How Low Can You Go?
By Mary Jane Garza
JULY 20, 1998: Mateo Aguirre first saw the '87 Mazda truck for sale on South Congress Avenue, where many lowriders like to cruise. He never thought that it would lead him so deeply into the world of lowriding, let alone to start his own car club, Auspicious Car & Bike Club of Austin. When Aguirre purchased the Mazda, it had already been lowered to the ground. Soon he and a friend began to invest a lot of time and money into the truck, gutting the interior and completely re-upholstering it in black and white with red accents. Then they shot (painted) the exterior from bottom to top, in a red to white fade. They added pearl and flake so that when the sun hits it just right, it turns different colors. Nice.
That's the allure of lowriding - making your own special ride, not another one like it - cut down, custom painted, richly upholstered, accessories gold dipped, dash boards and trunks fitted with uniquely designed and handmade neon lighting. "You like to drive something nice and say, 'Yeah, that's my car,'" says Aguirre. "I could put a BMW, a Mercedes, and my truck next to each other. The Mercedes is nice, expensive, but the first thing you gonna look at is my truck, it's gonna attract your eye."
Lowriding was started by Chicanos in California. Originally, "bombas," or pre-Fifties American cars were the vehicle of choice of many lowriders who restored them as authentically as possible. Of course, many lowriders still do that. But today, even new cars are being transformed into entirely new creations. Lowrider car shows now include categories like custom cars, trucks, Euro sports, cars from the Seventies, and a special category just for Impalas. New styles are added every year as the fields expand.
Although many of the paintings on lowrider vehicles reflect aspects of Hispanic culture - Selena and the Virgen de Guadalupe being popular subjects painstakingly executed on the hoods, firewalls, trunks, and sides of the vehicles - the subject matter can range from Aztec pyramids to futuristic androids. The artists, craftsmen, sculptors, and creators of the "original art car" (as these vehicles are called by peers and admirers alike) are dedicated, even obsessed, with creating the finest ranfla (car), which can sometimes take many years to complete. Usually, once a piece is finished, many lowriders continue to transform their creations adding accessories, repainting exteriors, and modifying body parts.
"It's art on wheels," explains Jorge Castaño, who has spent $100,000 in five years transforming his 1989 GMC truck into "Wild Thing 2000," aptly named not only for its murals of robotic lions but for what this hot lowrider can do. "It's actually worth about $300,000 with all the man hours me, my brother, and friends put into it." Additionally, many of the truck's parts have been gold-plated, including the undercarriage and motor.
"You know," Castaño continues, "some people like to paint, others do sculptures, I like to create my art on vehicles and show my stuff, what I can do on cars. There are only three original things left on the truck. The handmade front end - hood, grill, and bumper - is all one piece of steel we welded then molded. Everything is my design; body, bed, cab, the hydraulics."
It's a far ride from the 1940s when the first lowriders, Mexican-American veterans of WWII, cut their cars down "low" to make them unique and to create the impression of gliding down the street. By the 1970s, lowriding was catching on, gaining popularity with vatos locos everywhere as a way of making a visible statement of their culture and pride. Lowrider Magazine, out of the Los Angeles area, hit the streets in 1977 capturing the scene and spreading the word about the style that was taking the automobile customizing industry by storm. Lowrider Magazine began organizing lowrider car shows, setting standards and prizes which soon became the goal of many lowriders.
Lowriding became undeservedly associated with gangs when drugs and violence crept into the scene, leading to confrontations with police. The image, unfortunately, still lingers. The height of those clashes came when Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles was forcibly and officially closed off to "cruising" by lowriders in 1979.
The stereotype upsets Aguirre. When he began to drive his truck around Austin, he started getting pulled over by police for no apparent reason - other than the fact that he drove a souped-up lowrider. "It got to the point I didn't want to have the truck anymore. I'd be driving down the highway, and maybe I wouldn't put on my blinkers to switch lanes. That would be enough reason to pull me over. They would handcuff me while searching the truck." When asked for his driver's license, sometimes he would inadvertently give the cops his student ID from UT where he is a mechanical engineering major. "They would look and say 'Oh, you're a student.' It would change things around."
Austin currently has more than 20 lowrider car clubs with many members in each club. Together, these separate clubs formed the Austin Lowrider Association. When lowriding interest peaked in the 1980s, clubs began to split up - members became too involved with family or work to devote time to the rides, lifestyles changed, and members moved away, leaving gaps in leadership and organization. Two years ago, the ALA started up again when new and young members like 21-year-old Aguirre started to revive the local scene and began organizing events like the first lowrider show at UT. Aguirre formed Auspicious Car & Bike Club as a way to explain what lowriding is and to give his younger brothers and other young kids like them an outlet away from gangs. The club offers a series of workshops to assist kids interested in creating car models and customizing them to look like lowriders. In many lowrider car shows car models are often displayed next to the real thing.
"I talked to the owner of Lowrider Magazine and he had never heard of anything like this," said Aguirre. "...kids putting car models together to look like lowriders. My brother built a model of my truck. Instead of having a real car, kids can build a model." About 30 completed models, of cars like '59 Chevy Fleetlines, '59 El Dorado Cadillacs, '55 Bel Airs, and Sixties-era Chevy Impalas (the most popular car with lowrider adults and kids, alike), and many others have been painstakingly cut, painted, and assembled to look like the originals. They are often displayed in different angles to show painted undercarriages. Hoods are left open to highlight detail work inside, just like at real car shows. Many of these models are on display at the Austin Children's Museum as part of this weekend's festival.
As with the big versions, models take a lot of time to build. Throughout the process, kids learn discipline and how much of an investment is required to complete a project requiring this much attention to detail. The models are also appealing to kids with limited cash flow. Even a lowrider bicycle can end up costing several thousand dollars after gold-plating bars, upholstering seats, and painting murals on extended frames. With car models, kids not only learn about the basics of building a car, but get to flex their creative muscles and come up with their own dream version of a ride, without having to overextend tight budgets.
And just like the real lowriders, some of the models the club has put together have remote controls to make the car "hop," or lift up and down. (Hydraulics became part of the lowrider scene when it became illegal to have a car low on the ground. They were added to "lift" the car to normal height whenever necessary.)
Fifteen-year-old Juan Manuel Rodriguez, Aguirre's younger brother who made a truck model to look like Aguirre's lowrider, also put together a green '59 Cadillac El Dorado. Rodriguez likes the way lowriders look and wants to have a '64 Chevy Impala someday. He has spent a lot of time this summer getting the models "show ready" and in the process realized something more about lowriding. "I've been around it for a while and I'm real drawn to it. This is the first time we put cars in a museum and now I see lowriding is an art, not just a hobby." Rodriguez is also a budding sketch artist and hopes someday to do some airbrush designs on cars. "I would like to do an Aztec pyramid with the Aztec calendar behind it and eagle on top. They are important symbols to me because I'm from Mexico."
Those first lowriders probably never guessed that those initial attempts at self-expression would spawn an entire industry and capture a worldwide audience. Car clubs have formed in Europe, and lowriding has become hugely popular in Japan. Hondas, Toyotas, and mini-trucks are being turned into customized creations that rival anything on this side of the ocean. Top winners at U.S. car shows are sometimes purchased by Japanese lowriders who then take their prizes and compete with them overseas. Some Japanese enthusiasts are interested in buying Castaño's truck, which has been Lowrider Magazine's truck of the year for the last two years. Castaño will compete one more year and after that he'll decide whether to finally let his truck hit the streets or to sell it.
Wild Thing 2000 was the first vehicle from outside of the state of California to win first place. "We went to Califas to show them what we had," smiled Castaño. "They were mad when the title went to Texas. We came out of nowhere real clean, real nice. All the modifications were perfect and we blew everybody away."
The admiration of fans and peers alike and the notoriety that comes from winning in competitions is a big rush for those who compete and win. "When people saw it they said, 'Wow, how did you do that?'" Castaño said proudly. "We've done something that nobody had done before, creating a new original vehicle with handmade front end, lights, suspension, and molded frame. We were real excited to win."
Many people dream of having that 15 minutes of fame at least once in a lifetime. Having it once is nice, but getting it twice is no doubt extra special. "The second time we won felt even better than the first," said Castaño still smiling. "It made me feel good."
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