Cinco de Mayo Ranfla Especial
Old School Chevy Bomb
Hey Ese, que paso? Me, still recovering from my annual May 5 transformation into a staggering gringo biohazard, courtesy of the good folks at Dos Equis and Taqueria El Norte. Whatever your view on the raging immigration debate, let’s face it: what’s not to like about a holiday that celebrates the kicking of French ass? Not to mention the significant contributions Mexican-Americans have made to our contemporary culture – the arts, literature, cuisine, music, wrestling, and especially cars. Now that the aspirin is finally kicking in, let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard and review the Chicano community’s glorious gift to the automotive canon – the lowrider.
Now it’s true that Mexican-Americans have been key players in the development of other American automotive subcultures. In a previous post I mentioned hotrodding pioneer Joaquin Arnett and his Bean Bandits club of San Diego, and no history of hot rods would be complete without noting engine guru Barney Navarro. Those contributions continue today, as witnessed by drag racing’s Pedregon brothers and talented young hotrod builders like Rudy Rodriguez and Anthony Castaneda.
Postwar Pachuco Bomb: Chevy Fleetline
But there is no denying that when it comes to the car, Chicano culture is inexorably linked to lowriding. Like hotrodding, it traces its roots to 1930’s California and blossomed in the postwar prosperity of the 50’s, but that’s where most of the similarities end. Where hot rods were about speed and danger, a ranfla (lowrider) was about cruising slow and looking sharp, the perfect accessory to an East LA Pachuco’s zoot suit. Hot rods were fenderless, fast, Ford, and with an aggressive nose-down rake. The Pachuco’s ranfla, by contrast, adopted a deliberate tail-dragging attitude, assisted by a trunk full of sandbags. Hot rods were minimalist, but the lowrider aesthetic emphasized ornamentation: curb feelers, visors, spotlights, headlight eyebrows, ice can window air coolers, baroque Tijuana upholstery, dingle balls, “flipper bar” and Olds Fiesta hubcaps, gobs and gobs of chrome. Today if you’re seeking topnotch plating or upholstery work, it's hard to beat the craftsmen in the local Mexican American business district.
Another lasting legacy of the early era was allegiance to the Chevrolet bow tie. For the original lowriders, the iron of choice was the ‘Chevy Bomb’ – a bulbous ‘37-‘41 sedan or ‘46-’51 Fleetline. These carras were cheap, and had a weak-but-reliable straight six that was less prone to overheat in traffic than a hopped-up Ford V8. Plus, equipped with a split exhaust manifold and long 2” straight pipes, the Chevy Stovebolt would make a sinister and pleasing “rrrrrrrap” to announce your arrival. That early brand preference persists today: after 30+ years of publication, Lowrider Magazine has rarely featured a Ford on the cover.
Why the emphasis on slow? Sociologist believe lowriding is a modern incarnation of the traditional Mexican paseo (promenade), an ancient social ritual in which the unmarried adolescents of the village coyly circled the town square, boys on one side, girls on the other. East LA Cholos adapted this ritual for the automobile age, and begat a brand new American tradition –cruising the strip. When you ‘scooped the loop’ or ‘dragged main’ or ‘cruised the strip’ back in high school, you were participating in an echo of that South-of-the-Border courtship rite.
Joe Bailon's Livingstone Chevy
America’s first such car cruising appeared in the late 40’s along Whittier in East LA (immortalized in the lowrider anthem ‘Whittier Boulevard’ by Thee Midnighters) but quickly spread in the 50’s to Van Nuys, Tweedy, and Bellflower Boulevards, across California, and finally around the US. The action attracted kids of all ethnic and automobile persuasions, and fostered an era of cross-influence between gringo lead sled customizers (like Harry Westergard and the Barris Brothers) and barrio boulevarderos. The new look became sparer with less external ornamentation, focused on Ford coupes, and relied on radical metal work like chopping and sectioning. The new aesthetic was embodied in the work of Hispanic customizers like Joe Bailon (inventor of “Candy Apple Red” paint), and the Ayala brothers, Al and Gil. Between them they created some of the best-loved customs of the 50’s, like Bailon's 'Miss Elegance' and the Ayalas' Al Garcia convertible.
The days of the radical lead sled were numbered, however. The customizers had shown that you could improve the lines on a bulbous '49 Mercury or a '51 Buick by lowering its roof or whacking 3 inches out of its beltline. Detroit learned the lesson, and by the late Fifties began producing what were essentially ‘factory customs’ - low profile cars with narrow body sections, low, glass-dominated rooflines and ostentatious fins. It was both difficult and redundant to alter the basic body dimensions of these cars, so customizer began focusing on other elements.
Bellflower-style Buick- Firme
A young gringo car painter named Larry Watson showed that you could radically alter a one of the new low profile cars with nothing but paint. Watson, a fixture at the Clock Restaurant cruise scene on Bellflower Boulevard, began experimenting with new car paints suffused with flaked metal and ground-up abalone ("pearl"), laying them out in abstract geometric panels. His 1958 Thunderbird started an entire new school in customizing: mild body, wild paint. The "Watson" or "Bellflower" look would have a major impact on subsequent lowrider style, as Vatos began applying metalflakes and pearls in evermore complicated panel patterns of scallops, fades, fogs, lace, cobweb, and fish scale, a job that became easier with the adoption of of artist-quality airbrushes.
While the bar for paint and interior work kept getting higher, the standard for ride height kept getting lower. The old timer’s lowering method of sandbags was replaced by lowering blocks, cut spring coils, z’ed frames and drop spindles, as builders competed in a dizzying race to scrape the pavement. How low can you go? So low that many employed frame-mounted caster wheels as a safety precaution against speed bumps. Eventually this resulted in a regulatory backlash: the much-hated 1958 California Vehicle Code 24008, which outlawed any car having any part lower than the bottom of its wheel rims.
The car that started the hydro
revolucion - Ron Aguirre's X-Sonic
Code 24008, however, proved no match for Vato ingenuity. By 1959 a young Mexican-American customizer from San Bernadino, Ron Aguirre, had developed a unique solution. He had just completed the "X-Sonic," a wild bubble-canopy custom Corvette, and was en route to a show in LA when a traffic cop pulled him to the side of the freeway, itching to ticket him for a 24008. The cop dutifully measured its ground clearance, and began scratching his head. "Huh," Aguirre later quoted the perplexed cop, "I could have sworn this car was too low." What that confused patrolman didn’t know was that Aguirre’s X-Sonic was packing a secret new technology: hydraulic Pesco pumps and valves (scavenged from a surplus B-52 bomber) that allowed him to change ride height at the flick of a switch. Its debut at the Renegades show in LA later that same day caused a sensation, as Aguirre demonstrated his innovative adjustable suspension system.
The future of lowriding was, at that moment, ordained. Vatos across SoCal quickly began scouring for aircraft salvage yards in the high desert, seeking hydraulic treasure. The whereabouts of the X-sonic became unknown over the years; because of its important place in lowrider and custom history (it was also the first bubbletop show car, and Aguirre reportedly fabbed the bubbletop on Big Daddy Roth's Beatnik Bandit), it had become one of the auto collector's true Holy Grails. Happily, a reliable source tells me the X-sonic has been located and is undergoing a careful restoration.
The technologic stars were apparently aligned in 1958, because that year it saw the emergence of another item that would have a profound impact on lowriding – the Chevy Impala. Not only did it feature gobs of chrome and over-the-top syling, the new Impala featured an X-shaped frame that was almost preternaturally perfect for lowering and modification for hydraulics. The 1958-66 Impala remains today the quintessential lowrider, the 1964 model being the most cherished.
Between 1960 and 1975, Cholos from LA to El Paso adapted and refined these new technologies -- GM X-frames, hydraulics, and airbrushing -- to create what we all recognize today as classic lowrider style. It wasn't long before boulevarderos learned you could coax tricks out of your hydros. The first involved mounting a skidplate on the rear bumper, dumping rear pressure it at cruise speed, and throwing a spectacular nighttime shower of sparks. With the emergence of safer and more powerful hydraulics paired with independent multi switch setups, they also learned that you could twist your ranfla up on three wheels, making it dance around corners. But the ultimate discovery was the realization that a heavy hydro system could launch the entire front end off the ground. By the mid Seventies formal car bounce competitions were organized to settle who had the biggest and baddest hydros, which sparked the creation of the competition hopper; totally unstreetable, with a single purpose of vertical lift. The current world record is an Olympian 140 inches.
Stylistically, the lowrider look evolved throughout the 60s and 70s. Long before the 'Dub' and spinner wheel craze of today, Lowriders recognized the importance of a sharp pair of shoes on your car. The wide whitewalls and hubcaps of the Chevy Bomb era were superceded by “pinner” 2-inch whites on chrome 5-spoke Supremes during the Bellflower era. The new look was wire; then double-striped Vogues on Tru Spokes and Skylarks, then chubby little 13" whites on Dayton gold wires. Chrome, welded chain-link steering wheels appeared, along with twist tube grilles. The 'pimp style' cars of 70's blaxploitation films certainly had an influence on the new look, and Tijuana interiors evolved from white Pleat-and-Roll to button tuft velour and velvet.
Religious devotion on '63 Impala
Paint sophistication grew during this era as well, propelled by the "Brown Pride" movement of the 60s and 70s. Young Chicanos co-opted the derisive stereotype of the lowriding Mexican "beaner" and turned it into into an expression of cultural heritage and pride. During the early Seventies there was a resurgent interest in traditional Mexican art genres, including the public mural. Talented car painters used airbrushes to adapt this traditional mural aesthetic to car metal, often emphasizing surprising depth about serious topics: history, life and death, family, and devout Catholic religious iconography.
Together, these cultural and technological trends slowly transformed the lowrider from an automotive curiosity to an important community cultural symbol. Increasingly, lowriding became a familial activity, passed from generation to generation. Kids too young to drive got into the act by lowering Schwinn Stingray bikes to mimic the older guys' Impalas, and these too evolved into incredible sculptural showpieces. Today the lowrider bike is every bit as iconic as their automotive counterparts.
Since that heyday of innovation, lowrider culture has grown to encompass other automotive genres like trucks and imports. It's even become a successful component of America's cultural imperialism; believe it or not lowriding has become a major phenomenon in Japan. The Japanese demand for tricked out gas-guzzling, skyhopping, Mexican-flavored American iron has grown so large, in fact, it has spawned a lucrative cottage industry of California lowrider shops who sell only for export. Maybe General Motors should ask these Vatos for a few lessons.
So next time you’re out to celebrate the 5th, remember to hoist a cerveza in honor of these true pioneers. Praise the Lowered!