Lowriders

Cars with Identities

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Lowriders are cars that express identities—social, cultural, aesthetic. With their extended bodies and low to the road roll, the cars have been a vehicle of choice for cruising, a popular pastime in many American communities since the mid-twentieth century. Lowriding puts both the cars and their riders on display.

In the essays below, Roger White (NMAH) describes how a car named “Dave’s Dream” and other personalized lowriders became automotive masterpieces and cultural statements in Mexican-American communities. Kevin Strait (NMAAHC) shares how in the 1990s lowriders emerged as mobile props, and sometimes lead characters, in music videos of West Coast hip hop artists. And for Emil Her Many Horses (NMAI), the lowrider’s association with parading and being seen reflects the role of automobiles at the annual Crow Fair and Rodeo, where elaborately decorated cars have begun to replace horses on the parade route.

 

A Lowrider Named Dave's Dream

Roger White, Museum Curator, NMAH

“Lowrider” is the name used for cars transformed into cultural expressions and for the dedicated aficionados who make and drive them. Historically, lowriders were mostly Latino men from Texas, the Southwest, and southern California. Since the 1950s, car clubs and family members have converted older cars for cruising, shows, and competition at events, as they still do today.

A 1969 Ford LTD sedan sits on a platform, front hood open, with trophies next to it in a display case. Behind the car is a blown-up black and white photo of a mission-like religious edifice. The car has an orange and black body with linear, geometric patterns and red velvet trim inside of the front hood.

Dave’s Dream in the National Museum of American History, 1995: Dave’s Dream sits in front of a photo of El Santuario de Chimayó, a historic shrine in New Mexico where the lowrider was blessed in a community event before its journey to Washington. See more.

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. NMAH #Purchase 1990. 1990.0567.01. Photograph by Eric Long/NMAH.

The mobile masterpieces made by lowriders embrace art, family, and religion. The lacquered bodies of lowrider cars glow with brilliant colors, geometric patterns, religious symbols, and velvet trim. Unlike hot rods and other racing cars, lowriders were designed to parade slowly. Each car is lowered within inches of the pavement and driven as a rolling work of art.

  • View from the rear seat facing forward, showing red tufted velvet upholstery, a sun roof, a hanging reflective ball with tiny mirrors, and a steering wheel made of chromed chain in a rigid circle.
    Many lowriders have tufted velvet upholstery and chain steering wheels. Few original manufactured parts are visible. Credit: Interior of Dave’s Dream, photographed by Eric Long/NMAH.
  • Artwork with silver, cursive letters “Dave’s Dream” on a red scroll.
    This rear quarter panel on Dave’s Dream is not just decorative. Naming a lowrider bestows respect and individuality upon the vehicle. Credit: Dave’s Dream quarter panel, photographed by Jaclyn Nash/NMAH.
  • New Mexico license plate with “CHIMAYO, Land of Enchantment” in red letters on a yellow background.
    Converting cars into lowriders and watching them parade are popular community activities in New Mexico. Chimayó is 22 miles north of Santa Fe. Credit: License plate on Dave’s Dream, photographed by Jaclyn Nash/NMAH.
  • Group portrait of a husband, wife, and son.
    Lowrider icons embrace family and religion. This portrait depicts David Jaramillo, Irene Jaramillo, and their son David Jr. Credit: Painted portrait on Dave’s Dream fender, photographed by Jaclyn Nash/NMAH.
  • Irene Jaramillo is sitting in the front seat of the lowrider car, Dave's Dream, with an arm around her son, David Jaramillo Jr.
    Irene Jaramillo and her son, David Jaramillo Jr., in Dave’s Dream, Española, New Mexico, 1990. Credit: Irene Jaramillo and David Jaramillo Jr., photographed by Annie Sahlin/NMAH

Bajito y despacito; limpio y lindo -- Low and slow, clean and mean

Lowrider Saying

David Jaramillo began converting a 1969 Ford LTD in the late 1970s. His lowrider, known as “Dave’s Dream,” became a community favorite in towns north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where it won many trophies. Tragically, David was killed in an accident in a different vehicle. In 1990, curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History visited Chimayó, New Mexico to acquire Dave’s Dream. Between 1990 and 1992, friends, family, and club members lovingly completed the conversion work that David had begun. They also installed the hydraulic hopping mechanism that adds dance to motion, animating the car and giving it life.

Joe Montoya is standing with his back to the camera showing off the black vest he is wearing that has the words Dave's Dream in red letters.

Joe Montoya, Española, New Mexico, 1990: Extended families and lowrider club members who convert a car often wear jackets or vests with the car’s identity.

National Museum of American History. Photographer: Benito Cordova

From a transportation curator’s perspective, Dave’s Dream exemplifies the striking social and multicultural dimensions of cars. Beyond cruising, lowriders infuse their cars with cultural identities. For them, cars are not merely transportation or recreation; they express who the owners are and how they would like to be perceived.

 

 

Lowriders and Hip Hop Culture

Kevin Strait, Museum Curator, NMAAHC

Cypress Hill's official music video for 'Lowrider'

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Even if they’ve never seen one in person, most fans of west coast hip hop are familiar with the distinctive look of specialized cars known as lowriders. The cars and lowriding culture resonated across regional and racial lines.  Though lowriders were first crafted in barrios across the Southwest and southern California as unique symbols of personalized creativity and Latino cultural identity, African American car enthusiasts began developing lowriders of their own. The image of lowriders coasting down L.A.’s Crenshaw Boulevard and bouncing in rhythmic unison to the bass-driven music of gangsta rap would become synonymous with the stylized presentation of west coast, urban hip hop culture.

A promotional photograph from the film, Boyz n the Hood, featuring actors (left to right) Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Morris Chestnut leaning and sitting on the back of a lowrider car.

Promotional photograph, Boyz n the Hood, 1991: A lowrider car is in the background of this poster for Boyz n the Hood. This American drama, written and directed by John Singleton, was the film debut of rapper/actor Ice Cube. See more

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Gift from the Personal Collection of Bill Ivory Larson, NMAAHC 2014.35.29

By the early 1990s, Los Angeles was the hub of hip hop music and culture.  The media spotlight on the city, sharpened by coverage of the L.A. riots, MTV, and the mainstream success of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood transformed L.A. into hip hop’s most visible scene. Lowrider cars—with their dropped chassis and long, vintage frames—provided a dynamic visual backdrop for the exhibition of the “gangsta” aesthetic embedded in west coast hip hop culture. From Eazy-E rapping about “cruising down the street” in his modified “6-4” Chevy Impala to Dr. Dre “hitting switches” to activate his car’s pumping hydraulics, the lyrics and visual themes of L.A. based hip hop were illuminated with the aid of a lowrider car.

The lyrics and visual themes of L.A. based hip hop were illuminated with the aid of a lowrider car.

Musicians have a long history of using cars to tell their stories. Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston helped introduce rock ‘n’ roll while boasting about their “Rocket 88.” Funk pioneers War celebrated Long Beach Chicano culture with their laid-back anthem “Lowrider.” Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, featured in the NMAAHC’s Musical Crossroads exhibit, was a fixture of his music’s lyrics and his car also symbolizes the value of personal freedom routinely celebrated in his songs.

This photograph features Chuck Berry’s candy apple red, 1973 convertible Cadillac El Dorado. This automobile is featured in the Musical Crossroads exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Chuck Berry’s Cadillac: Though not a lowrider, this 1973 El Dorado was part of Chuck Berry’s personal fleet of Cadillacs and symbolic of his music’s lyrics and success as a musician.  This car was featured in the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. See more

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Chuck Berry, NMAAHC 2011.137.1.

Following this history, lowriders were more than just accessories in videos and lyrical filler.  Lowriders commandeered the distinctive look, sound, and landscape of hip hop culture in Los Angeles and provided a tool for rappers to give voice to their values and community.

 

Music About Lowriders

Nuthin' But A G Thang - Dr. Dre feat Snoop Dogg (clean version) [Official Video] 
Let Me Ride - Dr. Dre (clean version)
Be Thankful for What You Got - William De Vaughn 
Low Rider - War
Rocket 88 - Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats

Horse Power among the Crow People

Emil Her Many Horses, Associate Curator, NMAI

The traditions associated with lowrider cars make me recall the annual Crow Fair and Rodeo. Also known as “The Teepee Capital of the World,” the fair is held annually in August on the Crow (Apsaalooké) reservation in Montana. During the fair, riders dressed in traditional clothing and horses adorned with beaded gear parade through the camp grounds each morning.  

Photograph of female parade participants dressed in wool dresses which have been decorated with imitation elk teeth. Other riders are wearing hide dresses which have decorated with floral beadwork designs. Horses are decorated with beaded head ornaments and martingales (collars).  Elaborated beaded baby cradles are attached to the saddle.

Crow Women at Crow Fair Parade, 2014: Women parade through camp wearing their finest wool and leather dresses. Their horses are dressed in beaded horse gear. Crow Fair Parade 2014, Crow Agency, Montana.

Photo by Emil Her Many Horses

Crow Fair is one of the main occasions when the Crow people bring out their finest beadwork, and coming from a rich horse culture, they bring out their finest horses too. As an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian who specializes in beadwork, I value the artistry displayed at the fair. Horses are dressed in intricately beaded bridles, martingales, cradleboards, cruppers, and saddle blankets (sometimes beaded or made of mountain lion hides). Other decorative items covering the horses include colorful Pendleton blankets and fringed shawls.

Image showing the form of a black horse covered with colorful blankets and ornamental gear.

Apsáalooke (Crow) Horse: Apsáalooke (Crow) martingale, saddle blanket, cradle, lance case or sword scabbard, horse head ornament, horse crupper, saddle (ca. 1880-1890). Montana. See more.

National Museum of the American Indian

Since the introduction of the automobile, travel by horse has been replaced by cars and trucks.  And at the annual Crow Fair, horses are still dressed in beadwork but so are cars and trucks. Cars and trucks are decorated with saddles, blankets, and other items traditionally found dressing a parade horse.  

  • Photograph of a Ram truck which has been decorated with colorful striped Pendleton blankets and star quilts.  A decorated saddle is placed on top of the truck and a beaded martingale is placed just below the saddle.  A saddle blanket made of a Mountain Lion hide is placed on the hood of the truck. These items would traditional be used to dress a horse.
    Ram truck decorated with Pendleton blankets, star quilts, mountain lion hide, saddle and martingale. Crow Fair Parade 2014, Crow Agency, Montana. Credit: Decorated truck photographed by Emil Her Many Horses.
  • Photograph of two young Crow girls participate in the parade by riding on the hood of a car.  They are wearing wool dresses decorated with imitation elk teeth. The cars have been covered with colorful Pendleton blankets and fringed shawls.
    Young Crow girls participate in the parade by sitting on a car decorated with a saddle, shawls and Pendleton blankets. Crow Fair Parade 2004, Crow Agency, Montana. Credit: Crow Fair Parade Car photographed by Katherine Fogden.
  • Photograph of a truck with a Pendleton blanket with flag designs is placed across the hood. A beaded saddle and martingale are placed on top of the Pendleton blanket. A baby cradle rests across the windshield of the truck. Fringed shawls and colorful star quilts are draped over the door and back of the truck. In front of the truck, a young boy leads a Shetland pony which has been covered with a Pendleton blanket.
    This truck is decorated with a beaded saddle and martingale. The vehicle is also covered with shawls, Pendleton blankets, and star quilts. Crow Fair Parade 2004, Crow Agency, Montana. Credit: Crow Fair Parade Truck photographed by Katherine Fogden.

Crow Fair is one of the main occasions when the Crow people bring out their finest beadwork, and coming from a rich horse culture, they bring out their finest horses too.

This cultural adaptation has been incorporated into ceremonies as well. In honoring a relative among the Crow people, horses are commonly covered with Pendleton blankets and brought into the dance arena to be given away to an esteemed guest. On one occasion a car covered with Pendleton blankets was brought into the dance arena and given away to honor a young Crow woman who was selected as Princess, representing her community. In this way, the automobile has found a place among the rich horse culture of the Crow Fair and Rodeo.

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