Cus­tomiz­ing the ride


Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

One of the coolest things about lowrider cul­ture is the own­ers’ predilec­tion for cus­tomiza­tion — for in­dulging, with aban­don, the im­pulse to in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion. A 1980 Chevro­let Monte Carlo or a 1965 Lin­coln Con­ti­nen­tal are al­most viewed as only tem­plates, and pride in brand or model is vi­o­lated fla­grantly in the quest for beauty and moxie. Take Chuck Mon­toya’s vi­brant blue “lead sled,” a 1950 Mer­cury, that’s a fea­tured ex­hibit in the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum’s Lowrid­ers, Hop­pers and Hot Rods. It may have been a hot item from the Mer­cury sta­ble 66 years ago, but now this one also boasts a bold grill from a Chrysler De­Soto and a dash­ing 1961 Thun­der­bird in­te­rior. Th­ese cars are gor­geous Franken­steins.

Mon­toya’s car col­lec­tion in­cludes street rods, two Monte Carlo lowrider “hop­pers,” a 1930 Ford Model A pickup, and a red 1963 Chevy Im­pala, but the Merc is re­ally spe­cial. It used to be­long to a fa­mous prize­fighter from Al­bu­querque. “I’ve had this car for about 10 years, and I pur­chased it from the boxer Johnny Tapia and his wife,” Mon­toya said at the mu­seum re­cently. “I grew up with Johnny [who died in 2012], and when that movie Co­bra came out with Sly Stallone and that ’50 Merc, he re­ally wanted a Merc lowrider.” The Tapias had the car cus­tom­ized by the renowned Gene Win­field in Cal­i­for­nia. The only things Mon­toya changed with his own­er­ship were the paint job and seat cov­ers.

The car’s side pan­els are stock, but the hood is not. “It used to come down lower in front. Gene Win­field did what’s called a pan­cake hood. He also frenched [re­cessed] the head­lights.” The trunk holds a stereo sys­tem and the air tank and com­pres­sor for an air-bag lift sys­tem. “If you have a bumpy road, you have to go up so it doesn’t hit the bot­tom. Then when you hit a good smooth sec­tion of road, you can ride low and slow,” Mon­toya said. Many lowrid­ers use oil hy­draulics to con­trol the cus­tom­ized lift and low­er­ing of the ve­hi­cle. Those re­quire banks of bat­ter­ies, whereas the air-bag sys­tem can build up the nec­es­sary pres­sure from the car bat­tery, just like the stereo.

All lowrid­ers are not the same an­i­mal, again re­flect­ing the tastes of the own­ers. Some cars can be out­fit­ted with enough hy­draulic juice that they can be made to hop or even bounce around madly on in­di­vid­ual wheels. “That’s a car dancer. I see those in Las Ve­gas. They’re hi­lar­i­ous,” Mon­toya said. “But we don’t want the Merc to do that. We just want it to go up enough that you can drive, and then lay it back down on the ground. This is just a cruiser, and we do car shows.”

Mon­toya runs Ex­pert Paint & Body, an Al­bu­querque shop that spe­cial­izes in restor­ing old cars as well as col­li­sion re­pair. He’s also a mem­ber of the ven­er­a­ble Im­pe­ri­als Car Club based in East Los An­ge­les. “Peo­ple have been build­ing th­ese cus­toms since the ’50s. My dad grad­u­ated in ’58, and he said when he was there at Al­bu­querque High, they used to get the Mer­curys and they would lit­er­ally take the springs off the back and just drag it all over Al­bu­querque.”

The Johnny Tapia car is a smooth ma­chine, but it’s not bor­ing. This is a beauty burst­ing with unique au­to­mo­tive per­son­al­ity, in­clud­ing a re­mov­able hood — a padded, re­mov­able Car­son top — that trans­forms it into a con­vert­ible. Mon­toya said it’s a joy to op­er­ate. “Aw, it’s awe­some, man. It has a big-block en­gine and air con­di­tion­ing, and with th­ese Coker white­walls and spi­der wheels and shaved [no han­dle] doors, it’s a fun car to drive, man.”

One of the myths about why hy­draulics were so read­ily adopted in New Mex­ico, ac­cord­ing to cu­ra­tor Daniel Kosharek, was be­cause of lousy roads that could dam­age a low-set car. The driver could jack it up to get over the roads, then lower it to cruise on the high­way. “The whole idea of low and slow — ba­jito y suavecito — was also some­what of a re­ac­tion to the An­glo car thing, which was high and fast. That’s the hot rod, where you strip a car down, put a huge en­gine in it and big fat tires on and you scream around town.”

An­other prac­ti­cal mo­ti­va­tion for hy­draulics was that po­lice would bust driv­ers with low cars. With the right equip­ment, you could go up or down when­ever you wanted. Air hy­draulics came along later, of­fer­ing a very smooth ride, but also the kind of rapid re­sponse that led to hop­ping. “Then you could drive down the street and hop up and down or pull up one wheel and go along on three,” Kosharek said.

A love for tin­ker­ing with the au­to­mo­bile’s parts goes hand in hand with lowrider cul­ture. Kosharek


not only grew up on a farm where he and his friends did all the work on cars them­selves, but he has owned 1950s Chevro­lets, beloved of lowrider folk. “How they fab­ri­cate th­ese things, es­pe­cially what you have to do in or­der to do the slam­ming thing, is an en­gi­neer­ing won­der,” he ex­plained. “If you slam a car, that means to drop it, drop it low ei­ther with hy­draulics or by cut­ting the springs. You have to re­in­force ev­ery­thing un­der the car­riage, be­cause you’re rais­ing a 3,000pound car in the air and slam­ming it on the ground.”

There may be some slam­ming go­ing on Sun­day, May 22, when the mu­seum hosts a car show and hop­ping demon­stra­tion on the Plaza. “There are cars now that go prac­ti­cally ver­ti­cal in hop­ping con­tests,” said Or­lando Martinez Jr., stand­ing next to his tricked-out 1983 Chevy Monte Carlo. “If they get stuck up there, be­cause they have too much weight in the trunk, they get dis­qual­i­fied. I don’t have any weight. This car will just do about 40 inches.”

Martinez, whose fa­ther pre­vi­ously owned a Ford Galaxie lowrider, has pur­sued his cus­tomiza­tion with ador­ing care. The first step was to take the en­tire Monte Carlo com­pletely apart. If you look un­der­neath the car to­day, you’ll see a most important mod­i­fi­ca­tion in the heavy-duty steel welded on the bot­tom to make the frame rigid. “If you don’t have that, you won’t be able to get it on three wheels; you won’t be able to bounce it off the ground. Well, you will for a few weeks, but your car will break. If you love your car and you want it to last a life­time, you’ve got to box in the whole frame.”

Martinez mod­i­fied the sus­pen­sion for higher lift and added big­ger coil springs. “You have to re­in­force the rear end, too; oth­er­wise it will bend like a banana and it will leak fluid and the gears will start grind­ing.”

The trunk that once held gro­ceries and Michael Jack­son cas­settes and Cab­bage Patch Kids is now full of equip­ment for the hy­draulic sys­tems: the 10 bat­ter­ies and the mo­tors and pumps. There’s a pis­ton pump that adds air (ni­tro­gen) to the oil hy­draulics for a su­per-en­er­getic front end. “This setup is cus­tom-made. I built it, so the parts are from five or six hy­draulic com­pa­nies,” he said. “It’s like a hot rod. It’s all af­ter­mar­ket stuff. Some of th­ese parts are prob­a­bly made for trac­tors, real heavy-duty hy­draulics.” Kosharek ar­ranged a garage-style en­trance to the ex­hibit, where vis­i­tors can get a close-up look at lowrider hy­draulics, as well as a chromed en­gine and other el­e­ments of lowrider me­chan­ics.

An­other level in th­ese car own­ers’ ob­ses­sive beau­ti­fi­ca­tion/per­for­mance pro­grams has to do with ap­pear­ance. Kosharek men­tioned a car he saw in Al­bu­querque by Sean Daly (Straight Street Au­to­mo­tive) that had a pur­ple and pink paint job and the line on the hood ex­tended over the dash­board, down into the up­hol­stery on the seat, and then up over the pack­age tray and out the back win­dow to pick up on the trunk.

Martinez’s Monte Carlo was painted by Rob Van­der­slice, an award-win­ning car pain­ter in Al­bu­querque. The car also sports some of what its owner called “the new thing right now,” fine scroll­work hand-en­graved on some of the chrome body parts. Open the hood and you’ll see that an as­sort­ment of items in the en­gine com­part­ment also have been chromed, among them the al­ter­na­tor, sus­pen­sion parts, and pul­ley wheels. He did not go so far as to chrome the brake drums, though, be­cause he con­sid­ers them func­tion­ally important: You don’t want to mess with stop­ping power when you’re driv­ing an ex­pen­sive rig.

And how much is it worth? “Just parts-wise, I prob­a­bly have $30,000 into it,” Martinez said. “I lost count of the la­bor-hours years ago; it’s been a cou­ple pay­checks here, a cou­ple pay­checks there.” The Monte Carlo, which is pretty sur­pris­ingly on dis­play up­stairs in the His­tory Mu­seum, is out­fit­ted with high-qual­ity Day­ton wire wheels. Martinez has had them since 1997, but they haven’t been on this car long. He just fin­ished it in 2015. He has four cars, but he said, “This is my baby.”

Echo­ing his dad’s love for lowrid­ers, Martinez en­joys mod­ern cus­tomiz­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties and tech­niques, but he also val­ues tra­di­tion. He prefers oil hy­draulics (he just uses 10/30 mo­tor oil) over air bags for just that rea­son. “This is just lowrider hy­draulics de­signed for hop­ping and three-wheel­ing and side-to-side and all that good stuff. I can con­trol each wheel.” At hop­ping con­tests where the cars are made to bounce up ver­ti­cally, an owner jumps the car by re­mote con­trol, stand­ing out­side. “Yeah,” Martinez said, “but it’s more fun when you’re in it, when you’re driv­ing. They call it gas-hop­ping. Some peo­ple think a lot of this is in­sane, but I like it.”

Paul Wei­de­man

The New Mex­i­can

Don J. Us­ner: Ep­pie Martinez, Chi­mayó, 2012; right, from top to bot­tom, Dot­tie Lopez: Precision, 2014; Us­ner: Chuck Mon­toya, 2016; Corey Ringo: Sky’s the Limit, 2014; Us­ner: Hop­per at Ray’s Garage, Chi­mayó, 2012; op­po­site page, left, chromed Chevro­let 350 short block en­gine, photo Blair Clark; right, typ­i­cal hy­draulic setup, photo Blair Clark

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