Southern California has a long history of incubating automotive subcultures and then exporting them to the rest of the world. But even among hot rodders, vanners, and street racers, no auto subset is quite as flashy or culturally iconic as the lowrider, as it’s come to be called.
Lowriders can trace their lineage back to a succession of Chevrolet Impalas, each called Gypsy Rose, their creator Jesse Valadez, and the Imperials—the East L.A. car club to which Valadez and his cars belonged. While lowriding wasn’t a new concept, Valadez and the Imperials simply rewrote the rules of the game. Outrageous style and cultural pride became paramount in the creation of the ideal lowrider.
The first iteration of the car, a 1963 Impala, was far from remarkable, with just the name Gypsy Rose painted on the rear window. But it set in motion a series of ideas, design elements, and motifs, and by the late 1960s, Valadez had purchased another 1963 Impala to take his ideas further.
Working with an artist named Walt Prey, Valadez saw his creative vision come to life. With its vibrant red, pink, and pearl white paint job and ornamental roses, this next incarnation of Gypsy Rose proved a showstopper. Sadly, the car was destroyed by gang members around 1972. The loss did not deter Valadez. Instead, he and Prey, along with painter Don Heckman, created an even more impressive rolling work of art, one that took the ideas of its predecessors as far as they could go.
This time using a 1964 Impala, the team covered the car with hundreds of roses, ornate pinstriping, and an eye-catching pink exterior. The roof alone afforded an explosion of color and countless roses. Still not content with merely an eye-catching exterior, Valadez and company fully customized the interior of the car, with crushed velvet upholstery, a cocktail bar, and even chandeliers. Cruising down Whittier Boulevard, both Valadez and Gypsy Rose were an instant sensation.
This proudly Latino cultural tradition quickly gained prominence well beyond the barrios of East L.A. By the mid 1970s, Gypsy Rose could be seen by a national television audience in the opening credits of Chico and the Man. The car was soon being hailed as the most popular lowrider in the world by magazines like Low Rider, a publication that rose to prominence alongside the increased public profile of Gypsy Rose.
Though Valadez passed away in 2011, his son, Jesse Valadez II, proudly carries on the family tradition established more than half a century ago. In April 2017, Gypsy Rose joined two other famous customized cars—the McGee Roadster and the Hirohata Merc—on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as part of the HVA’s third annual Cars at the Capital. The event drew thousands of onlookers, many of whom came specifically to catch a glimpse of the Gypsy Rose. Few individual cars can be said to have given rise to and become emblematic of an entire automotive subculture. Thanks to the efforts of Valadez and the Imperials, Gypsy Rose has become just that.