A New Beginning.
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.
east Los Angeles’ lowriding scene seemed stagnant on the surface, stifled by the Sheriffs and gangbanging of the early 1970s. But the Movement marched on. Lowriders too beautiful to be risked on Whittier would make their way to R.G. Canning and other large shows, making an impression on young people there.
“When I was growing up I looked forward to shows,” remembers “Big Ed” Madrigal, perhaps the greatest automotive metalflake painter in history. “My mom would take me to a hobby shop on weekends, buy me a model and I’d go stay at my grandma’s… It all started with models.” An enterprising young modeler could save money on the price of admission by showing his work in the show; that’s how Big Ed often got in. Lowriders always attracted a lot of attention.
The Imperials were one of the few older car clubs still cruising, they were making their name a long way from Whittier. Armando Valadez’ older brother Jesse was causing quite a stir with his ’63 Chevy Impala, “Gypsy Rose.” The famous Walt Prey, who for years had worked with the equally regarded Bill Carter, had just set up Walt’s Custom Studio in Van Nuys and was open for business.
During the summer of ’71, Jesse prepped the car for paint and then hauled it over to Van Nuys for the job. “I used to cruise San Fernando, and I started talking to some of the guys, the clubs that had custom paint jobs.” Jesse wanted only for the best. “There was Carter and Walt Prey. I got my ’63 painted kind of orange with swirls. Then I took it back and said I wanted something different. I wanted a few roses on the car.
They decided on roses, “Mexican style” roses in the style that decorated a local Mexican restaurant. For six months, Walt labored over the ’63, painstakingly adding some 40 roses to the hardtop, complemented by a paint scheme in rose-colored tones. The Impala swept local shows with its incredible paint, and was featured in the March 1972 Car Craft Magazine, a rare feat for even the finest lowriders.
But, when Jesse tried to cruise his pride and joy, taking it out on Whittier to experience the time-honored East Los Angeles tradition, tragedy struck. Jealous cruisers took a few bricks to the ’63, effectively destroying it as a show car. Jesse was heart-broken, but persevered. He had other ideas for fine rides, although his longing for another flowered Impala would never leave him.
One of the most important lowrider clubs still cruising alongside the Imperials, with their commitment to quality cruisers and numbers that grew throughout the early ’70s, was Groupe C.C. The Imperials had dropped to fewer than a dozen members during this time, while the Duke’s, still restoring older rides at their shop just south of downtown Los Angeles–“Our specialty was installing lifts on older cars,” emphasized Duke’s president Fernando Ruelas–had dwindled to include mostly family members and close friends. Groupe, with their strength in numbers, and membership that transcended neighborhood and barrio borders, actually grew strong throughout the lull, keeping the spirit of cruising alive.
Eddie Flores and Paul Varela had never stressed the importance of show-quality cars, although the club was almost always represented at major Los Angeles events. Cars simply had to be clean and lowered, members attending meetings regularly and staying out of the personal conflicts that plagued what was left of the cruise. Their numbers grew to epic proportions throughout the early part of the decade, inspiring other clubs to keep cruising. Then, in 1973, Groupe pulled a stunt that shook East Los Angeles’ cruising culture at its foundation.
“We earned an unofficial world record for having the longest continuous line of cruisers that belonged to the same club ever,” remembers former Groupe president and UCLA Law School counselor Ed Flores. “In 1973, Groupe met at Selesian High School, and we had drivers cruising completely around the city block bumper to bumper, with another row double parked and even more members looking to get in line. Then, we began to cruise down Whittier Boulevard slowly, hundreds of cars, all members of Groupe. The line went from Brooklyn Avenue [now Cesar Chavez Avenue] all the way past Eastern Avenue and even further than that. Later on, people put the number of cars that participated that day in the hundreds… All I know for sure is, on that day, Groupe became part of the folklore of East Los Angeles.”
Many of the clubs that had dwindled to only a handful of active members began to communicate and grow. Former officers contacted homeboys who had returned from Vietnam, or who had wanted to get away from the violence that had plagued the Boulevard. They talked about Groupe’s triumphant cruise, about 148 placas sparkling beneath the lights of Whittier Boulevard. Jesse Valadez of the Imperials started making plans for his new ’64 Impala. Fernando Ruelas contacted upholsterer Frank Rodella about a new interior for his ’39. Word on the street was that lowriding was back.
“Membership dwindled to less than nine members during the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Pharaohs C.C.-Wilmington club coordinator Angel Rodriguez explains. “Then, in 1974, the club became more active again and began to attract new members from cities just outside the Wilmington area, such as Paramount, Downey, Long Beach, Redondo Beach, San Pedro, Carson, Torrance and Lakewood. Instead of having chapters in each of these different cities, the club decided to change its name to Pharaohs-South Bay.”
Other clubs had to change their names entirely as they began to join into this new, more cosmopolitan resurgence of the traditional cruise. The East L.A. Sheriffs, as well as the larger Mexican-American community, labeled many of the clubs “gangs on wheels,” accusations hard to shake because they had once been true. Many clubs that had fallen into that violent lifestyle disappeared altogether, like Gestapo, Sons of Soul and Orpheus, notorious for shutting down the Boulevard entirely–with no help from the Sheriffs–for several weekends.
Some clubs simply wanted to breathe new life into their organizations, make a break from the past. New Breed Car Club members simply melted down their placas for new ones, new president Alex Vega flying New Trend C.C. colors by 1974. Others reorganized into entirely new clubs, like Brown Breed C.C., which started meeting every Sunday at the Union Gas Station at the corner of Atlantic and Olympic in East L.A.
The Majestics Car Club, founded in 1973 by “The Godfather,” president Little John, had a mission statement that really reflected this new attitude toward lowriding. “It’s so people can see that not all lowriders are a bunch of kids. Many are homeowning, job holding, respectable citizens that have cars as a hobby and abide by certain by-laws set up by the members at large.” The prestigious Majestics Car Club, which now has chapters throughout the United States, began with two affiliated clubs, the Majestics-East Los Angeles, sometimes known as the “Chicano” chapter, and the Majestics-Los Angeles, considered the “Black” chapter. Majestics chapters everywhere proudly boast the membership of many races.
Whittier had always acted as a cultural crossroads for clubs throughout Southern California, and it was once again alive with fine rides. Veteran cruisers wanted to show off their own customized creations, but couldn’t contact enough OG members to come together. So, two of lowriding’s oldest, most prestigious clubs decided to fly under a single banner.
New Wave Car Club had become entangled in many of the rivalries that had torn apart the lowriding community, and their plaque was too often associated by East Los Angeles Sheriffs with the violence that plagued the Boulevard. Klique had had its problems as well, but their main rivals, Orpheus and Sons of Soul, no longer existed.
“In 1974, I decided that it was time for a change,” former New Wave president Roberto “Beto” Hernandez recalls. “We didn’t want to just break up the club, so I figured, well, we hung out with Klique and they were pretty good neighbors. We called a meeting, and I said, ‘Look, guys, we’re breaking up New Wave and we’re going to merge together and become one powerful club.’ That’s when we re-started Klique, in February of 1974.”
Groupe Car Club, after its legendary 1973 cruise, had its own internal upheaval in the summer of ’74. Reynaldo “Butch” Martinez was barely out of his teens, but his ’66 Buick Riviera was already talk of the town. A natural leader, he put in his bid for the presidency. Groupe had more than 150 members, most of them loyal to Ed Flores, the OG president who had led that victorious caravan, and they re-elected their friend. But Butch still didn’t like the way that the club was being run, so he took a dozen of his homeboys, along with some of the finest cars in the club, and started New Life C.C.
The club ordered their plaque and drew up strict by-laws stressing car quality. They began working with police and the community, trying to create a better image for lowriding. Just as they began getting recognition and respect on the Boulevard, tragedy struck. At only 23, Butch, who suffered a rare respiratory disorder from birth, died. His friends chose to bury the club name with him.
For several months, they looked into other car clubs, to see where their own rides would be wanted. Finally, in July of 1975, Tommy “Pooh Bear” started calling all the guys. They met over at the Quiet Cannon, a golf course in Montebello bordering East Los Angeles, and elected Tommy president of a new organization. “Let’s get on the right track,” he told them. “No car club fees, and let everybody know that it’s a whole new club we’re in.”
They changed their name to Lifestyle Car Club-Los Angeles, and began meeting regularly at the Quiet Cannon, except on rainy Sundays when they would cruise over to the American Legion Hall on Olympic Road. They attracted dozens of new members, all committed to building the best rides on the Boulevard. Six months later, Tommy’s father passed away. He was forced to abdicate the presidency, and passed the scepter to a young cruiser with a clean, candied ’73 Riviera called “Dressed to Kill,” Joe Ray. “Joe Ray’s first strategy, once he became president, was to keep the name and build on that,” wrote Sal Casillas in a 1978 LRM article. “Lifestyle threw a successful dance that boosted club moral to the sky. Then, by using constructive criticism, he made the members fix up their cars to the bone.”
Suggestions of throwing a large lowrider show, something that would give R.G. Canning a run for his money, often met with resistance from older car club members. It might get too violent, it might lose us money, club treasurers would say. Those who gave it a try met with miles of red tape and a bureaucracy not too keen on cars with cut coils. R.G Canning and other major producers retained the monopoly on Southern California lowrider shows. But the lowriding was back, and there was no stopping it this time around.
San Jose was one of America’s fastest growing cities in the ’70s, the number-one employer in Northern California. Its population had doubled in the past 20 years, thanks to the growth of the computer industry, and resident tech heads were suprised to learn that New West Magazine had ranked their town the second most desirable city to live in the western states.
One of the reasons why San Jose cruisers loved their city so much was for Story and King streets, packed curb to curb with lowriders, newly lifted by one of the many shops that had sprung up throughout the decade. “Northern California was definitely the hydraulic capitol as far as shops go,” explains First Impression president Steve Miller, owner of Low Rider Hydraulics. “There were 33 car clubs in San Jose alone in 1977.”
Chico and the Man had hit the small screen, and the new Gypsy Rose was bumping through living rooms across America. The show itself was criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of East Los Angeles Chicanos “as buffoons,” but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of the most popular programs in the barrio and beyond. And, as Jesse Valadez had predicted, the Gypsy Rose was opening America’s eyes to lowriding, to the East L.A. community, and to the fine rides that the Imperials Car Club was known for.
Low Rider Magazine was growing in popularity throughout California, and getting mixed reviews. “When I saw the first couple issues of Low Rider, it looked like a low grade school kind of thing,” remembers hydraulics pioneer Hugh Stillman. “It was definitely put together on somebody’s kitchen table. But, to us, it was like, wow, actual lowriders in a magazine!”