised as car clubs let innocent cruisers know whose territory Whittier was, keeping the really nice cars off of the streets. To be sure, there were a few brave cruisers still willing to risk harassment and worse, but for the most part, Los Angeles lowriding was now a South Central game.
This didn’t keep cruisers outside the City of Angels off their own respective strips. Throughout California and beyond, cruisers with connections had heard of other new hydraulic sports, “car dancing” and “hopping tallboys.” Car dancing came first, as innovative engineers figured out how to lift each corner of a car independently. This wasn’t the high-flying action that we think of today–it was seldom that a move got one wheel off the ground, and no one remembers an entire car catching air. But, it was a unique modification in the history of the automobile.
This increasing stress on hydraulics and automotive components forced lowriders to find stronger equipment, stabilize setups and even reinforce parts of the “short” with 1/4-inch thick plate steel. Number-six hoses were replaced with larger, higher PSI-rated lines. Pumps and dumps were bolted, sometimes welded onto the frame of the car. And, cylinder technology, always a weak point on any setup, was also being worked on by certain well-known hydraulic wizards.
“In the early ’70s, Hugh Stillman manufactured eight pairs of cylinders and sold them right off the back of his pick-up truck,” says an early customer and former manager of Otto’s Hydraulics, Ted Wells. Stillman had been a part of the lowriding scene for almost a decade, learning the tricks of the trade from customizers like Al Sullivan and Carl Watson.
“The cylinders were skinny and the cap was welded on, a ‘doughnut’ made on a tool with a Teflon seal. He sold them for about $40 apiece. My partner Al and I bought the first pair, put them in a car and blew everybody’s mind. He started making the steels, the coppers, the golds, the chromes, and I started buying them 15, 20 pairs at a time. I was the man in town because I had that connection.”
The idea of building and marketing hydraulic components for lowriders had been floating around for years, but no one was yet willing to invest that kind of time or money. To be sure, plenty of people were installing hydraulics, but that only supplemented a regular mechanic’s income. Stillman had made the first step into an uncertain future, but his timing couldn’t have been better.