Lowriders: The History, Origins & Culture Of Lowrider Cars

A lowrider is a car that’s been modified to sit low on its axle where the ground clearance is less than the original design. This is how Wikipedia[1] defines the lowrider, and in a very broad sense of the term, this is what lowriders are generally recognized as today. But there’s more to lowrider cars than being close to the ground. There’s a culture and a global phenomenon that has evolved around them. You can view a selection of lowriders in our Lowriders For Sale lowriders for sale section.

The origins of lowrider cars

The origins of the lowrider is something that’s a little more murky, and although numerous cultures and eras will claim the lowriders’ heritage, they all contribute in their own way to the culture that we know today.

It’s generally agreed that the origins can be traced back to the 50s and early 60s in South California[2]. Those that were part of the Mexican culture created the style known as the lowrider that played tribute to their pride of the Mexican American culture.

Although this may be what we consider as the official start of the lowrider culture, it could be attributed to the previous generations of hotrodding that became popular in the 20s. By the time the 40s came around, car enthusiasts were becoming bored and moving on to more customizing builds which included many of the features associated with the lowrider car.

In can be discussed that the 20s is the true origins of the lowrider as many Mexican immigrants in America were too poor to afford new cars. Ford had been producing more cars than ever since 1908 and so by the mid-20s the average number of cars increased from 1 per 7 people to 1 per 2.25[3]. Middle-class white Americans began to cast away their old vehicles in favor of newer, updated versions and this is the true beginning of the disposable, replaceable and upgradeable world we live in. This influx of cheap, second-hand cars meant that the Mexican immigrant families could now afford a vehicle of their own.

Blue Lowrider Car

With their large families, the cast-off cars would ride low to the ground from the sheer weight of the people inside. As you can imagine, over time, this became – for want of a better word – fashionable, and cars would be weighed down by sand bags[4] instead of people to keep that lowrider look[5].

It’s largely up to you which origin story you prefer, but there’s no doubting how far the lowrider has come today. Despite its Mexican origins, the lowrider has come leaps and bounds with professional hydraulic systems and other modern technology.

The assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas is the best person to ask about the nature of the origins. Ben Chappell talks to Michael Arria from Motherboard[6] about his book: Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars[7]. In the first part of the interview where they discuss the origins of the lowrider, Chappell talks about the mystery surrounding lowrider history and how certain aesthetics have become associated with the lowrider culture, irrelevant of where the lowrider came from.

If we fast forward a little to the 60s and 70s, the lowrider car became a class of its own and has, since then, remained as once of the most popular types of modified cars[8]. But there’s more to a lowrider than some lowered suspension so we’re going to take an in depth look at the different aspects of a lowrider, including the modern day culture that surrounds it.

What is a standard lowrider?

Other than Wikipedia’s very basic description of the lowrider, there’s more to the whole look than a lowered suspension. Stereotypically, the car itself is a Chevy Impala from the 60s, 70s or 80s. Other popular models include the Chevy Monte Carlo, Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and 60s Ford. But lowriders don’t always have to be a car, Chevy trucks and Chevy El Caminos are popular choices for building a lowrider truck[9].

We’ve mentioned the low suspension a number of times, but let’s take a look at some of the other features of a lowrider. More often than not, lowrider cars feature insane paint jobs that not only include bright colors but serious talent and a lot of detail. Pinstriping and multiple colors are common on a single car. Some will even take it further and use small metal flakes within the paint which reflect extra light and gives an overall appearance similar to a disco ball.

Interior modifications are common too, including luxury and/or eye-catching materials. Ultimately the interior is just as important as the exterior and so a lot of dedication can go into getting this right. Having said that, some cars will feature the latest gadgets whilst others will deliberately keep it simple so the focus is on the exterior.

A fairly standard modification is a powerful stereo system[10]. This becomes important at local gatherings when people want to dance – and since lowriders are shown off in some festival environments, partying is certainly popular.

Lowrider Car

A few additional characteristics can include custom wheels, narrow tires and a streamlined exterior, all of which work together to create the well-known lowrider-look[11].

What I love most about the lowrider is how it goes against the standard reasons behind customizing a car. Generally speaking, when you visit a car show, the cars customized have had their performance improved in some way, whether it’s an insane engine or a supercharger, it’s all about going fast. The lowrider takes a different approach. It’s all about being sleek, stylish and sexy[12].

How did the lowrider get to where it is today?

During the late 60s, the lowrider culture was beginning to reach its peak. Sonny Madrid, a San Jose College student, decided to piece together the very first lowrider magazine simply called Lowrider. It simply contained a mass collection of amazing, good quality lowrider pictures. After 1,000 printed copies, the magazine became a huge hit and by the late 70s, it was the most popular Chicano magazine in US history[13].

By the time the 80s came around, rap artists began featuring lowrider cars in their music videos which sparked their popularity with white American youths[14]. But unfortunately it’s not all happy stories. Lowriders were becoming more associated with gang crime and violence. Similarly to bikers being stereotyped as violent, lowriders received their own label[15]. It’s unclear where this image seems to have come from – perhaps the late night gatherings in parking lots, or violent behavior of Mexican gangs – but the modern day lowrider is far from the stereotype.

What’s real cost of a lowrider?

To answer this question we have to look at a range of contributing factors, including the modifications that most lowriders undergo.

The most common modification for a lowrider is the suspension. Generally an air suspension, the lowrider has its suspension springs replaced with a rubber bag that is connected to an air reservoir and an air compressor. The inflation and deflation of the rubber bag is what raises and lowers the car.

The popularity of these types of suspensions stems from the easy installation and the cost – something around $400 for a simple system. Whilst they provide the main feature of being able to raise and lower the car, air suspensions work really well in providing a smooth ride[16].

However, for those that invest more in their car, they’re likely to replace the somewhat simple air suspension for a hydraulic suspension. Instead of the rubber bag, the hydraulic suspension uses a hydraulic actuator attached to a compressor. The compressor injects the actuator with liquid at such force that it causes it to expand rapidly and push the components around it away – thus acting like a spring.

This is a much more costly way of ‘pimping my ride’ as each actuator system will normally need the power from multiple batteries and are generally quite complex systems. Each actuator can cost around $500 and you’ll need at least two – maybe four – per lowrider. That’s not to mention the cost of additional batteries and a very labor intensive installation process[17].

Chevrolet Impala Lowrider

Alongside the lowered suspension, lowrider cars experience a number of other modifications that I’ve already touched on briefly. Lowriders – as in the people – will often swap out their standard wheels for bigger ones which also shows off any custom metalwork that’s been done. With bigger wheels comes thinner tires as there is less space in the wheel well for standard rubber.

When it comes to looking at lowriders for sale, it can be difficult to determine what it is you’re looking for unless you have a specific idea in mind. Many enthusiasts enjoy doing the modifications themselves and can easily spend around $2,000 to $3,000 on one. But for those looking for a car that already has the modifications – and depending on the desirability of what you want – you could be paying in the region of $20,000. That’s a big difference[18].

Alongside all the modifications you made to a lowrider car, the sale value may not necessarily cover the costs. As with most custom car projects, the labor intensive and costly side of building isn’t always covered once the car is up for sale. As long as it’s a hobby and not an investment, it’s fine.

How to live with a lowrider

Unfortunately owning a lowrider is not enough to keep it in top condition, and because of their numerous modifications, a lowrider requires a special kind of care.

If you’ve installed an air suspension system then it’s important to regular check the rubber bags. They may be tough but that doesn’t mean they don’t leak. The more you use the car, the more you need to check. Whilst we’re talking about suspension, chances are your system uses hoses to raise and lower it which are notorious for leaking. Although hopping may look cool, it can be a rough ride for a lowrider and will take its toll on the car.

Lowering the car without installing adjustable suspension may mean you have a few issues with speed bumps and rough terrain. Without the correct clearance whilst driving, you can cause some pretty costly damage to the undercarriage.

When it comes to improving handling, a lowered vehicle is probably not going to make that much difference. Sure it lowers the center of gravity – which in theory should improve handling – there are other factors that contribute to a car’s handling such as anti-sway bars. But if that wasn’t enough, chances are the mileage on your lowrider isn’t all that great either. Modified suspensions equals more weight which equals a higher gas consumption.

For the lowrider enthusiasts who are in it for the culture, this probably doesn’t matter but if you are thinking of racing it, make sure you know what you’re doing.

The lowrider culture

As you’ve probably guessed form the lowrider origins, the culture that surrounds the lowrider is much more than a normal car ownership society. There are some important personal morals that are founded within this close-knot community. I’ve already briefly touched upon the importance of family and friends, in essence owning a lowrider is in itself a social medium. It will often involve hanging out to talk about cars, what’s going on and a way for people to stay communicated[19].

Chevy Lowrider

The widespread notion that lowrider culture is involved with gang-like behavior is just that, a notion. It’s an image that’s become associated with the car due to bad press, stereotyping and an overall misunderstanding of the culture.

These types of cars require a lot of motivation, money and dedication. You need to have a steady job in order to pay for the modifications, upgrades and repairs. It’s not just a case of picking one off the streets and keeping it running, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Famous appearances of lowriders

In 1974 NBC’s Chico and the Man featured a Chevy Impala named Gyspy Rose in the opening credits and the culture as a whole began appearing in a number of magazines including Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Car and Driver[20].

In 1975, the band War released a single that pays tribute to the lowrider lifestyle as well as the car. It became a top-ten hit the same year and began to bring the lowrider culture into a more mainstream environment[21].

In 1979, the film Boulevard Nights created association of b culture and gangs which only further fueled the modern-day misconception[22][23][24].

The Modern-Day Lowrider

Despite their popularity throughout the years, these days it’s rare to see a large number of these cars on the roads. The political pressure of the 70s saw an increase in police enforcement which has taken its toll on the lowrider community. That doesn’t mean the culture is gone, in fact there are hundreds of events in cities across the US every year with over 200,000 attendees[25].

But the lowrider culture isn’t restricted to the US and can be found all over the world including throughout Japan and Europe where car enthusiasts will pay a lot of money for customized imports. Generally speaking, the lowrider cultures in these countries vary slightly and have developed and grown within the traditions of their own culture which gives each lowrider community its own style[26].

Owning, modifying and maintaining a lowrider is founded on a lot more than a love for cars and has a stronger heritage than most customized cars.

Quoted sources

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lowrider

[2] http://www.historyaccess.com/historyoflowride.html

[3] http://www.historyaccess.com/historyoflowride.html

[4] http://carmecrazy.com/2014/09/09/low-slow-origins-lowrider-culture/

[5] http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art39902.asp

[6] http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/lowriders

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Lowrider-Space-Aesthetics-Politics-American/dp/0292754248

[8] http://auto.howstuffworks.com/under-the-hood/trends-innovations/lowrider.htm

[9] //www.justcustomz.com/custom-trucks-for-sale/

[10] http://auto.howstuffworks.com/under-the-hood/trends-innovations/lowrider.htm

[11] http://www.historyaccess.com/historyoflowride.html

[12] http://auto.howstuffworks.com/10-great-lowriders.htm

[13] http://www.convictedartist.com/lowrider_history.html

[14] http://www.convictedartist.com/lowrider_history.html

[15] http://www.montereyherald.com/general-news/20080317/lowrider-car-show-celebrates-mystique-of-custom-car-culture-lifestyle

[16] http://auto.howstuffworks.com/under-the-hood/trends-innovations/lowrider.htm

[17] http://auto.howstuffworks.com/under-the-hood/trends-innovations/lowrider.htm

[18] http://auto.howstuffworks.com/under-the-hood/trends-innovations/lowrider.htm

[19] http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/lowriding-this-culture-is-about-more-than-cars/?_r=0

[20] http://www.historyaccess.com/historyoflowride.html

[21] http://www.historyaccess.com/historyoflowride.html

[22] http://www.historyaccess.com/historyoflowride.html

[23] http://carmecrazy.com/2014/09/09/low-slow-origins-lowrider-culture/

[24] http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/lowriders

[25] http://www.historyaccess.com/historyoflowride.html

[26] http://carmecrazy.com/2014/09/09/low-slow-origins-lowrider-culture/

13/07/2016 / by / in ,

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