Hoppers, bombs, taildraggers: there’s a lot more to lowriders than you might think. They’re cars, but they’re also a culture; they follow a theme, but they’re as individual as the people who build and drive them. And like any other type of modified vehicle, they range from pricey and pampered show cars down to everyday drivers built at home.
“A lowrider is about the paint, the wheels, that it sits low, that it goes up and down,” says Al Perez, who owns a 1939 Chevy and is president of the La Habra, California chapter of the Duke’s Car Club. “It’s a style that’s the art of the Mexican-Americans.”
Talk to almost any lowrider owner and one thing stands out above all others: family is everything, and the cars and the culture stem from that. You can’t pile your children into the back of a deuce coupe to go cruising. You need a big car, one that holds everybody, one that has presence on the street. That car can then gain you entry into a larger family, that of a car club. “Duke’s started as a lowrider club in South Central Los Angeles, and its members grew up working on cars to stay out of trouble,” Perez says. “Before cars, they’d work on bicycles and go-karts. Your family is your community, both biological and the car family, and lowriders are our forte.”
Passing it down: Israel Sosa built his 1963 Impala because he grew up seeing them driving by, and his son Isaiah is already involved.
The classic lowrider is more about attitude than anything else. It can be chopped, but it’s just as likely to have its original roof height. It can be shaved, but door handles and hood chrome are just fine. It has to be lowered, but how high it can go is up for grabs. If the car came with an inline six, it can stay. There’s even a subset of those who obsessively collect new-old-stock accessories, the “number’s matching” set of the low and slow. They’ll show off salesmen’s kits, vacuum ashtrays, even the cardboard signs that hung off the dash, explaining how to work your first-ever air conditioning.
Almost anything can be turned into a lowrider, but the overwhelming choice is Chevrolet. That may be because the X-frame construction makes it easier to install a hydraulic suspension, but Denise Sandoval, who curated a lowrider exhibit at the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles—and which features nothing but Chevys—has suggested it’s also because Chevrolet dealers were the most likely to write up loans for Mexican-Americans, and Mexican-Americans were the driving force in the evolution of the lowrider scene.
Like in all car cultures, the first lowrider builders had an affinity for the cars they saw in their neighborhoods. That sense of community, of emulating the guys you admired when you were a child, is a recurring theme. “I saw these cars in the lowrider community, and it started as a childhood dream,” says Israel Sosa, who took five years to build his 1963 Impala from scratch. “You want to be the center of attention, and knowing that you put it together.”
He belongs to the Uniques Car Club, and proudly displays his club plaque in the rear window. “It’s the camaraderie,” he says. “Every car belongs to a car club, or should. If I need to touch up my paint, I don’t know a painter, but my club brothers know one. I blew a return line and it broke, all full of oil, on July 4 when everything was closed. I turned to the club president, and he had one. That’s the privilege of being part of a club.”
The range of what makes a lowrider is pretty wide, and nowhere was that more evident than at the Torres Empire car show, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. There were the 1930s and 1940s models known as bombs. There were 1950s customs, and the land yachts of the 1970s and ‘80s. Outside were the hoppers, built for competitions where the car that jumps the highest wins. And everywhere, there were the families and the clubs, because this goes well beyond steel and rubber and hydraulic return lines. Lowriders have moved outside the Mexican-American communities—the massive Viejitos car club has chapters in Australia and Japan—but that sense of homegrown community, and of carrying on the culture through the cars, remains.
Like hot rods, lowriders grew out of the car culture that emerged following the Second World War. Soldiers came home and uncovered the cars they’d thrown tarps over before they left, but infused them with the sense of speed, danger, and we-might-not-be-here-tomorrow that came home with them from battle. They’d learned mechanical trades in the war, and in the case of lowriders, experience with hydraulics from ships and planes. Although there were Mexican-Americans in the traditional hot-rodding scene as well, in the neighborhoods away from the dry lakes, wrenchers built cars that were nothing like the stripped-down roadsters that went out to race at El Mirage and Bonneville.
Even today, building a lowrider is all about being different, at every level. It’s not a cheap hobby by any means, but that club-is-family attitude means that members join in to help others, putting together a car on the equivalent of a shoestring if that’s what it takes.
And like every other sort of car scene, there’s the other end of the scale, the top show vehicles can get well into the high six figures. Intricate paint and custom interiors are just the start; there’s also chroming the undercarriage and engraving the trim, an elaborate process involving hand-carving designs into the steel before it’s coated.
Luis Montellano took twelve years to build his 1964 Impala, “and it was lots of money and patience,” he says. “I paint cars for a living, and I painted cars for others and then put that knowledge into this car. It’s cool to just drop and lift, but I can do the three-wheel lift. I want to get the attention, and you have to exaggerate.”
Montellano remembers being four or five years old and seeing a car move up and down on hydraulics, and he was hooked. It took a long time to get to this point, because “my taste is loud and fine, and I wanted a jewel, not something half-assed. I waited a year and two months for the shop that did my interior, and while most interiors are $2,000 to $3,000, mine was $9,000, because I wanted the best. I want to win shows, and when I get first out of 500 cars it’s a great honor. But everybody builds their cars their own way. It’s just so cool.”
If the glitter and bounce of a lowrider is something that appeals to you, there are clubs all over the world, and if you’re lucky enough to be in Los Angeles between July, 2017 and July, 2018, there’s a pretty great show at the Petersen Automotive Museum, celebrating some of the best lowriders in the city. Motor Trend On Demand also has a new show that’s all low and shiny, so check out some of the episodes of Lowrider Roll Models. There are some freebies on YouTube to get you hooked.
Right stance, right paint, right discs. Steve Hernandez’s 1948 Chevy Fleetline.
Dare to be different: many lowriders are Chevrolets, but Rudy Paredes put his soul into a 1979 Thunderbird.
While almost all lowriders are American cars, some look overseas: this is a Volkswagen Jetta.
The lowrider scene was way ahead of the hot rodders in picking up on the coolness factor of the late ’70s Monte Carlo.
The most famous lowrider in the world? The “Gypsy Rose,” a 1974 Chevrolet decorated with 150 hand-painted roses, gained fame when it appeared in the opening credits of the TV show Chico and the Man, starring the late Freddie Prinz. It was damaged beyond repair in a crash, and this replica was built.
Artists Artemio Rodriguez and John Jota Leaños created El Muertorider in 2006, combining themes of Mexico’s Day of the Dead and Roman Catholicism.
Scroll on through the gallery for more paintjobs and wild interiors. If you have a lowrider of your own, tell us about it in the comments!