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Art - Low and Slow
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Luisa Berumen
Candy apple red, twice pipes and low to the floor," Cheech Marin describes Santa's sleigh from a lowrider's point of view. After all, what resident in the borderland could identify with a snow sleigh in our desert? To the rest of the country, the highly decorated older car slung low on its small tires has become a symbol of an alternative lifestyle, low and slow.
Lowriders are cruising their way through America. Originally centered in East Los Angeles, their popularity has spread to Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and the Midwestern states.
Lowriders were little known to other parts of the country until the last two decades. Surprisingly, lowriders came forth as a rebellion against the hotrodding middle-class Anglo Americans of the 1940s and 50s. Don't let the age and ownership of these cars fool you. Some are owned by two generations of enthusiasts. And what started as a proud accomplishment by a talent group of Hispanics has turned into big bucks over the 50 years of cruising.
Edgar Garcia watched his father customize his own 1947 Chevy from top to the bottom. First he rebuilt the engine. Then he stripped the body down to the bare metal before painting it crimson red. All of the chrome on the car was replated. Then the elder Garcia had the car reupholstered in beige velvet. He spent so much money on the car that now he can't drive it on the street for fear of damage. Watching this phenomenon, Edgar decided to customize his truck and has made it into a work of art. He belongs to a car/truck club and meets with others to show off these unique vehicles. Edgar and his father represent two generations of lowrider families.
The cost of customizing the vehicle inside and outside is extraordinary. It is ironic that the lowrider tradition was started by earlier generations who couldn't afford a new car, and instead improved on the car they owned at the time. Now this generation spends a lot of money and time to continue the customizing tradition.
Each car is unique. First of all, the engine needs to be in good repair. Next, the vehicle is lowered by removing one-half of the suspension coil, which cost about $150. Smaller tires, for $150 a set, and wire wheels, known as mags, at $750 for four, are added for the ground-hovering cruiser.
Extra details are added for each individual's taste. A circle of chrome-plated welded chain in 6-,8- or 10-inch diameter replaces the steering wheel for $30. A set of electric antennas is added for $120. At a cost of $150, chrome dummy spotlights or "dummies" and a pair of decorative exhaust side pipes are added.
To give the car performance and social challenge to other lowriders, hydraulic pumps are added to the front and rear ends. A bargain at only $2,000! The slick look of the car without door handles is achieved by replacing the door handles with "pop doors." These open with a concealed switch. The total cost of customizing the car without exterior paint runs about $3,560.
There are three different types of paint jobs available for the enthusiast: metal flake, pearl finish and candied finish. Metal flake finish starts with five coats of colored lacquer. Next three coats of clear lacquer mixes with colored metals flakes are applied, followed by eight coats of clear lacquer.
For the pearl finish, clear lacquer mixed with a "mother-of pearl" powder is applied after the base color to produce a rainbow effect. Then come the eight coats of clear lacquer.
The candy finish is achieved with a base of five coats of gold or silver lacquer. The color layer is now added, and three coats of clear lacquer follow to make a glasslike coating much like a candied apple. Finally, eight coats of clear lacquer follow. This finish can cost $1,000.
Colorful geometric designs which take a month or more to complete cost an additional $2,000. Murals painted on the hood are priced at an additional $300 to $500. Pinstripes put on the doors add another $150 to $200 to the total cost.
Next comes the interior transformation. The lowrider tradition is to reupholster the seats, door panels, ceiling and dash in velvet. Even the trunk can be lined in velvet. Enthusiasts who desire even more luxury can add velvet-covered swivel seats, small chandeliers, a stereo, television and wet-bar. Etched glass detailing further customizes the car windows and windshields.
To show the pride and hard work of his masterpiece, the modern lowrider can exhibit his vehicle locally or at numerous car shows and conventions. Gone are the days when the local Dairy Queen was the setting for competitions. Today cars compete for trophies and national prominence in custom car magazines.
Drivers of lowriders are among the few who might be ticketed for going too slow! "Cruising" is their favorite activity -- how else could anyone appreciate the $3,000 paint job? Drivers must also assume the correct driving posture: slouched all the way down in a most uncomfortable manner. The car always must take center stage.
In April, a 1969 Ford LTD lowrider owned by the late David Jaramillo of Chimayo, New Mexico, was sold to the Smithsonian Museum for its permanent collection. "Dave's Dream" caught the eyes of Smithsonian curators when they were looking for items representing the culture of the Rio Grande Valley.
The car is black, covered with candy apple red lacquer mixed with multicolored iridescent metal flakes. The side of the car sports a wide gold stripe along with ribbons, butterflies and stars, and the interior is upholstered in red and black velvet. In the back, a television sits waiting to be turned on.
The car took Jaramillo years to complete and is a source of pride for the family. It is the first lowrider in history to go into any museum, say Smithsonian curators. Jaramillo's son, David Jr., will be using the money to help pay college costs.
The lowrider, beginning as an Hispanic answer to the hotrod, is a source of pride for the owners of these cars, who put thousands of dollars and sometimes years of labor into their dream machines. They have become a symbol of self-expression and an art form, low and slow.
- Smithsonian virtual exhibit: Lowrider: An American Cultural Tradition