Too Low for Four Wheels
Some people just can’t wait for their driver’s license to cruise; when the boulevard beckons, a true lowrider just has to answer. The term “lowrider” has never referred to full-size, four-wheeled rides alone; the person, the style and the cultura are all a part of the Lowrider Movement, and whatever you choose to cruise can be transformed into a true lowrider.
Ever since the ’20s, miniaturized versions of cars already on the road were being mass produced. These models could come correct, to stock specifications, or they could be customized into any dream ride. That’s how “kustom” king George Barris got his start, dropping and chopping a model; by the early ’60s, young lowriders had turned onto that same small way of bringing a dream to life. And they, like the big guys they looked up to, could manipulate the frame for custom tricks like no other modeler ever dreamed of.
“I was in junior high,” remembers modeler Armando “Mando” Flores, who discovered 1/25-scale hydraulics back in ’76. “They had model car contests every month. Then, one time I saw this car hopping. I had never seen a model car hop like that.” As Mando pressed forward for a better look at the leaping low, the young owner accidentally broke his hydraulics. “He took off the body, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s how he did it.’ ” The lowriding community has always appreciated these tiny cruisers, respecting them as beautiful works of art like their larger cousins.
Other would-be car customizers found even more original ways to drop a little closer to cruising height. Ted Rodriguez of Pacoima, California, started a new trend back in ’81, when his first dove gray lowrider pedal car cruised across the pages of LRM. Now the proud owner of several candied, chromed and plushly stitched mini-cruisers, his pride of little lows is ready to take on anything at the shows.
The class is “Special Interest,” and competition can be tough, pedal cars up against boats, scooters and almost anything else emblazoned in true lowriding style, elaborate paint schemes, lots of chrome and plenty of heart. One former entry in this corner of the cruise soon grew so popular that it got its own special section. Lowrider motorcycles have been one of the most popular categories at lowrider shows for two decades, attracting as much (or more) attention than rides on four wheels.
Far and away the most popular low rides on two wheels, however, have been celebrated since the ’60s for their commitment to the Movement. These are lowrider bicycles, their front forks bowed for cruising low, the tank flawlessly filled, disguising a mean rake as a strictly cosmetic modification. “I consider a real lowrider bike to have spoke wheels, a spring action fork and a nice paint job,” explains Warren Wong, the inventor of the 144-spoke wire wheel for bicycles. “It doesn’t have to be a candy paint job, but they are always welcome.”
But, lowrider bikes didn’t start out with all of these expensive extras, those aftermarket goodies that barely bump you up a class in modern competition. Times were tighter in the late ’60s, and a lowrider really didn’t need all of that stuff to build a bike ride. With one exception, every one of those first lowrider bicycles all had to have those awesome spring-action forks.
By the mid ’60s, lowrider-style cars were cruising up and down Whittier Boulevard, flying placas for Imperials, the Duke’s and New Wave Car Clubs. Bill Blake’s father owned Dennison’s Cyclery, right on Whittier, where Bill spent his childhood watching the Lowrider Movement grow, while helping the neighborhood youths out with their very first cruisers.
“The kids’ dads and older brothers all had lowrider cars and cruised up and down Whittier Boulevard at the time,” remembers Bill. “They and the older kids who couldn’t afford cars were fixing up their bicycles. They wanted to imitate their brothers and dads. Then, Schwinn came out with that spring fork in front and it just seemed like a lowrider bike.”
Just as the Lowrider Movement shifted into high gear, Schwinn came out with a revolutionary new cruiser, the 19631/2 Sting-Ray. It was built to resemble a dragster, one of the top motor trends of the era. With the banana seat, the split tire–just like the dragsters–and the high handlebars, it was a real breakthrough in bicycles. “It took cycling from transportation,” continues Blake, “to being fun to ride. It was such a success that they immediately added colors.”
Like Chevrolet, Schwinn was the first to take color and body style, as well as cost and performance, into account when building their rides. “The fad peaked when Schwinn began producing the Krate series of colorful Sting-Rays: the Orange Krate, Apple Krate, Pea Picker, Lemon Peeler, Cotton Picker and Gray Ghost,” writes Bicycling Magazine’s Scott Martin. “The company made 17 million Sting-Ray style bikes between 19631/2 and 1973, according to bicycle historian Jim Hurd.”
The Sting-Ray, measuring 161/2 inches (measured from the center of the bottom bracket to the end of the rear dropout), was soon joined by the Sting-Ray, Jr., rolling in at only 151/2 inches, for even smaller boys. The “female frame” Sting-Rays, the Slick Chick, Hollywood and Fair Lady, also got a new little sister, the Li’l Chick. For the smallest cruisers on two wheels, the Li’l Tiger, measuring in at only 12 inches, kept the smallest set on the road and in style.
Schwinn was becoming the world’s leading bicycle manufacturer, selling the first bicycles ever built with real attention to form, just perfect for customization. East L.A. cruisers weren’t the only ones who thought so. In 1964, kustom legend George Barris caught a glimpse of the new Schwinn and was inspired to create a museum quality custom that, even today, is just dripping with lowrider style. Joining his four-wheeled kustom kreations built specifically for The Munsters, “Monster Koach” and “Dragula,” Eddie Munster’s wildly modified ’64 Sting-Ray kept the show’s youngest viewers dreaming.
“The forgotten cruiser was well ahead of its time, with major modifications starting with an all gold-painted chain frame that was welded together,” wrote Lowrider Bicycle editor Saul Vargas. “It was equipped with many extra features, including chopper-style sissy bar and handlebars, with a windshield that had Eddie’s name lettered on it, upholstered biscuit-tucked seat and brass molding designs on the fenders. The cruiser also had a crash guard that served as a rear bumper and a unique and fully operable lamplight that dated back to the late 1800s or early 1900s. It was equipped with classic springer forks that gave the bike a smooth ride when you hit the breaks and started skidding on the rear Schwinn slick.”
Every self-respecting kid in America wanted a Schwinn Sting-Ray like Eddie Munster’s–even a stock cruiser would have been fine for most of them–with its sleek 16-inch front wheel and drum brake, springer fork, five-speed stick shifter in honor of muscle car mania, banana seat, mag wheel chain ring, “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars and, on top of the line cruisers, electric turn indicators and checkerboard rear mirror. For a group of young East Los Angeles Chicanos, however, even this was not enough.
“The first modification was filling in the frame,” Blake begins. “Not only that, they added streamers and mirrors, and pretty soon they started lowering them. Bending the fork was probably the most common way of lowering them. Schwinns just seemed to fit the Latin spirit because they had a lot of chrome and the lowrider cars had a lot of chrome. There was something to lower because of the front fork, and it just seemed to connect to the lowrider cars.”
“I started out with bikes,” remembers renowned custom painter “Big Ed” Madrigal. “I would lower my seat, I wanted to fill in the tank. I used to do that when I was a kid. I made the sissy bar to sit low to make it look like little pipes, putting on metal and chrome to make it look like a motorcycle.”
This was long before the first lowrider happenings hit the parks, but even at R.G. Canning and other mainstream events, you would sometimes see a lowrider bike proudly displayed next to the competing car, sometimes dressed in matching paint. These bikes were still cruisers, meant for transportation on the boulevard more than for hauling trophies. It never really reached beyond East Los Angeles in this early phase, but that didn’t mean those cruisers were any less firme.
“The lowrider bike guys at the time were just a little group, and they weren’t really considered very serious,” says Blake, who watched a group of East Los Angelenos take their bikes from stock heights to radical lows. “The other kids were into them, but never thought that it would be a huge fad. They were ahead of their time. It was all Chicano back then, really a product of the Mexican barrio, and it was all people who related to the lowrider car movement. Everyone involved was just really cool, and not afraid to be different.”
These pioneering lowrider bicyclists cruised their way through high school, but as they graduated to four-wheeled machines, the younger set failed to pick up the idea and turn it into a custom trend. The new faster, lighter BMX bikes were coming in, and heavy Krates and Sting-Rays just seemed like dinosaurs. A few cruisers kept the faith, but by 1971, even the barrio was feeling the need for speed, investing in those shiny new trick bikes that just wouldn’t look good lowered, no matter what. “Lowrider bikes just took a siesta,” says Bill Blake.
In 1974, Bill Blake took over his father’s Whittier Boulevard shop, and had almost forgotten about those chromed and customized cruisers that the neighborhood kids had been into a few years before. “Then, sometime in the late ’70s, I started getting phone calls here at the bike shop. ‘Do you have old Schwinn parts, old Schwinn bikes, old Schwinn forks?’ I’m a businessman, I don’t like to tell customers ‘no.’ I found a stash of old spring forks and began marketing them. Then, I heard about a new magazine and contacted this salesman that they had there, Alberto Lopez. I placed the cheapest ad that Low Rider Magazine would accept and got a tremendous response.”
Unknown to many businesses, lowrider bikes had made a huge comeback throughout the early ’80s. Cruisers who had enjoyed the fad as a teen, than graduated up to a lowrider big enough for the whole family, were introducing their own children to the two-wheeled cruisers.
The very first issue of Low Rider Magazine featured a Northern California cruiser looking cool on his dropped and raked Schwinn, a fad that was coming up and dropping down throughout lowriding’s San Jose-East L.A. cruising corridor. “It was the whole Mexican-American Movimiento,” Blake hypothesizes. “Back in the ’60s, if you were Mexican, it was considered kind of a bad thing and everybody knew it. Then, with the Chicano Movement of the ’70s, it became a good thing to have a Mexican heritage, which was really good for everyone. That psychological change, ‘Brown Power,’ really made the kids proud. All of a sudden, Mexican-Americans were making real gains in this society. That’s when lowrider bikes started coming back on the streets.”
“In 1992, Alberto Lopez approached me about designing wire rims for bicycles,” remembers Blake. “We came up with a 72-spoke wheel that looked really good on the bikes. Alberto knew the people over at Dayton, so we went ahead and called them ‘Baby Daytons.’ ” The rims were a success, Alberto and Bill going on to create a custom lowrider-style frame, the “Aztlan Cruiser,” and other aftermarket extras ready for retail. Lowrider Bicycle, Inc. was born.
Now, although retail companies like LRB, Inc. were shipping hundreds of lowrider bicycles and parts across the country, nobody thought that the world was yet ready for a full lowrider bicycle publication. Nobody, that is, except LRM photographer Nathan Trujillo. “It was over Christmas, 1991, that I came up with the idea–I had been looking through past issues of LRM and I would see these small pictures of some good-looking bikes. I thought, ‘There’s a story there.’ “
Emblazoned across the pages of Lowrider Bicycle Magazine, it seemed that the Movement might be lost amidst a growing laundry list of “must have” mods, from candy and chrome to even more expenses. But, look carefully, not just in the magazines or on MTV, but at the kids cruising your neighborhood, at the youth packing the shows, proud of their Street and Mild Customs. These are the real future of lowriding.
All a true lowrider really needs is a clean cruiser (or a rusty frame with potential), and enough pride in yourself that you are willing to work for something real rather than falling prey to society’s negative elements. The hard work of builders like Mike Lopez, Alfonso Dominguez and Andrew Juarez is meant to inspire others to do their best, at whatever they do, from schoolwork to clean customization. If a solid beginning in bicycles leads to quality car customization, so much the better for the Lowrider Movement. But the process of setting goals, achieving them, and having something as beautiful and worthwhile as a lowrider bicycle to show for it is reason enough.