Life in the Low Lane: A History of Lowrider Culture in the Valley

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Custom paintwork by Valley artist Richard Ochoa; photo by Michael Woodall
Custom paintwork by Valley artist Richard Ochoa; photo by Michael Woodall

Born from the same post-war milieu that spawned the Hells Angels, TV dinners and countless other American classics, lowrider culture has played it cool on Phoenix streets for eight decades.

Frank’s Hydraulics occupies a space in a nondescript, one-story white building in an industrial neighborhood in northwest Phoenix, near a Costco Business Center and a swingers’ club. There is no signage outside the shop, and for good reason: The owner, Frank Castillo, says he only caters to seasoned customers who know exactly what they want. If such a client requires his services, they know where to find him.

“You build a reputation and if it’s good, people are going to come to you,” Castillo says. “Sometimes you don’t want the everyday, everyday [of walk-in clients] because you already have such big jobs.”

Frank Castillo presents his handiwork at his shop in Phoenix; photo by Michael Woodall
Frank Castillo presents his handiwork at his shop in Phoenix; photo by Michael Woodall

Other than the salt-and-pepper coloring of his hair and goatee, Castillo, who turns 60 this year, doesn’t look his age. He says his work keeps him young – specifically, tearing apart stock Detroit automobiles and rebuilding them into lowriders, those bucking, blinged-out, hydraulically enhanced mainstays of Latino cruise culture.

Known as the Valley’s longest-operating and, by many accounts, most respected lowrider conversion shop, Frank’s Hydraulics sits in the back of the building, away from the street. Around the corner, the parking lot is full of lowriders – mostly early-model Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Buicks, customized so their frames ride precariously, almost acrobatically low to the ground.

Some of the cars here are relatively unmodified, biding time until it’s their turn to experience Castillo’s expert ministrations, while others are already full-fledged lowriders, adorned with colorful paint jobs and the crests of their respective car clubs. 

One of the cars parked in the lot on a spring afternoon is a maroon early-’90s Cadillac DeVille. A keychain bearing the likeness of rap legend Snoop Dogg hangs from the ignition, a nod to the intertwinement of the lowrider and West Coast hip-hop cultures.

Castillo owns a few of these tricked-out Detroit artifacts, but most are client jobs, brought from as far as Tucson and California so he and a small group of employees can transform them into show-caliber head-turners. Inside the shop, car hoods bearing the company name adorn the walls alongside graffiti art – including a large “Frank’s” spelled out in giant blue graffiti letters that takes up a large part of one wall – and flags that pay homage to the lowrider lifestyle.

Frank Castillo working on a custom job; photo by Michael Woodall
Frank Castillo working on a custom job; photo by Michael Woodall

Having trained himself in the art of lowrider conversion in the garage of his childhood home in South Phoenix, Castillo founded Frank’s Hydraulics in 1986. Despite its name, the shop doesn’t only focus on hydraulics, which is the equipment that allows a driver to raise or lower the frame, “animating the car and giving it life,” in the words of Roger White, a curator for the National Museum of African American History & Culture. At Frank’s Hydraulics, the whole vehicle is reconceived, from the rims to the moon roof.

Castillo is nearing the valedictory phase of his career. Taking a break from a tricked-out 1990 Chevrolet Blazer, the lowrider legend – who was profiled in MotorTrend magazine in 2010 – says he gets a bigger kick out of the job now than he did during his most productive years. “I do it now for mainly fun. I mean, I always did it for fun,” he says. “[But] now, I get to kick back and really enjoy it. When you’re younger, you’re hustling, hustling, hustling, trying to do everything.”

Spring is a special time for Castillo and the larger Valley lowrider community, when most of the big car shows and cruises happen, shining light on a cultural phenomenon that has deep and enduring roots in Greater Phoenix. In addition to his shop, Castillo is renowned in lowrider circles for the annual Super Hop event he hosts in February, in which car owners unleash their hydraulics and compete to see which vehicles hop the highest. Despite the pandemic, the event drew 6,500 spectators to Glendale over the course of two days in 2021, he says, and even more this past February.

A mob of servicemen stops a streetcar during their search for “zoot suiters” in 1943 Los Angeles; photo courtesy
A mob of servicemen stops a streetcar during their search for “zoot suiters” in 1943 Los Angeles; photo courtesy

Born in the barrio and infused with outlaw mystique, the lowrider remains an emblem of outsider solidarity, and the vehicles – and their drivers – are still known to generate controversy, even in 2022. Castillo wouldn’t have it any other way. But after four decades in the business, the thrill he gets from glimpsing one of his vehicles in public is one of nostalgia and tradition,
not defiance.

“It’s pretty cool when you see them out in the streets,” Castillo says. “It just says how old you are, really.”

Lowriders started appearing on Phoenix streets in the 1950s, but the seeds of the movement were planted a bit earlier, when “pachucos” began clashing with authorities throughout the U.S. Southwest.

Any story about the history of lowriders must begin with pachucos, says Richard Ochoa, founder of Mesa-based Society Car Club. Originating in 1930s El Paso, Texas, early pachucos were rebellious young Mexican-American men who modeled their styles and attitudes after the Mafia dons they idolized. Where did the name come from? One theory holds that many migrant men came to El Paso to work at a large manufacturing plant run by a local shoe company, and would get past bemused border agents by deploying the phrase “Para shoe co.”

To impress the girls in the neighborhood, the young Chicanos tailored their style to match the gangster lifestyle, including jazz-musician clothing cuts popular in Harlem at the time. This led to the signature oversize, flamboyant zoot suits that have been synonymous with pachucos for more than 80 years.

a man in a zoot suit being inspected by an LAPD officer; photo courtesy
a man in a zoot suit being inspected by an LAPD officer; photo courtesy

“The pachucos were kind of that first form of saying, ‘I want to express myself in the way that I talk, in the way that I walk, in what we do, and we want this sense of community,’” says Xris Macias, director of the University of Utah’s Dream Center, where he works with undocumented families to secure access to college, and is formulating a curriculum centered around lowrider studies.

Ultimately, the pachuco counterculture spread across the U.S. Southwest, planting its deepest roots in Los Angeles, where – like the Hells Angels and other outlaw biker clubs – they became a symbol of rebellion and anti-conformity amid mid-century American prosperity. According to Ochoa, the lowrider phenomenon began as an act of imitation, fueled by the widespread belief in Chicano communities that pachucos were serial bootleggers who packed contraband into their trunks, resulting in a weighted-down look on the back half of the vehicle. Hoping to co-opt some of this outlaw cool, young Chicano car enthusiasts started to intentionally lower their suspensions.

According to Ochoa, the pachucos arrived in Phoenix in the late 1940s as Chicanos migrated to California, which was enjoying an economic boom after World War II. While the vast majority continued west, some decided to settle in the Valley.

Clashes with law enforcement – and the white establishment – were common. The tension culminated in the infamous Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles during June 1943, when gangs of American servicemen – infuriated by the supposed anti-patriotism of wearing gaudy, oversize suits during a time of wartime rationing, and whipped into a frenzy by sensationalist media reports – beat and harassed scores of Chicano boys and men over five bloody nights. Ochoa is certain that this violence against pachucos spread to the Valley.

victims of the riot; photo courtesy
victims of the riot; photo courtesy

“Though, there’s not really a lot of history on the pachucos here in Phoenix because I really don’t think they made this a [main] stronghold,” Ochoa adds.

Though the pachucos became folk heroes to many in the Hispanic community – helping fuel César Chávez’s Chicano Movement and civil rights groups – inevitably many self-domesticated during the 1960s and 1970s, Ochoa says. As time passed, their values changed, and they drifted away from that lifestyle but remained attached to their cars.

“These guys, when they settled down and some got married and started families, [they simply] liked personalizing their vehicles,” Ochoa says.

Macias, who owns a lowrider himself and co-facilitated a virtual lowrider studies conference in January, says it’s important to note that the term “lowrider” does not just refer to the cars, but also the people who drive them.

“It began with this connection of people and machine, from building it to customizing it and making it their own, but really, it’s about the people,” he says.

“So, when I say ‘lowriders,’ I look at the culture of that vehicle that’s been customized to represent that person as a form of expression.”

The desire for personal expression – and to stay out of jail – is what led to the use of hydraulics in lowriders, experts believe. In the 1950s, the automotive ideal among young white men was the hot rod, which typically sat high on its chassis. Inspired by pachuco mythology, young Mexican-American men lowered their vehicles as an automotive riposte, to set themselves apart from their white counterparts. Since the vehicle modifications would cause run-ins with the police, hydraulics allowed for the vehicle to be lowered but also return to its original position when needed.

Primeval lowriders were more often than not Chevrolets, according to Nili Blanck of Smithsonian Magazine, due to the abundance of Chevys in the post-war years and their easily modifiable design.

Richard Ochoa showing off his 1964 Impala in 1975; photo courtesy Richard Ochoa
Richard Ochoa showing off his 1964 Impala in 1975; photo courtesy Richard Ochoa

One Chevrolet model in particular, the Impala, became a lowrider institution. With its flat, broad surfaces, the Impala – which was manufactured from 1957 to 1985, before Chevy revived it in the 1990s, largely due to its enduring popularity as a lowrider – proved an ideal canvas for the fanciful after-market paint jobs favored by lowrider enthusiasts. “[The Impala] is more or less like the traditional lowrider,” Castillo explains.

Another critical factor in the lowrider’s popularity was its low barrier of entry relative to other forms of car collecting and competition. If the cost of a used, late-model domestic vehicle was within reach of a given consumer, so was lowriding – a factor that made it widely affordable for young men in the historically disadvantaged Chicano community. Desired customizations could then be added piecemeal as finances allowed.

Even in inflationary 2022, the costs are not prohibitive.  “A basic hydraulics setup starts at like $4,500,” says Castillo, who early in his career did freelance special effects on several feature-length movies, including Million Dollar Mystery (1987). “But you can go as crazy as you want, really. There are cars – from the hydraulics, paint, to the upholstery – that cost up to $150,000.”

Even as the Chicano community has expanded and evolved, the idea of cultural identity manifested in the Day-Glo paint jobs and whitewall tires of lowriders has survived through the generations. As a seat of Hispanic culture, the Valley is particularly rich in lowrider clubs, which number around 200, according to insiders.

As the founder of his own car club, Spirit, Castillo is serious about maintaining the legacy of lowriders. For instance, he’s extremely selective about who can join – it can take anywhere from six months to a year before a prospective member is accepted as an official member of Spirit. “They got to feel out us and we have to feel out them,” Castillo explains.

In 1980, when Castillo was founding his club, Ochoa was starting Society Car Club. The club has 27 members, which Ochoa says is about the average number for clubs, although some clubs in the area boast up to 75 members.

For the most part, lowrider clubs are similar, with the one difference being the level of the lowrider.

“Some guys are barely starting off with street lowriders, and then there are older clubs with full-blown car show lowriders,” Castillo says.

Ochoa is also the owner of Motorsport Showcase, an exhibition company that aims to promote lowrider culture through events and exhibitions, and is a decades-long contributor to Lowrider Magazine, an automotive publication that covered the values and lifestyle of the lowrider scene from 1977 until it ended its print publication in early 2019. (It is now under the umbrella of the Lowrider Network website.)

Richard Ochoa at his shop near Queen Creek; photo by Michael Woodall
Richard Ochoa at his shop near Queen Creek; photo by Michael Woodall

In 2009, he was inducted into the magazine’s Lowrider Hall of Fame. His title on the induction page of the network’s website is “Arizona’s Godfather of Lowriding.” It seems like a fitting title. Ochoa has seen it all.

Ochoa says he is considered a second-generation lowrider. His father, also named Richard, was a lowrider in the 1950s – years before the first organized, hobbyist-driven lowrider car clubs emerged.

“Nowadays, you have lowrider car clubs across the country that are organized groups,” Ochoa says. “I would say 75 percent of them, or at least a majority of them, do community outreach to their own community on a regular basis.”

In its 41 years of existence, Society Car Club has spent time helping its own community with events like an annual toy drive and a golf tournament that raises money for two high school scholarships in Superior, Arizona, where most of the club’s members live.

Richard Ochoa sporting an Afro with his 1976 Monte Carlo in the 1970s; photo courtesy Richard Ochoa
Richard Ochoa sporting an Afro with his 1976 Monte Carlo in the 1970s; photo courtesy Richard Ochoa
Richard Ochoa with Society Car Club vice president Jesse Duarte in 1978; photo courtesy Richard Ochoa
Richard Ochoa with Society Car Club vice president Jesse Duarte in 1978; photo courtesy Richard Ochoa

Still, despite efforts to rehabilitate the popular perception of lowrider culture, tensions persist in the Valley – and some advocates believe the movement is in decline, especially relative to the 1970s and 1980s, when cruising lowriders turned Central Avenue into a weekend lightshow of growling V8s and flashing rims.

Ochoa believes the negative image of lowriders contributes to why lowrider enthusiasts in the Phoenix area have not been able to find a permanent weekly meetup spot over the years. He recalls an event he hosted where he would have to pay for a larger police presence compared to similar events in the area.

“Because we’re a lowrider event, we’re labeled already with that black eye, or brown eye, so to speak,” he says. “So, they really kind of taxed us [out of existence].”

Starting in the summer of 2019, lowriders enjoyed a golden era of sorts, when the resurgent Grand Avenue arts district just north of Downtown became the site of a popular – but informal and unmanaged – weekly meetup that brought together many car clubs and spectators.

But the lowrider paradise on Grand was lost after only a few months, due to several inescapable facts about car cruises, according to several business owners quoted in a November 2020 Arizona Republic story. For one, they’re loud and produce a lot of exhaust. Secondly, they tend to congest and complicate traffic.

In the case of the Grand Avenue cruise, it also attracted a population of hangers-on and looky-loos who proved to be a headache for shop owners, just as the once-destitute district was enjoying a renaissance of culture and commerce.

One bar owner recalled having her bathroom keys stolen. Another had to hire additional staff to monitor restroom use and evict non-customers from clogging his parking lot.

“I didn’t mind the cruise at all, but business owners in the area didn’t like the litter and disorderliness that came each week,” says Gabe Hernandez, owner of Trans Am Café near the corner of Grand and Roosevelt Street.

In November 2020, lowriders cruised the pavement of Grand Avenue for the last time, forced out when Phoenix police started issuing citations to drivers.

For the time being, a weekly lowrider cruise is taking place in downtown Glendale, along Glendale Avenue, between 54th and 59th avenues. On a clear Saturday night in early spring, traffic inches along as the lowriders, keeping true to their longtime ethos, cruise “low and slow” along the road. The sidewalks are lined with spectators – families and couples on dates – illustrating just how popular the community and its events are in a city where 38 percent of the population is Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data.

Each vacant lot along the cruise route seems to be occupied by a specific club, and each club clearly holds court over its own section, although spots aren’t assigned. “You got to get in where you fit in,” Castillo says.

The cars don’t stay glued to their spots, though. While a contingent stays back, cars take to the streets, showing off their vehicles as they parade down Glendale Avenue. On this night, two 1980s Chevrolets stand out. A burnt orange Caprice, sometimes referred to as a box Chevy, works its hydraulics, jerking every which way as if dancing to an unheard beat. In front of it, the glossy finish of an El Camino gleams in the streetlights as it lazily cruises the street, setting the pace for the cars behind.

Castillo says people often come up to him at cruises to talk about work, but he always ends up shutting them down. If they want to talk about work, he says, they can find him at his shop during business hours. Cruise nights are for him to take it easy and enjoy the culture and lifestyle he is so passionate about.

When asked about how the future looks for lowriders, he says things are heading in a positive direction, with lowrider cruises enjoying a bump in popularity since the onset of the pandemic.

“We went through slow times and we’re still here,” he says. “Through the late ’80s, it was slow. The ’90s were a little bit better. 2000s got really good and then it died off again. Now, we’re back to full-blown.”

He pauses meaningfully and smiles. “I’ve been through a lot of eras of low life.”

Grand Avenue cruising in 2020, just before it was shut down; photo courtesy Church of Speed/Nick Aboud
Grand Avenue cruising in 2020, just before it was shut down; photo courtesy Church of Speed/Nick Aboud
Grand Avenue cruising in 2020, just before it was shut down; photo courtesy Church of Speed/Nick Aboud
Grand Avenue cruising in 2020, just before it was shut down; photo courtesy Church of Speed/Nick Aboud

Anatomy of a Lowrider

How mechanics and conversions shops achieve the low-and-slow ideal.

Unmodified 1964 Chevrolet Impala
Unmodified 1964 Chevrolet Impala

Step No. 1
The Lowering

Cars’ suspensions can be lowered using several methods, but for the dramatic plunging effect favored by lowriders, mechanics cut or replace the coil springs that act as a cushion between the axle and the car frame, mitigating jolts and bumps. The end result: The frame sits much lower to the ground.

Step No. 2
Deploy the Hydraulics!

The sine qua non of lowriding. To navigate speedbumps and other road features without bottoming out, lowrider enthusiasts weld hydraulic cylinders to the coils, allowing them to electively raise and lower the car frame. The cylinders are fed by one or more hydraulic pumps, usually placed in the trunk.

Step No. 3
More Hydraulics

Like a tiki bartender and rum, you simply can’t have too much when it comes to lowrider hydraulics. Installing multiple pumps and “whammy tanks” allows riders to operate each cylinder independently, inviting three-wheel motion and other contortionist-style tricks; while extending and telescoping the drive shaft allows for ever-longer cylinders.

Step No. 4
Add Bling

Though original tires and rims are prized by some purists, gold and chrome wire rims are the gold standard among lowriders, typically sized smaller than the factory standard. Meanwhile, etched chrome bumpers and headlight fixtures; yesteryear stereo consoles; and elaborate velvet upholstery are hallmarks of the discriminating lowrider.

Fully modified 1964 Impala lowrider
Fully modified 1964 Impala lowrider

Step No. 5
Paint and Livery

Intricate graphics and color texturing are integral to the lowrider mystique. Owners also favor pearl finishes, a three-stage process in which translucent pearl paint is layered over the basecoat, followed by a third clear coat finish, for an extra-wet look; and “flake jobs,” in which sparkle flakes are added to the base. The final bill, excluding the acquistion cost of the car itself: $7,000-$15,000.


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