Attending car shows, specifically in the western hemisphere, one tends to see a bit of everything custom; or should we say “kustom” for the sake of this article? Having gone to more than a thousand shows since the late ’70s, I’ve seen my share of cool stuff and mediocre crap. Trends and traditions can fluctuate just like the stock market.
In this case it’s about the people who delve into the world of the lowered, vintage GM rides with the to-die-for body mods and paint schemes. No “zillion dollar” set of wheels and high-tech tires will make your daily driver ever come close to the wow-factor invested in these rolling pieces of art. Nope, just plenty of heart, imagination, and mechanical know-how with a mix of talent and a nod to tradition, a bit of tweaking to make it your own, and hopefully some recognition as to being part of the custom culture we so dearly cling to.
So when I was asked by Rob Fortier to give an update as to what the lowrider elitists were up to these days, it was with great honor and pleasure—but it wasn’t as smooth as we’d hoped it to be. Nope, crazy schedules, time frames, and time zones had me trying to gather a relevant group of talents who could share with us their stories and how things came to be as far as work ethic and role models they took on along the way. So here’s what they got for you and thanks to those who were able to help pave the way and blur that candied, chopped, and lowered “line” just a bit more for you and I.
Aaron Lobato, U.S. Kustoms, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Aaron Lobato, owner of U.S. Kustoms in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a transplant from El Monte, California. He had his beginnings in 1991 when he was an avid reader of Custom Rodder magazine and has made quite a statement with his two cars, both ’53 Chevy customs that have seen ink in R&C and The Rodder’s Journal. The green one with a Watson-esque flavor and the other with a tubbed rearend and Mickey Thompson wide whites, have received their fair share of accolades from the godfathers of the custom culture and from the general public as well. Not bad for a guy in his mid ’30s.
“In the ’90s I kinda didn’t really have a style yet and lowriders didn’t really appeal to me as much as maybe, say, pro street cars at the time. It wasn’t until a few years later when I started getting into early ’60s styling, like Larry Watson, Andy Southern, and Don Varner. But I didn’t like the Barris cars or the Dick Dean stuff much at all. Junior Conway stuff is good and after doing a lot of research I came to the conclusion that a lot of the customizers were going way out on a limb, being crazy with their design for the sake of being crazy. Once Sam Barris died and to me George was doing his own thing, well those George cars were ugly.” Aaron instead really took a liking to the street customs from the ’60s to early ’70s stuff. “And that’s when those custom cars started to become lowriders, in the ’70s where it was kinda hard to tell the difference between a custom car and a lowrider, because lowriders weren’t as crazy then as they are now. The paintjobs weren’t as crazy and the wheel and tire combinations they used then aren’t what they use now. They hardly used 13-inch wheels; they were mainly running 14s and they were running mags, so those cars were still very interesting and the paint they had was real interesting as far as customs went—mild modifications with tasteful but intricate paint design.” When asked how he approaches a project, Aaron had this to say: “As far as a ’50s car, you can fit the style to any vintage car if done right. But as far as say a ’40s-60s, there’s a ’60s/’70s style you can delve into with those models, makes, whatever.” As for the U.S. Kustoms style of car? “It’d be ’60s blended with ’90s touches, like the blue ’53 Chevy I built was considered like that. In fact if I were to raise the car it’d be a gasser with the wheels and white-walled slicks, the stance brings it into the ’90s because it’d be considered pro street but the wheel and tire combo kinda takes it away from that look. So it’s kind of a blend, a mix of styles that many find appealing. While the green Chevy is pretty much pure ’60s styling with the most influence being that of Don Varner, Watson is a huge influence, but Varner’s paintjobs were just pretty crazy and I take a lot of cues from his stuff. But as far as lowriders and customs, there is a fine line. My cars are considered lowriders to most people around here in New Mexico. You know they’re low, running Supreme wheels, with the difference being I’m running 15-inch Supremes instead of 13-inch Supremes, and there’s probably more modifications on my cars than a normal lowrider would have on their rides out here. But you know to the layman it’s low and it has a lot of flake, so it’s a lowrider.” So would Aaron’s cars be lowriders if they ran wire wheels and smaller tires? “I couldn’t picture my car on wire wheels, uh, I couldn’t tell you, [laughing]! Um, if they had 15-inch Buick wires on it, it’d still be custom, street custom. If you put 13s on it, I don’t even know; it would be weird, yeah!”
Conrad Garcia, Los Angeles, California, curator of the Charlie Lopez Mercury
Conrad Garcia has been immersed in the Southern California car scene since his high school days. His first real passion was the VW Bug that seemed to be everywhere in the early ’80s. Having several killer Vee-Dubs over the years, Conrad soon elevated his knowledge of custom cars when he got into lowriders and classic GMs. Heavy into Chevy iron, Conrad has quite a collection of rare rides, including a certain kustom that was hot back in the ’70s and early ’80s.
“My friend Miguel Zarate of the Strays Car Club knows that I like collecting the old-school cars and asked if I remember that car called ‘Nostalgia Sleeper’. I said, ‘Hell yeah, that was my favorite car growing up!’ He said that it was for sale but I wasn’t buying his story.” So Zarate sent Conrad a link to where the car was, which was in Kentucky. Despite a three-hour time difference, Conrad decided to call the number even though it was late at night. Surprisingly, the guy still had the car. “Well, I said, I’ll take it! Then the guy asked me if I want to know if it was rusted? I told him if it was rusty, I’ll still take it. He then asked me if I wanted to know if it ran, and I told him if it wasn’t running I can make it run again. Finally he says, ‘Isn’t there anything you want to know about the car? Maybe you should sleep on it and call me in the morning with your final answer.’ I said, ‘Nah, you know what, I’ve lost good cars like that. I’d prefer to lock the deal in now.’” The former owner wasn’t too comfortable with the deal but did ask for $1,000 deposit and as soon as he received it he gave Conrad two weeks to come up with the balance. Once he had the money, Conrad booked a flight, checked it out, actually drove it, paid for it, and then scheduled a transport company to have it brought back to California.
“The car changed hands quite a few times, and from the research I’ve done, Charlie Lopez sold it to a guy named Rogelio who lived up north. Rogelio is an upholstery guy who used to do a magazine back in the ’70s called Custom and Classics, and from my understanding Lopez used to work for him. During the time Lopez worked for Rogelio he fell in love with the car, and eventually bought it. Later on Rogelio got into a bind and he sold the Merc to Joe Moreno. Moreno did some stuff to it, took it to a few shows, and then sold it, and that’s where things get kinda fuzzy,” Conrad says.
The previous owner attempted to restore/redo the Mercury and after a while his interest in the project and his funds dwindled so he placed the car for sale online. It wasn’t getting much attention because of its lowrider roots, but Conrad knew the custom credentials of the Merc and swooped on it.
As for the original builder, Lopez died in 2005, but some of his club members have had the opportunity to see the car and meet with Conrad. “I couldn’t go to the funeral because I had to work, but after the service the guys went to this park, which was like two blocks away from my job, so when I got out of work I shot over there.”
Conrad plans to restore the Merc to its former custom glory. “The car was complete when I got it, the only things missing were the Tru-Spoke wheels, but I got me another set already and the skirts that they had on it were some funky bubble skirts so I took those off and got the correct skirts it used to have—I just need to have them sent out to get louvered. What makes it real nice is everything else is there; it’s a runner, got the interior, everything,” Conrad says.
As for his take on lowrider guys building customs, Conrad had this to say: “Well, honestly I’ve always been a firm believer that lowriders pretty much stemmed from customs if you ever really look back at the rides, like the Mercury I have now is a straight crossover car. Who in the world was building ’49 chopped Mercs as lowriders back in the days? Look at ‘Tower of Power,’ which was a straight custom but it was presented as a lowrider. The further you go back the more you see it, like the stuff you see on the Internet, pictures from ’60s car shows and you look at them, they’re customs but they look like lowriders too or vice-versa. But back then, they were just called customs. I’ve heard that back in the day they were called ‘shorts’ and ‘tail draggers’. The lowrider name became popular when the magazine fist came out. If you look at the customs being done in the late ’50s there was a lot of Chicanos building customs back then, just look at the Ayala brothers out of East L.A., some of them dudes were building some of the baddest customs. I was inspired by a lot of them.”
Tovar Brothers, Hawaiian Gardens, California
The world of lowriders has its various people, characters, legends, and dynasties. One such group of luminaries is comprised of Eddie, Donald, Michael, and Paul Tovar. You might say the Tovar family is sort of a mini dynasty, not so much in monetary value but in the values they’ve earned and learned from their parents and their peers. Their wealth of information transcends family ties as does their well-natured enthusiasm for the love of the automobile, especially the custom kind. This group of gentleman are as jazzed about customs today as they were when they were just little guys working on their bicycles at home.
“The custom and the lowrider kind of originated from the same thing, but I guess a custom came first. To me, the real true customs came out in the late ’50s during the Barris era. The Barris brothers were some of the pioneers when it came to custom cars and trucks. To me, Sam Barris was the hands-on guy and George was more of the public relations brother. Don’t get me wrong, both of them are legends, big-time legends, and we really look up to both of them, but Sam was my hero, an innovator.” Eddie adds, “For me the lowrider guys always leaned more toward a Chevy and we never had brand-new cars, we always had a couple of years-old cars to work with and nobody was really rich in those days so they would shave cars, change up the paintjobs, and lower them whatever way they could by heating the springs or adding cement or sand bags to the trunk. Most guys heated their springs to bring them down and maybe slap on a set of Appleton lamps, french the taillights, that’s where it kind of started. I had an uncle who had kind of a bigger budget; he had a ’54 hardtop and had the car channeled, which was a big thing back in those days. That was an expensive deal and then right after he got it channeled he got drafted into the service. So before he left he had asked my grandmother if she could sell the car for him. Well she and my dad had a rough time selling it because it was so modified and couldn’t go in and out of driveways and most people didn’t know how to drive something so custom. So I think that’s where our custom and lowriders came from: our fathers and our uncles. Our dad kinda had a high-dollar custom too. It was a ’46 Chevy Fleetline and he changed it up using the front end from a ’48 Fleetline, lowered it, and had it painted jet black. It had teardrop skirts on it and a set of Appleton spotlights and flipper hubcaps. He had a really, really nice car for its time. He got married to my mom and had that car and that’s how we got started.” So was it a lowrider? “The term lowrider wasn’t around yet, it was just a custom back in the day. This was around 1952-53, somewhere around there I think.” Eddie says, “To me a lowrider didn’t come around until like the late ’60s, before that it was just customs, Chicano-style, I would say. Like I said our family has been deep into the custom stuff as well as the lowrider ways. Before we were born our uncles and our dad were already messing around with cars and as a kid growing up in that environment you don’t know any better. Cars all parked in the driveway, shining, with tons of chrome on them, it was just automatic as a kid to say, ‘I want one of those!’ As kids we started out with our bicycles and evolved to the way my brother and I build our cars. Look, we have our own style and even when you pull up to a Harley-Davidson event you know which ones belong to lowriders. We have our own style and it flows into everything we touch; we got our own look, flavor, and ideas; it’s hard to explain.”
Known to be heavy into Chevy iron, the Tovar’s eldest, Eddie, had a new project to share with us. “We took on a Merc because we want to build a custom; I wanted to take a different route. I want to break out of my little box, my comfort zone. I’ve always had Chevys, but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved customs so that’s why I picked me up a ’49 Merc. Even though their dad and uncles had the Chevy customs there was a movie, Rebel Without a Cause, that got Eddie into having a Merc—that look of an era when James Dean was king. “That kind of car was always out of my reach but I came up on one, happened to find it up in San Jose, California. It’s getting back to the custom part that’s in me,” Eddie adds. I’ve had my lowrider and now I want something different.
“You know, my brothers and I have developed an eye not just for lowriders but we’ll go to the Grand National Roadster Show and we’ll feed off that, take a look to get ideas. I mean we go to bike shows, hot rods, whatever, we’re not stuck in one box.” Michael adds, “You know what it is, it’s the love of cars that we’ve got in us, no matter if it’s a Ford, a Merc, or a foreign car. It’s in use regardless of what make or model. We respect everyone’s version of a custom car, and we feed off that stuff. As Eddie says, we are lowriders at heart but there’s a respect we share with others who build their dream car. Hey, if that’s what you love then that’s what you build. I was lucky enough to experience the last couple of years they cruised Bellflower Boulevard and got to see Buicks and Pontiacs and Fords with beautiful pearls and candies, Cragars and chrome, and Larry Watson. Seemed like he was everywhere back then!”
David Garcia Sr., Drag N Shop, Santa Fe Springs, California
The Drag N Shop has been synonymous with many a custom car. Since the late ’80s, the Garcia family, David, Mary, and their two sons, Joseph and David Anthony Jr., have been working together for their love of all things custom. Learning from their father, the guys have grown up to have talents and skills that keep the creative juices flow. Joseph, with his killer metalworking skills, can make just about anything with torch and hammer in hand while younger brother David Anthony can draw, paint, and pinstripe along with the best of them. Not many people can actually attest to knowing custom creators like Bill Hines, Larry Watson, Ron Aguirre, and Steve Stanford on a personal level, but these guys don’t gloat. Their work speaks for itself. As kustom renaissance men, the Garcias have been a part of many a major project. Whether they’re waiting in the wings for a car to be farmed out by Boyd Coddington via Cypress Auto Body or even putting together a certain green ’65 Buick Riviera for Sony Audio at the Las Vegas SEMA show, these guys will work like zombies into the wee hours of the night to get things done right.
“Back in the ’60s we used to call them customs or cruisers, I think. I really didn’t hear the term ‘lowrider’ until the ’70s, right around the time the magazine came out,” David says. “Back then a lot of the guys were pachucos who drove cars like ’56 Chevys; my cousins had Plymouths but not too many ’39 Chevrolets. There were some Fords, but that was more of a rich guy’s car because they were more expensive. I do recall a guy in high school who had a ’57 Chevy—it was black with a metalflaked roof that was done in a backyard in Canta Ranas (Santa Fe Springs, California) area. It was nosed, decked, with a flaked top, the usual stuff back then.”
Fast-forward to the late ’80s and the Garcia family started working on cars literally in their front yard. “We have always been into cars. I don’t know how, but I never really pushed it onto my sons, they just seemed to pick it up from me. But as far as an actual shop to make money, well before it was for fun, make a couple of dollars just to go out to eat. When it got serious is when I got hurt on the job as a delivery driver for a local liquor distributor so I had to make some side money to keep things afloat. I got hurt in 1988 and really got the first shop going around 1989.”
So how did he become involved with the great Bill Hines? “It was in the early ’70s. I had seen his work but didn’t really know who it was who was doing all this work. But in 1989 I met him through Johnny Luevanos of Street and Show Kustom Auto Accessories. I was in pretty bad shape, not physically but mentally I was bad. There were times also where we had no money at all for weeks. Well Johnny would be going to all these car shows and in 1988 persuaded Bill Hines to go to this show up in Paso Robles. Bill was so impressed that he came back with an idea to build a custom for the following year.”
How David really got to know Hines and Watson is actually kind of funny. “I was just one of the guys who would come by their shops to see what they were doing. In 1989, Johnny told me Bill needed help building the ‘Little Bat.’ ‘Why don’t you go over and offer him your help.’ It was on a Saturday and my worry was what if someone was to see me working at Bill’s while being on disability. Johnny said that no one would know and if they did ask he said to tell them I was just visiting the shop.”
Once he was there it was very relaxed, Bill and the Garcias were just chatting and in comes Larry Watson. “It was nice to be actually talking with them and not just bugging them, so they were all happy and what really set the tone was when I brought up all the times I’d come by. Larry would remember my delivery truck and all the times I’d block his place off at his Hollywood shop. Lots of laughs and from there it grew into a friendship. We really started hanging out together from then on.
What also helped was doing work for Cypress Auto Body and at one point there was so much work that the Garcia family opted to have the Drag N Shop stay open while also freelancing for Tom Rodriguez at Cypress.
As for true recognition, the car photos featured in this article are true blue to the people who worked on them, whether it be Chris Gomez’ Kaiser, or Ron Gomez’ bitchin’ ’41 Buick, the Drag N Shop dudes had their hands, grinders, and torches all over them. So let the info stand corrected, period.
“With us it has always been about custom work, we never really did collision work,” David says. He added a little tidbit, “Years ago a guy came up to us and said ‘Hey, don’t take offense but do you know what they call you guys? The Mexi-Cans. Don’t you get it? Because if no one else can do it you Mexicans can!’” David chuckles.
How Blurring The Lines Between Customs And Low-Lows Got Lower, Slower, And Cooler