Lowriding is the practice of driving, maintaining, and displaying an automobile that has been modified such that the ground clearance is less than its design specification. Other automobile modifications, such as using extensive hydraulics, are included in lowriding. Rather than altering an automobile for speed, efficiency, or comfort, lowriding has been focused on aesthetic and mechanical features. The term "lowrider" can refer to the automobile or the operator.
History of Lowriding
Opposition to Lowriders
Crenshaw Boulevard Parade
Types of Lowriders
Modern lowriders can be divided into three categories: street cars, show cars, and hoppers. These groups are distinguishable by technological and social attributes. The groups show how lowriding, already born from cultural expression and a departure from the mainstream, has continued to evolve and divide.
Street cars, or “daily drivers”, are embellished and customized cars intended to be driven, displayed and noticed in public. They are most similar in form and function to the early lowriders and therefore most rooted in tradition. For owners of street cars, the social activity of driving and congregating in public places, known as “cruising”, is often as much a part of lowriding as the cars themselves. The book, Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars (Chappell, 2012), contests that “when lowriders put their distinctive aesthetics on display in streets and parking lots, they affect their surroundings, taking part in the ongoing production of social space and the inscription of particular sites as identified places”.
Show cars or “show queens”, are generally built to be displayed in car shows and are rarely or never driven. In some cases, they are displayed partially disassembled. They therefore lack the connection to “cruising” possessed by street cars. Instead, value is placed entirely on the aesthetics of the car and the artistry which its designers and builders demonstrate. Owners of show cars are willing to trade regular exposure and interaction with the general public for a more narrow audience in order to pursue their desire for the highest standards in craftsmanship. Some enthusiasts feel that without “cruising” the cars are missing an integral aspect lowriding.
Hoppers are built with specific focus on their hydraulics. The common goal is to be able to bounce the front two wheels as high off the ground as possible. Owners of hoppers often engage in competitions, formal or impromptu, to see which car can achieve the highest lift. In some cases, hoppers are operated with cables and switches from outside of the car. The image of a bouncing hopper with empty seats is a clear contrast to the cruising behavior associated with original lowriders and street cars. In contrast to show cars, the paint, body, and overall appearance of a hopper is often of little value. Instead, hoppers depict a different type of bravado and a more competitive element than the other groups.
The three types of lowriders demonstrate how a highly modifiable technology, such as the car, has a tendency to shape and evolve into groups distinguishable by technological and social characteristics.
The Spread of Lowriding
The spread of lowrider technology is embedded within the broader spread of the lowrider culture as a whole. Print, movies, and music played a significant role in this cultural spread, taking lowriding from a regional phenomenon to an international one.
Lowrider Magazine, founded in 1977, was a significant force in the propagation of lowrider culture. The magazine went from being a small operation, originally distributed by hand, to being the best selling automotive title from newsstands. In the 1970’s, lowriders also began to appear in movies and television shows. The opening scene of NBC’s, Chico and the Man, featured the “Gypsy Rose”, a Chevrolet Impala lowrider that some call the most famous lowrider in the world. The 1979 film, Boulevard Nights, featured lowriders extensively and furthered the controversial perception of a connection between lowriders and gang activity. Music also played a large role in exposing lowrider culture to the public. In 1975, the song Low Rider, by War, became a top-ten hit. In the early 1990’s, the connection between lowriders and hip-hop music spurred a new surge of public cognizance. Ricardo Gonzalez, publisher of Lowrider Magazine, said, “with the rise of music videos, cable networks like MTV and the whole rap culture in the early 1990’s, you suddenly couldn’t look at TV without seeing a lowrider car”.
The Google Ngram below is a rough depiction of the popularity of the term “lowrider” from 1975 to 2000. The graph shows some correlation to the significant appearances in print, television, movies, and music mentioned. The rise of Lowrider Magazine and popularity in television and movies from the 1970’s to the early 1980’s is matched by a rise on the graph. The period of slight decline or stagnation in the graph occurs around 1985-1988, a period when lowrider Magazine went out of circulation. The graph begins to rise again when the magazine was revived and rises faster during the early 1990’s when lowriders were popular in rap culture.
The graph indicates a correlation between media presence and the overall popularity of lowriders. It demonstrates how a technology that is part of a sub-culture can be treated as a symbol that represents more than the technology itself. The spread of that technology can then be facilitated by the use of that cultural symbol in media.
Lowriding in Modern Culture
In modern culture, lowriders have been portrayed as objects of display. They are shown to be prized possessions to certain groups of people and are meant to be displayed as a sign of dominance.
In modern movies, the display aspect of lowriders have been particularly emphasized. In the Pixar film Cars, a lowrider is called out as a "show-off" when it uses its hydraulics to comically raise its height when a judge says, "All rise." In another scene in the film, a male lowrider is shown to raise its height using hydraulics to impress a female car. In another film, American Lowrider, starring Danny Trejo, the plot is centered around retrieving the protagonists' prized lowrider from a neighborhood bully.
In modern games, the personalization of a lowrider has been gamified, such that the money earned in the game is used to customize parts of a lowrider. In the Grand Theft Auto game series, players can own different types of lowriders, including street cars and hoppers. Another game called "American Lowriders" advertises "Enter the world of night racing and lowrider competitions. Buy your ride and keep it in a good condition to compete with other pretenders." To earn money to buy lowriders, the player must race with others. Lowriders, however, are not meant to be driven for speed, and so, the racing in this game is not an accurate portrayal of lowriders.
Spinoffs of Lowriding
The lowrider culture with automobiles influenced spin-offs in other modes of transportation, including bicycles and baby strollers. The spin-offs share characteristics similar to automobile lowriders. While they are still modes of transportation, the main purpose of embellishing the vehicles is to show off.
The bicycle is an example of a lowrider spin-off. The lowrider bicycle is characterized by very long wheelbases and high handle bars. They are not meant to be ridden, but are mostly concerned with styling . They began to appear in the 1960's, but their popularity declined in the 1980's with the rising popularity of BMX bikes .
Baby strollers have also been influenced by lowrider culture. They feature bodies that resemble automobile lowriders.
Generalizable Lessons Derived from Lowriding
Lowriding is an exemplar of how social values, historical events, and culture can shape a technology. Lowriding has little practical value; it has no inherent speed, efficiency, or comfort. Yet, the culture and its underlying technology has been developed and spread even to other countries, such as Japan. The driving factor of technological innovation in lowriders were non-technological factors. For example, lowriding was a cultural reaction to faster cars by the chicano culture, and its primary technology of hydraulics was adopted from innovations from World War II.
This technological and cultural phenomenon of lowriding is a compelling example of how one should not fail to recognize the social influences of a technology. While much of technological innovation may be driven by technological values, such as cost efficiency, other social factors can play a significant role in shaping technology.
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