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Lowriders: An iconic and totally LA art form gets the museum treatment




A lowrider displays a chrome plaque for the Style car club.
A lowrider displays a chrome plaque for the Style car club.
Petersen Automotive Museum

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They’ve been rolling and bouncing and booming their way across Los Angeles for decades.

Lowriders.

Now, Petersen Automotive Museum is hosting a car exhibit that captures an iconic L.A. lifestyle. It’s called the High Art of Riding Low.  And last weekend, hundreds of them cruised into the Petersen’s parking lot for a car show.

The Petersen Automotive Museum held a lowrider car show in conjunction with its exhibit, The High Art of Riding Low.
The Petersen Automotive Museum held a lowrider car show in conjunction with its exhibit, The High Art of Riding Low.
Petersen Automotive Museum

They arrived in packs, riding slow, low and in vintage American cars of every color. Think Chevys meticulously customized in eye-popping yellow. Pontiacs and Cadillacs and Lincolns, too, many of them decked out with airbrushed hoods, the names of their car clubs proudly displayed on chrome plaques in the back window.

"This is a 1961 Chevy Impala," said Daniel Ayala, standing by the car he bought in 2002 and promptly ripped apart to customize it. "It's my favorite color."

That would be plum with a hint of copper in the paint. The interior? It matches. And whatever isn’t purple is chrome.

Ayala is from Alta Loma, 60 miles east of the Petersen. Even though the back end of his Impala was dropped so low to the pavement that the exhaust was resting on the ground, thanks to the wonder of hydraulics, he drove it there. There’s usually "a lot of honking, a lot of thumbs up. It’s almost like a parade when you’re driving," he said. "You get used to it. At first you think, 'Oh, something’s wrong.' And you back up traffic, but it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”

The interior of a lowrider affectionately called The Love Machine.
The interior of a lowrider affectionately called The Love Machine.
Petersen Automotive Museum

Hugo Guardado drove in from the San Fernando valley in a custom ’57 Ford Fairlane four-door with a raccoon tail tied to its side mirror. He gets a slightly different reaction. Chalk it up to the Uber sticker. It’s a joke, but "I’ve been offered, 'Can you take me down the block for 20 bucks?' I like getting honked at," he said. "'Hey, what’s your number? I want to call you for my Uber driver.'”

Hugo Guardado's 1957 Ford Fairlane isn't really available through Uber. It's a joke, but
Hugo Guardado's 1957 Ford Fairlane isn't really available through Uber. It's a joke, but "I’ve been offered, 'Can you take me down the block for 20 bucks?'" he says.
Petersen Automotive Museum

At the Petersen show, a DJ spun oldies in the background, as the cars’ owners sat in canvas folding chairs, holding court about their wheels, talking shop to anyone who wanted to know more. Every car has a story.

Jesse Saldana lives near Dodger Stadium. He walked away with the Petersen’s top prize Sunday — best in show —  for his 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport.

But not just any old Impala. It’s one that Saldana lovingly restored over the course of eight years with his brother, outfitting the trunk with hydraulic pumps to lift and lower the chassis, painting it a custom blend of peach and tangerine and importing a dashboard and seats from other vintage GM cars.

The trunk of Jesse Saldana's 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport is home to the hydraulic pumps that make its chassis move up and down.
The trunk of Jesse Saldana's 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport is home to the hydraulic pumps that make its chassis move up and down.
Petersen Automotive Museum

"In the Hispanic world, and other ethnicities around Southern California -- African Americans, Asians -- it was something you could afford and have fun and make something with it," he said.

“This was given to me by my father, before he passed away, so that means a lot to me,” he said, tearing up. "Because it’s a lifestyle," he explained. "You live, eat and you think about it, and to show the world what you create, that means a lot. It’s a culture that Los Angeles sometimes takes for granted, but it’s worldwide now.”

Admirers check out Jesse Saldana's 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport, which won best in show at the Petersen's lowrider gathering.
Admirers check out Jesse Saldana's 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport, which won best in show at the Petersen's lowrider gathering.
Petersen Automotive Museum

It’s in recognition of this sort of passion for the craft, the lifestyle of lowriding, that the Petersen exhibit has a subtitle: Ranflas, Corazon e Inspiracion, or car, heart and inspiration.

Symbols of cultural pride, lowriders are now a global phenomenon, extending from Brazil to Japan to Thailand to Spain, she says. Not just the cars, but the way of life associated with them, spending time with family and friends who devote as much loving artistry to their machines as they do.

"I really think LA’s the center of low riding, and I’ll tell you why," said Denise Sandoval, who grew up in East L.A. and who curated The High Art of Riding Low for the Petersen. "All those international places, they’re not looking at Texas lowriding. They’re not looking at New Mexico lowriding. They’re looking at LA lowriding. They’re wearing the LA gear, and so I think LA internationally really does set the trends.”

And that dates all the way back to the 1940s.

"The cars particularly about Los Angeles history, it’s a way that black and brown people use their car to express themselves and to create community in a time period in L.A.," Sandoval said. "We’re talking post World War II, where there was discrimination, there was prejudice, there was segregation of where you could live in Los Angeles, so the cars sort of representing the American dream and mobility, how powerful it is to have a car that you can take out of your neighborhood, right? And then you can customize it in a way that it’s very unique and it celebrates not just who you are as an individual but also your community history as well."

Lowriders, Sandoval said, were a reaction to the hot rod culture of the '20s and '30s

"I call it the oppositional aesthetic," she said. "So we’re hot rodders, we’re about raising the car and going fast. Lowriders took it in the opposite direction. It was low to the ground and about going slow."

With style.

Shawn Smith, from LA, found out about the lowrider show on the news and decided to check it out Sunday. Now she’s a fan.

"It’s amazing," she said. "I love it. I just never knew so much artwork could be in cars."

Smith drives a Ford Focus, but if she could trade it in, "If I had to choose, I couldn’t choose, there’s so many beautiful cars. I’d have to have one for each day of the year just about, you know?"