Cars and car culture run deep in America. Their contributions to personal and collective mobility shaped the country in profound ways from the Great Migration and the Dust Bowl Exodus to suburban sprawl and the modern commuter grind. The manufacture of cars built and enriched entire communities. America looks as it does today because of cars.
But not only does America’s image reflect the car, our cars reflect us as people too. They function as emblems of our individual personalities, our values, and, often, our ethnic and regional cultures. There are few American car cultures more iconic, more instantly recognizable than the classic lowrider.
The 64 Impala has a special place within the pantheon on lowriders. Its signature long lines accentuate its naturally low profile. Among classic cars it’s become almost synonymous with lowrider culture.
Lowriders first emerged during the pre-and-post-WWII era out of the Hispanic/Chicano culture of East and South Los Angeles. Many returning G.I.s came home with new metal working skills and money to spend on new and used cars. Early favorites included pre-war coupes like the Mercury 200 and Oldsmobile 88s and post-war Plymouths, Fords, and Chevrolets.
The most defining feature of a lowrider was, and remains, its conspicuously low clearance. These cars had chopped and lowered suspensions (and sometimes roof lines to match). Early lowriders didn’t even bother with actual modifications to the suspension and relied on bags of cement mix or sand to weigh them down.
Legend has it that the use of hydraulics was first introduced to allow car owners to avoid being ticketed after a 1958 California law prohibited vehicles riding lower than the bottom of their rims. This law specifically designed to target Chicano youth for police harassment. But with hydraulics (initially taken from the landing gear systems of airplanes), a driver could simply flip a switch and boost the ride height back to street legal.
The trend of lowering their vehicles set the Chicano car culture of the late 40s and early 50s distinctly apart from that of its Anglo counterpart. White car culture worshiped at the altar of hotrods with their engines and bodies modified for speed. Street racing was the truest verification of a car’s cool. By contrast, lowriders and lowrider culture was founded on the dictum of “bajito y suavecito” or low and slow. Lowriders were intended for cruising, for showing off the quality of a car and its customizations. The focus was on aesthetics not horsepower.
The classic cruising route for lowriders was Whittier Blvd. in East Los Angeles, California. Whittier was a main thoroughfare which ran through the heart of the city. As such, it functioned not just as an artery for local commerce but also as a meeting place for the Chicano youth of East LA. Whittier was where you went to see and be seen, and there was no better vehicle for cruising the main drag than a lowrider.
Lowriders are about much more than just hydraulics. In fact, lowriding focuses on developing each car’s distinctive look and style. Lowriders are, first and last, an expression and extension of the owner’s personality. Fancy paint jobs abound incorporating glitter, gloss, elaborate murals, pinstripes, all complimented by lots of sparkling chrome. These paint jobs don’t stop at the exterior of the car either, many extend inside the engine compartment, the trunk, and even all the way to the undercarriage. It’s not unusual to see mirrors placed under lowriders at car shows to ensure spectators can take in the full glory of their spectacular paint jobs.
Along with their lowered suspensions and ornate exteriors, lowriders round out their look with flashy rims and well-appointed interiors. Popular rims include 13”, 14”, deep dish rims, wire spoke rims, and spinner rims. Expense and attention are rarely spared on lowrider interiors. Velvet, embossed leather, and sleek vinyl locate the proverbial seat of luxury little lower to the ground. Custom steering wheels are a favorite modification, as are aftermarket foot pedals, shifters, and even bespoke cigarette lighters. Basically, on a lowrider, if it can be customized, it will be customized.
Over the years a certain split has immerged between “hoppers” and show cars. Hoppers are those cars outfitted with hydraulics and suspensions capable of not just elevating, leaning, or lowering but also bouncing the car. Contests are even held to test which lowrider can gain the most air measured in feet, not inches. Obviously, this amount of bounce does put these cars at risk. Not every lowrider owner hazards all the hard work and money they’ve poured into their car only to see it dented or scratched trying to gain that last bit of air. (Hoppers can get so vertical they can damage the rear bumper.)
Though the traditions of lowriding date back to the 1940s, lowriding and lowrider culture has never stopped evolving. Originating within the Chicano community, lowriding found new fans and adherents in the African American hip-hop culture of the late 80s and 90s. West coast rappers like Snoop Dogg, Easy-E, Ice Cube, and groups like Cypress Hill proudly featured lowriders in their music videos. Today many lowrider clubs are multi-racial with members from diverse backgrounds united by their love of these cars.
Most lowriders continue in the tradition of bajito y suavecito, but a modern trend of “low, slow, and go” see lowrider enthusiasts investing in performance engines and embracing power as another axes upon which to judge the quality of their ride. Many of the classic lowrider cars came with hefty engines, notably the Chevrolet Impala, with its available 409 V8 engine and Super Sport trim line.
Impalas have long been a popular choice for lowrider modification. Especially the 3rd generation, with none becoming more revered than the 1964 edition. The 64 was the last of the 3rd gen Impalas, receiving a redesigned look, with smoother, more rounded lines, modifications to the taillights including a new upside down “U” yoked across the back of the car, and a new 3-speed Synchro Mesh manual option.
The 64 Impala was a distinctive and beautiful automobile direct from the factory. It’s x-frame chassis and long flat paneling made for a perfect canvas for lowrider enthusiasts to augment these cars inside and out.
Perhaps the most famous of all 64 Impalas was Jesse Valdez’s Gypsy Rose. Valdez, along with his brothers, founded the Imperials car club in East LA. They worked on three different versions of the Gypsy Rose, two 63 Impalas and the final version, a 64. The Gypsy Rose sported candy red and pink paneling, pinstriping, and featured over a hundred hand drawn roses in its paintjob. The interior included velvet crush upholstery, a cocktail bar in the back seat, and even chandeliers.
Long considered the gold standard for lowriders, the Gypsy Rose won numerous awards and accolades, appeared in magazines ranging from Lowrider Magazine to Life, and was even featured in the opening credits of the 70s TV show Chico and the Man. Even after the untimely passing of its creator in 2011, the Gypsy Rose, now owned by Jesse Valdez II, still wows crowds at car shows and museums to this day.
People know lowriders represent a specific American car sub-culture. Yet this still might understate their cultural significance. Lowriders are drive-able artwork representing a specific mode and medium of personal and cultural expression emanating from a specific time and place. They belong within the wider Chicano arts movement that includes visual arts like murals and graffiti, El Teatro Campesino and similar street theater, and the zoot suit fashions pioneered some 80 years ago by the “pachuco generation.” The flamboyance of lowriders, with their lurid colors and hopping, mirror the attitude and ostentation of these other forms of Chicano art.
Lowriders transcend the merely automotive to sit alongside other great forms of original American folk art like the music of jazz, rock ‘n roll, and hip-hop, patchwork quilting, and tramp art. Likewise, lowriders work to form and express personal, community, and cultural identity. They are slow rolling displays of who their owners are.
And really, for car lovers the world round, there are few more enticing mediums for self-expression than a 64 Impala begging out for some new rims and a sick new paint job.
I had a 1964 Chevrolet Impala at one time. But it didn’t look like that! Dang kids these days.