The American Pachuco culture, which spawned today's gang culture, was built on three major pillars. These pillars define the "Cholo" gang culture. The first was the then "new" American Swing Music; the second was the flamboyant counter-culture Zoot Suit clothing style, and the third involved customized automobiles.
During World War II young men often souped up stripped-down versions of old jalopies, like the Ford Model A or Model T Coupes. Sometimes called "hot rods," these cars were often built and maintained by small groups of teens from a certain street or neighborhood and then raced against crosstown rivals. From these car customizers evolved some youngsters who built cars not for street use but solely for show. These show cars emphasized style over horsepower.
Show car aficionados differed greatly from hot rodders. Instead of stripped-down automobiles with souped up engines, they looked for old cars with classic lines. They customized these "Ramflas" or "Bombs" with fancy hubcaps, windshields visors, and fender skirts, and with elaborate paint jobs that featured pin stripes and flames.
Eventually the automobiles were "chopped," which meant cutting a few inches from the posts holding the roof above the body. This lowered the silhouette and streamlined the look. The cars were also "shaved," which meant removing chrome strips and door handles to further smooth out the lines of the body. But the most common modification involved altering the suspension so that the chassis rode low to the ground. Because of this lowered suspension these vehicles could not be driven very fast. Eventually the customizers would install hydraulic systems to lower and modify the suspension for show and raise the suspension for the streets.
The people who preferred this low and slow style became known as "Lowriders" sometime in the 1950s. All street gang members who evolved during this period are known as Lowriders, but all Lowriders are not gang members. Many Lowriders, although they often appear to be gang members because of their gang-like clothing, music preferences, and similar gang-style automobiles, have avoided membership in a street gang. Still, these non-gang Lowriders feel at home with street gang members because their cultures evolve from the same sources.
In the 1970s the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department attempted to take advantage of the cultural ties between street gangs and Lowriders to lure gang members out of the street gangs and into the local car clubs. In East Los Angeles, deputies supervised and sponsored Lowrider car clubs. This experiment utterly failed when the car clubs began warring with each other. In one Lowrider gang murder, a Lowrider deliberately ran over a rival and then dropped his hydraulic suspension on the victim and drug the body over several blocks, resulting in a very long and gruesome crime scene.
Lowriders can be Hispanic, Asian, African-American, or White. The California prison gang, Nazi Lowriders (NLR) evolved from white Lowriders groups. I heard Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa admit during a public speech that he had been a member of one of a Latino Lowrider car clubs.
As the Lowrider technology advanced, the illegally modified hydraulic suspensions became so extreme that the cars could "jump." So jumping contests became popular with Lowriders and gang members. The ultimate system was supposedly able to flip a low-rider car on its back.
At this time, Lowrider culture broke into the mainstream. The rock 'n' roll band War had a hit record about a "Lowrider." Magazines specializing in and featuring articles on these cars and contests became popular all over the U.S.
All these factors come together in one place at one time during a "Lowrider Car Show." The Los Angeles Pomona Fairgrounds was often the venue for these Lowrider Car Shows when I worked gangs. Unfortunately these shows sometimes ended in gang violence. Lowriders from both gang and non-gang groups from all over Southern California mixed in these shows.
The Lowrider car jumping contests were hotly contested matches and, this mixed with some gang rivalries, sometimes resulted in assaults and shootings. In the past this same venue was used by the Great Western Exhibit for huge gun shows, but the L.A. County supervisors were outraged by this display of weapons and outlawed these perfectly legal gun shows. Somehow these politicians had no such trouble with the Lowrider shows and their real gang violence.
Hey don't get me wrong. I love cars. I was a big fan of Big Daddy Roth back in the day, and I had a 1955 Chevy 210 coupe painted sea foam blue. It had black Naugahyde tuck-and-roll interior, and lots of chrome. I still love the look of the old classics, too. Which means, of course, you don't have to be a gangster to appreciate a beautiful automobile.
But make no mistake, the gang culture and the Lowrider culture are closely intertwined.
In the 1980s, 520 Banning Street in Compton was the home of Little Willie's Custom Paint shop. It was also the hangout for some of the most notorious Crips in Compton. The Santana Block Crips, the Palm and Oak Crips, the Corner Pocket Crips and major drug dealers frequented the owrider shop and had their cars customized there. Willie's tricked-out Lowriders appeared in many car shows. The rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg would eventually get one of Willie's '62 Chevys.
On the East Side of San Jose, Calif., 60-year-old Leonard Miller ran a Lowrider shop with his son Steve Miller. On March 3, 1997, they would be visited by the grim reaper in the guise of a Latino hit man.
Earlier at a recent car show Steve Miller had protested the manner that a Long Beach Lowrider shop used to win a hydraulic jumping contest. He called for a change in the rules to even the playing field and remove the Long Beach shops unfair advantage.
Ruben Lopez-Ramirez and his brother David Lopez-Ramirez worked at the Long Beach Lowrider shop. The shop specialized in Lowrider Car Hydraulics. They traveled for the business to Lowrider car shows throughout the U.S. They were also associates of the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
Leonard Miller was shot and killed in his San Jose shop by murderers sent by the Long Beach Lowrider gangsters. It is believed that the assassins actually intended to kill his son Steve, but they got the father instead. The two Lopez brothers were wanted for the crime and went on the run for several years before they were finally arrested.
That's just one example of the gang activities that sometimes surround Lowrider events.
If I worked a gang unit in your area, I would send plainclothes officers inside to monitor any Lowrider shows near your jurisdiction. I would also watch carefully and stop in unannounced at your local Lowrider custom shop. These shops are often also stolen car chop shops.
You want to also become familiar with any car clubs or tricked out cars associated with any particular gang. Gangs often use a well-known vehicle to "sign their work" so that the rival gang will recognize which gang attacked them. I would check out a copy of Lowrider magazine to look for pictures of gang members from my city and to see where the next car show is going to be.