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Celebrate Pancake Day with lowriders

  1. Pancake - to most people, it’s a delicious disc-shaped snack made from fat and flour and old milk.

    To considerably fewer people, it’s the art of dropping your lowrider (y’know - those bouncy cars from Snoop Dogg videos) as close to the floor as possible via some hydraulic suspension.

    Today seemed like an auspicious one to celebrate these machines, so we present you with this - a wonderful feature originally published in 2002 in Top Gear magazine.

    And another lowrider story, right here, for your delectation. We spoil you, y’know?

    Words and pics: Shahriar Mazandi

  2. There are certain neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where it’s ‘unhealthy’ to pay too close attention to someone else’s car. East LA is just such a neighbourhood - one of the densest gang regions in the US. But I’d spotted a pair of immaculate, lowered Chevrolet Impalas and, although they were parked at the end of a dodgy looking alley, it was tempting to take a closer look.

    It was a rash decision. I’d barely walked around one car before a group of Chicanos surrounded me. I’d worked in LA long enough to realise that white vests, baggy trousers and ‘F13’ tattoos signified they were gang members. In this case, the Elegants car club, a group affiliated to the Florencias - the biggest Chicano gang in LA. To make things worse, the cars belonged to Javier, the main man.

  3. My interest in cars came to my rescue. Having first convinced Javier I wasn’t a cop but a photographer, he suggested I return the following Sunday after the gang’s general meeting. This proved to be the start of my five-year association with gang culture and their lowriders. I met up with the Elegants as arranged behind the disused East LA train terminal to find them all lined up with their lowriders.

  4. The dilapidated train station and peeling billboards provided a stark contrast to their gleaming cars. After my nervy start, the Elegants were actually eager to pose, very welcoming and friendly. In fact, after I’d left, Javier rang to say I’d left a camera in one of their cars. He made sure I got it back and whenever I hooked up with them again they were careful to pack every bit of camera kit into my van.

  5. Javier also suggested that if I wanted to see some really special cars I should visit the Supershow at the LA coliseum where top customisers would be in residence.

    Walking up to the coliseum entrance, loudspeakers declared that: “removal of vests and displays of gang affiliation is cause for ejection”. Inside, they weren’t taking any risks, either, with security guards scanning everyone with metal detectors for concealed guns and knives.

  6. In the main hall, on rotating stands, stood the automotive art that every- one had come to admire. The allure of lowriding is to make your ‘ride’ unique. So the cars are cut down, custom painted, and upholstered with velvet. Accessories are dipped in gold and chandeliers grace the interior.

    Despite the fantastic cars on display, one, a ‘79 Ford Lincoln called Las Vegas, stood out from the rest. The creation was the work of Joe Ray who had carried through the gambling theme in meticulous detail, with an ace of spades driver’s seat, a black jack dashboard and foldout crap tables in the doors among other things.

  7. With such ornamental detail, Las Vegas had been purposely built for the show; or so claimed the previous year’s winner and owner of a highly customised, gold-plated Chevy Impala. Still, the rules are clear: for a car to win it must drive so, dutifully, Joe drove his car six feet backwards and five feet forwards to collect his prize - ruining his gold-plated disc brakes in the process.

  8. Not all lowriders are gang members. Prize-winner Joe Ray owned a trucking business and was the leader of a well-respected car club, whose creations regularly featured in the latest ‘gangsta rap’ videos. And even for those in gangs, lowriding can often be a way out. customising a car can cost any- thing up to $100,000 and life in a street gang just isn’t lucrative enough to support the lowriding habit.

  9. My fascination lay mainly in the car culture and, over the next few years, I met up with many more car club factions. With intense and violent rivalry between gangs - particularly the Crips and Bloods - I often had to tread a delicate line as I got to know both sides well. One car, owned by Papa of the Public Enemy car club, captured this side of their lives. Three of his childhood friends Fat Rat, Joe Chillie and Baby Dre Dog had been kidnapped and killed by the rival Bloods. As a tragic tribute, he’d painted their faces on the boot of his car.

  10. Getting to meet gangs was often a matter of luck. On one such occasion, I was sorting some pictures at a photocopy/office supplies shop when, Vic, an employee, saw my photos and said: “You gotta meet my homeboys from Culver City”. When I said I was more interested in their cars, the leader made it clear they wouldn’t tolerate “sissy s**t”. However, he relented and suggested a nighttime meet. But his attitude gave me the jitters and I didn’t show up. It was a pity, as behind the machismo, they’d been friendly and welcoming - the same qualities I’d seen in the Elegants.

  11. Today, lowriding is gaining in popularity. Thanks to rap artists, it’s overtaken that other icon of US culture - the hot rod. In fact, the two are influencing each other, with lowriders built for speed and hot rods ornamented.

    You might well spot a procession of lowriders on a Sunday night cruise around Central Avenue. Since most clubs have too many cars to cross lights in one go, a lead car will block traffic until they all pass through.

  12. As for the gangs, I’d come to appreciate that there was far more to them than the stereotypical image. Many had let me into their lives and treated me with kindness and respect. For them, lowriding is more than bouncing cars; more than bravado and showing off. It’s a coat of arms, offering an owner rank and status in his community. Cars are a universal language any East LA gangster will understand. “It gets us respect on the streets.”

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