Hydraulically raising low art to high art

by Gautam Raja

One recent morning, as we drove past the local tyre shop here in Azusa, California, we saw the entire road outside taken up with immaculate chrome, bright paint, and vintage and classic car body shapes.

It was a “lowrider” festival, and we stopped to marvel at some of the most beautiful 1950s, 60s, and 70s cars we’ve ever seen. Some were visually stripped down to a liquid one-colour paint, but many were ornate beyond wildest dreams—whether with detailed bonnet paintings or silken upholstery or hub caps that would work on a chariot in Ben Hur.

Without context, a lowrider is a puzzling invention. Why would a grown man or woman want a car with tiny wheels that lifts and bounces on hydraulic suspension?

Lowriding was born in East Los Angeles, in the heavily Latino, or specifically, Chicano section of the city. (A Latino could be from any of the Latin American countries, but a Chicano is an American of specifically Mexican descent.)

As car enthusiasts in the 1950s focussed on speed, the lowriders picked a “low and slow” approach. Early automobiles sat high, so lowering or “slamming” cars has long been an enthusiast staple, both for looks, and improved aerodynamics and handling. Lowriders take that to such an extreme that they are intentionally good only for cruising slowly down boulevards.

Cars dropped that low are illegal, and can’t get over large irregularities, so that’s when hydraulic suspensions came in, to allow the cars to be raised on the go for both police inspections and speed bumps. But why go from there to independent hydraulics for each wheel, and bouncing car competitions?

Bob Frost in The History Channel Magazine, 2002, wrote that lowriders with hydraulics were intended to be both cool and playful, and a good example of rasquachismo, a Chicano make-do sensibility that’s often “witty, irreverent, and impertinent”.

As Los Angeles and the rest of America fell in love with the car, and the magic of driving cross-country at high speeds, the Chicanos of East LA subverted that. Cars became mobile hang-out spaces for friends and family. Lowriders offered journeys out of ghettoised neighbourhoods without invisibility. If the journey from A to B is made slowly and in style, then the lowrider’s occupants own all the points between A and B. Lowrider give you reason to be anywhere, because it’s a reason in itself.

You can see why this would be favored by gangs, and most of LA’s lowriders have to fight the assumption that they are gang members or otherwise violent. Lowriding is about community and family, and you could see this at the festival. I watched one of the many fascinated little boys hold his phone high over an open bonnet so he could get a picture to let him see the engine inside.

My wife and I were clearly outsiders, and we got a sense of guardedness from the participants. It was never hostile, we simply felt invisible after the first appraising, often challenging, glance. The joke inherent in lowriding is clearly meant only for insiders. But not for long.

Cars were first physically depersonalised by design that favoured aerodynamics and safety. Now, and in the near future, they will be conceptually depersonalised by ride-sharing and autonomous driving. Cars are turning more and more into infrastructure, to be no more different from each other than the streetlamp poles from one city to another. Imagine in this robot-car world, an elaborately painted and chromed 1950s American automobile with hydraulic suspension that lets it drive heavily canted on three wheels down a street. That’s soon going to be high art.

First published in Gulf News, December 5, 2017