Sweet ‘n’ Low


By Catherine L. Kaufman
Photos by Stacy Keck

In Southern California’s Chicano and African American communities of the 1930s and ‘40s, Zoot-suited young men put rocks and sandbags in their trunks to minimize the distance between their tricked-out cars and the asphalt...and the lowrider was born.

The lowrider community’s influence has since spread beyond the barrio to become a co-ed culture absent of socioeconomic barriers. These days, groundhugging auto enthusiasts share a passion, pride and (mostly friendly) rivalry grounded in a love for their hydraulic masterpieces-each with its own custom engine, paint job and ability to bounce.

Though packed with street cred, lowriders haven’t always had a golden relationship with the CHP. In 1958, the California Vehicle Code outlawed any car with parts lower to the ground that its wheel rims.

A year later, a custom auto mechanic found a legal workaround in hydraulic Pesco pumps, which allowed a car’s height to be altered at the flick of the switch-from lowrider to street legal. It was also the year the first Chevy Impala hit the market with an X-frame chassis that made lowering and raising the cars with hydraulic modifications a snap.

Much has changed since the birth of the lowrider, but Rigoberto “Rigo” Reyes, co-founder of San Diego’s Amigos Car Club and the San Diego Lowrider Council, says some traditions die hard. He and his longtime cruisin’ pals still congregate at the corner of 30th Street and Coronado Avenue, in the parking lot of Northgate Market in South Bay, as they’ve done for 35 years.

“But now that we’re getting older and can’t stand for hours, we bring our own chairs,” Reyes says.

It’s been a long and winding road for this veteran lowrider, who has struggled with prejudice and stereotyping for decades, “due in part to the media portrayal of lowriders as gang bangers and criminals.”

The upside? “The feeling you get when you show off your lowrider is a feeling you cannot describe, similar to hot rods when they win races,” says Reyes, who finds automotive nirvana in his 1948 Chevy Fleetline and in his 1929 Willy’s Knight sedan, which he named “La Cucaracha.”

Another local lowrider enthusiast, Magic 92.5 FM radio host Xavier “The X-Man” Soriano restored his baby, a 1961 Chevy Impala convertible called “Doin’ It To Death” (after the James Brown tune) from the ground up.

“Recapturing the era when great cars with sleek bodylines were built in America, not like the cookie cutters of today,” gave Soriano a sense of pride and accomplishment, he says.

Soriano’s dream lowrider would include a $10,000 Corvette engine, Jaguar suspensions, an integrated sound system, a flatscreen TV, chrome muffler, exotic animal skin upholstery, air-brushed murals and pin-striping.

“Let your imagination run tastefully wild,” he says, estimating the customization would cost about $150,000.

When you love lowriders this much, the sky’s the limit.

For more of the lowdown on lowriders, check out