In San Diego Lowriders: A History of Cars and Cruising, authors Alberto López Pulido and Rigoberto “Rigo” Reyes trace the evolution of the city’s lowriding culture from 1950, when jobs were plentiful and cars were rolling off the assembly line, to 1985, when cruising was outlawed.
Pulido is a professor of ethnic studies at San Diego State University and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Reyes teaches a course on immigration at the University of San Diego and has been an active lowrider since 1975. Their story is told through the lens of 28 lowrider car clubs—some of which are still active today—that shaped the movement and left their marks on both the cars and the scene.
Mathias Ponce, a member of the Serra Car Club, is credited with the innovation of lowering cars. Ponce felt that American cars of the 1940s and ‘50s rode too high and he altered his car for a smoother ride.
Car clubs spread south, and the culture took root in places where Mexican ingenuity and Chicano pride meshed. As one would expect, it’s a colorful history. Though the photos are predominantly black-and-white, a 16-page color insert showcases the creativity of the culture. One 1964 Buick Riviera is shown through the years as it passed from owner to owner. Each time it changed hands, their owners did more than give the car a fresh coat of paint—they gave it a new identity.
The authors drive home the point that “there was always a strong work ethic within the lowrider car customizing scene and a high value placed on crafting and building a car from scratch, personalizing it and truly making it your own creation.”
Despite the longstanding history of community service, lowrider car clubs have been subject to unfair stereotyping. In fact, the incorporation of hydraulics that can lift cars at a moment’s notice was an innovation introduced after San Diego police started ticketing cars for being too low.
The positive impact of lowrider culture is something I have witnessed in my own community in Southeast San Diego. Lowrider car clubs were vital to the success of the Halloween Trunk or Treat and the Holiday in the Hills events sponsored by Project REO in Paradise Hills, and are involved in countless toy drives and fundraising events throughout San Diego and Tijuana every year.
For anyone who’d like to learn more about this fascinating subculture and check out some cool cars, cruise on over to Barrio Logan for Chicano Park Day on Saturday April 22. Or, at the least, pick up a copy of San Diego Lowriders.