Some of the most intricate, eye-tantalizing custom paint jobs can be seen on Lowriders. They are cars that act as a canvas, sharing art that speaks of struggle, inspiration, family and history. Emotional creations that illicit responses in kind, not everyone understands them but must respect the time and effort required to build one.
Where did these cars come from? Some believe that Lowriders first emerged in 1939 when young rebels in Juárez, Mexico began “dropping” their cars by stuffing sandbags in the trunk for that low-look. However, it seems that Lowriding developed differently and for different reasons depending on an area’s culture, economy and political circumstances. It represents a very deep sense of tradition, faith and community. The style didn’t appear in the U.S. until its arrival in Eastern Los Angeles, Calif., (among other regions) in the late 1940s, and it wasn’t all that well known here until the custom car hobby took a turn during the 1950s-‘60s.
While many drivers and builders turned away from the low, sleek lead-sled look and headed into futuristic, flamboyant speed demons — a trend lead by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and the Kustom Kulture movement — others stuck to the time-honored technique of lowering and streamlining cruisers, and it only improved with each decade. Air-ride suspensions (airbags connected to an air compressor that replace the vehicle’s usual coil springs) gave owners the ability to drop the vehicle’s frame to the ground while parked — also a great anti-theft device. Even better were the firmer hydraulic suspensions with heavy-duty hydraulic accumulators (bladders that can fill with liquid so quickly and with such force that the vehicle can “hop” or “dance,” making them seem alive and animated), and this setup became a key feature in lowriders. With the flip of a switch, the car could rise up to avoid obstacles on the road and pass police inspection, and then drop again to a divine pavement-scraping stance. In fact, early on, hydraulics were originally taken from aircraft; the pumps, dumps and cylinders were modified and mated to cars’ undercarriages’ for an adjustable suspension.
It goes without saying that lowriders aren’t built for speed; the sometimes bawdy, always striking cars are intended and built to be as sleek, stylish and sexy as possible. They are for cruising in comfort, and plush interiors often go hand-in-hand with banging sound systems. Externally, bodywork such as frenching and fender skirts step up the style, but typically paint is the real eye-catcher: Scallops that complement the body lines and bright metallic flakes and pearls call for attention, and elaborate murals, such as the detailed family mural on Pierre Suranto’s 1959 Chevrolet Impala, tell a personal story that only insiders truly understand.
Lowriders are commonly built from large cruisers such as Chevrolet Impalas and Monte Carlos, Lincoln Continentals and for something a little different, Buick Rivieras. There is even a spectacular 1953 Chevrolet ice cream truck named "El Chávez Ravine" inspired by the Los Angeles community of Chávez Ravine. Painted by artist Vincent Valdez, his neighborhood was destroyed to make way for Dodger Stadium in the late-1950s.
And while they began as expressions of a marginalized community, the work involved with building a Lowrider has been recognized by the mainstream as well. For instance, a beautiful 1969 Ford LTD named “Dave's Dream” was displayed at the Smithsonian Institution exhibition, and “literally glowed in the sun” and “was a magnet for crowds,” according to reports from Smithsonian curator Bill Withuhn. Even the engine bay is lined in plush fabric fit for a king. Dave Jaramillo started the build, which was completed by his family as a celebration of his life, after he died. A portrait of the family is airbrushed on the rear fenders.
Within the Lowrider world, Gypsy Rose, a drop-dead-gorgeous 1964 Chevrolet Impala, became an icon. The current car is actually its third incarnation, all built by the late Jesse Valadez and inspired by famous burlesque singer Gypsy Rose Lee. The body is many shades of pink with roses lining the sides and expertly airbrushed on the front and rear panels. The roof is smooth as glass and is covered in roses of every color. The interior carries on the pink theme — velour style — and features a wine bar and a chandelier in the rear. The Petersen Automotive Museum called it “the most influential custom car ever built.”
The Lowriding community is passionate about family values, heritage and honoring the vehicle’s influence and beauty. Car shows, cruises and contests unite the community and keep the culture alive, and I cannot imagine a world without the treat of an occasional dazzling sight of a lowrider floating down the road.