How lowriders are making their mark on the New York car scene

Growing up in Mexico, Marco Flores dreamed of the lowrider cars he saw in magazines and studied their colorful bodies and shiny engine bays. He also loved his father's Chevrolet Chevelle. Finally, as a tribute, Mr. Flores, with the help of his children, restored an electric blue Chevelle – the same muscle car his father had owned.

Now his custom creations, which he designs and builds after working in his garage in Port Chester, NY, are featured in those same lowrider magazines.

His blue Chevelle “represents my entire childhood and my passion for cars,” said Mr. Flores, 55, who works six days a week at an auto body shop in Mamaroneck. “When I turn the ignition key, I feel like my father knows I did this for him.”

The family is a pillar of the lowrider culture that flourished in car-crazy postwar Los Angeles among Mexican Americans who transformed used cars they could afford into bouncy, rolling works of art. Just as Mr. Flores was sharing his skills with his children, many fans are embracing the scene as a family-friendly way to honor traditions and celebrate successes with hydraulics in the trunk, bright paint on the body and iconography like “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” add on the trunk hood.

California recently lifted bans on lowrider rides and vehicle modifications that have been in place for decades. These issues have not raised the same level of concern in New York City, and as the city's Mexican population has grown, the visibility of lowriders on streets and at car shows has also increased. Once dismissed as gang-affiliated, lowriders now also win prizes and support local charity events.

Alfonso Gonzales Toribio, a Chicano professor in the ethnic studies department at the University of California, Riverside who owns a lowrider himself, attributed the trend to a mid-century boom in union industrial jobs. It spread among hobbyists who remembered custom cars in Mexico at the time.

“It was done with a Mexican touch, giving the cars a cultural expression, lowering them and using bright colors,” he said, adding: “We change everything we do.”

In a gravelly parking lot in Astoria, Queens, several dozen lowriders — from full-size vehicles to radio-controlled models — were on display last August, overlooking the East River and Manhattan. The children went for a walk with their parents and marveled at the details. Much of the work was done by the owners themselves to save money. Young men with silver- and gold-plated lowrider bicycles lounged in chinos and T-shirts while other men swapped stories about cars passing by. At one point, the crowd watched a Mexican folk dance group perform in animal costumes.

Nobody knew much about lowriders in the New York City area when Mr. Flores left destitution in Mexico in 1998 to join his mother and sister in Port Chester. He scoffed at the cheap paint jobs he saw, knew he could do better, and convinced someone to let him paint a truck bright colors. Soon word spread about his custom paint jobs and shiny hydraulic systems, and he hasn't stopped since. Now its cars compete — and win — at regional car shows that once looked down on lowriders.

The skills he applies to making lowriders have also brought him attention in his day-to-day work: Mr. Flores has become so good at making parts that he now makes his own replacement body panels for imported luxury cars.

“We earned respect little by little,” he said.

Bicycles and fashion, also part of the lowrider scene, attracted Fidencio Cortez, a musician who lives on Coney Island. He hired Mr. Flores to paint his lowrider bike, a squat, metal-coated BMX-style machine that he rides with friends.

“You really didn’t see these motorcycles at first,” said Mr. Cortez, 33, referring to New York. “But we’ve seen them in parade videos and on YouTube.”

Thanks to online popularity, the culture has become global, Mr. Gonzalez Toribio said, pointing to lowrider clubs as far away as Japan. Instead of doing the work themselves like Mr. Flores did, fans can order online all the parts they need to upgrade a car – if money is no object. Still, traditionalists have mixed feelings.

“The problem with commercializing culture is that we lose control of it,” Gonzales Toribio said, adding, “Will the market take over low-riding?”

So Mr. Flores raised his three children to take care of the cars, hold flashlights and pass wrenches to their father. It reminded him of the days when he helped his father, a bus driver, clean his Chevelle before driving.

His passion has waned. A son, Marco Jr., custom builds small Japanese cars and his work has been exhibited at the New York International Auto Show along with million-dollar vehicles. Mr. Flores' daughter, Sherry, will inherit his other car, an apple-red Chevy Impala with delicate gold trim and pristine hydraulic pumps in the trunk that make the car dance and bounce.

“She calls it her baby,” Mr. Flores said. “But when I die, I want my ashes to be put in the hydraulic tanks. That way I’m still with her when she rides it.”

Anna Harden

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