Customizing the ride
CUSTOMIZING THE RIDE
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
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 THE ROAD, YOU CAN RIDE SLOW AND SLOW. — CHUCK MONTOYA
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.”
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