Redwood City’s custom-car enthusiasts revere the culture and traditions of low-riding

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The 1982 Cadillac Coupe de Ville almost seems to savor the late-morning sun.  Its shimmering, deep-metallic-blue roof graduates to a dark green around the top edges of the doors.  On the lid of the wide trunk is a portrait of a topless Latina beauty.  The upholstery is crushed velvet, somewhere between Kelly and forest green, and covers not just the seats but also the dashboard and the floor.

Eddy Tapia, who lives in Redwood City and co-owns a body shop in Newark with his brother-in-law, Miguel Maldonado, demonstrates the hydraulic system that makes the car a true low-rider machine.  A small console next to the dashboard contains eight stainless-steel switches, four to a row.  Tapia pushes one, the hydraulics whine, and suddenly the car lurches downward with a surprising thump.  He pushes another, and the Caddy careens to the right.  Another jolt, and the car jerks up to its original position.  It’s like a carnival ride, only more extreme because, to a first-timer, the shudders and bumps are so unexpected.

The car, which Tapia has named, “Sweet Candy,” is pretty much the mascot of the shop, Newark Collision Center, just across the Dumbarton Bridge from the Peninsula.  It’s typically parked out in front, on Thornton Avenue, where it has attracted many offers from low-riding enthusiasts.  For now, at least, Tapia has turned them down.  Sweet Candy is generally his car of choice for cruising Broadway in Redwood City, the town where he first started low-riding as a teenager.

For Tapia and Maldonado, as well as many other low-riders in the Bay Area, the 1970s represented the zenith of the cruising culture.  The epicenter was — as it still occasionally is — the intersection of Story and King roads on the east side of San Jose.  Traffic was so heavy and the parade was so slow that it could take an hour-and-a-half to drive one block.  Owners of the low-riding cars — 1963 and 1964 Chevrolet Impalas were the favorites – brought extra batteries so their hydraulics wouldn’t die mid-show.

And, says Tapia, that’s basically what the cruising scene was and still is today – a very slow-moving automotive exhibition.

“Cruising, for me, was to have a good time and to see other cars,” Maldonado says.  “And to meet other people.  To this day, it’s still the same thing.”

“You meet different people out there, and you become friends,” adds Tapia.  “From San Jose, Salinas, Oakland, wherever.  And now they invite you to their town, and you meet more people.  It was like, basically, networking.  ‘Hey, where’d you get your paint job?’  ‘Raul did it.’  ‘Where’d you get your upholstery?’  ‘Morales did it.’  And not only that, but just relaxing and enjoying the good times.”

Entertaining onlookers, whether in other cars or lined along the street, is another big part of the story.

“It’s fun to go up and down Broadway,” Maldonado says.  “People like to see the car dance.”

At the height of his car collecting, Maldonado says, he owned 10 cars.  Today, it’s down to three.  Tapia estimates he still has around 15.  Another devotee, Redwood City resident Andrés Curincita, owns 10 low-rider cars, including a restored silver-and-black 1966 Ford pickup, patterned after the colors of his beloved Oakland Raiders.  Then there’s his everyday car, a silver Mercedes, his wife’s Jaguar and a 31-foot motor home.

“We were just kids,” recalls Curincita, owner of Andy’s Gardening and Landscaping in Redwood City.  “We tried to have nice cars.  We couldn’t afford to customize them.  We put blocks of cement in the trunk to make them lower.  We couldn’t afford air shocks and hydraulics.

“I was always into cars,” Curincita continues.  “I was driving my dad’s car to school when I was only in ninth grade.  There’s a satisfaction in fixing up cars.  We were putting small wheels on giant cars, and everywhere we went, people loved it.”

In the 1970s, Curincita was a founding member of Brown Edition, which he believes was Redwood City’s first low-rider club.  The club evolved into another called Estilo (Spanish for “style”), and then another club, Puro Estilo (“Pure Style”) came along.  A few years ago, Curincita says, a group of younger low-riders approached him and asked to revive the Brown Edition name for their own club.

“I told them, ‘It’s okay as long as you do it right – no fighting, no gangsters,’” Curincita says.

And that brings up an issue.  Outside the Latino community, low-riders are often considered gang members.  As Curincita says, “People see us all wearing the same jackets, and they assume it’s a gang.” Adds Larry Knight, who produces the car show at Redwood City’s annual Fourth of July celebration, “People are usually scared of low-riders.”

In his experience, Knight says, the low-riding culture is highly family-oriented.  Tapia and Maldonado agree, saying that low-riding weaves across families, and an interest in customized cars is typically passed from generation to generation.  Not only are Tapia and Maldonado brothers-in-law, but Maldonado’s brother, Raul — who taught Miguel the craft — is another longtime low-rider who also owns a car shop, Maldonado’s Auto Body and Paint, on Middlefield Road in Redwood City.

And the interest in cars isn’t transmitted just among fathers, sons and brothers.  Tapia says his daughter recently celebrated her quinceañera — a 15-year-old Latina’s coming-out party — and spent most of the evening posing for photos with Sweet Candy and learning to operate the car’s hydraulics.  As for gang affiliations, the organization Tapia hangs out with most is the Woodside Soccer Club, whose teenaged girls he has coached since they were six-year-olds.

Nor is low-riding confined to Latinos.  Tapia, a low-riding history buff, credits an Anglo teenager in Los Angeles with installing the first hydraulics, on a 1953 Chevrolet Corvette.  And, as he demonstrates with a series of YouTube videos from his desktop computer screen, these days low-riding is also immensely popular in Japan.

As generations have evolved, so, too, have tastes in low-rider cars.  The common denominator, it seems, is that the preferred cars tend to be the hip models of one’s youth.  In the 1970s, Chevrolet Impalas from the 1960s were in.  Today, Tapia and Miguel Maldonado say, the most popular cars for low-riding are Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, which originally shared the same basic body.

When it comes to cars, Tapia eschews the term, “low-rider.”  He prefers to call them simply, “customized.”  And for a truly customized car, the price can easily reach $100,000 or more.

Start with the wheel rims, the signatures of just about every custom car.  They can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $7,000 — each.  The standard interior is crushed velvet — another spendy item.  Then come the hydraulics, maybe a new engine and finally the paint — up to five layers, as various designs and murals are worked in, followed by a protective finish of clear coat.

The process is so expensive and time-consuming that Tapia and Miguel Maldonado typically customize only around five cars a year, preferring their basic business of repairing standard cars for insurance companies.  For his part, Raul Maldonado owns an ice-blue 1953 Chevrolet with a white hardtop that he’s gradually been bringing back to life for 15 years.

Besides their affinity for custom cars, Tapia, Curincita and the Maldonados have something else in common.  They’re all successful, middle-aged business owners.  If it’s hard to imagine them out low-riding, then picture them fishing or woodworking.  As Curincita says, simply, “It’s a hobby, like any other.”

It is, nonetheless, one they take seriously.  Tapia gets impatient when he meets younger people who have suddenly come into money and bring in an old wreck that they want to transform while knowing nothing of the culture and traditions of low-riding.

“To me, low-riding is from the heart,” Tapia says.  “You were brought up in that, and you didn’t jump on the bandwagon 10 years ago.”

As for what defines an authentic low-rider car, Raul Maldonado says it’s in the chrome, the wheel rims, the hydraulics and the hundreds of small details in the paint and the fixtures.

“It’s the thrill you get out of a paint job, when it’s all custom and looks psychedelic, and you go cruising and have a good time and everyone admires your car,” he says.

And whether on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles — considered by many the birthplace of low-riding — or Broadway in Redwood City, custom cars remain a passion for people who love painstaking craftsmanship combined with a touch of exhibitionism.  Settle back into the plush interior, rev the muscular Corvette engine, hit the hydraulics and brace for that resounding thump.

This story was originally published in the July print edition of Climate Magazine.