The art of lowriding, born on LA's Eastside, gets supercharged

"Tee" exits a 1963 Chevy Impala as the Ultimate Riders Car Club gathers at Fairmount Park in Riverside, Calif. ROBERT GAUTHIER / Los Angeles Times

At one end of the parking lot, Anthony Johnson was using a remote control to bounce an apple-green 1963 Chevrolet Impala, its nose eight feet in the air.

At the other, Greg Dixon was lofting a silver 2001 Lincoln Town Car sideways, raising the driver's side front wheel off the ground as he screeched around a corner.

The cars wore emblems, and the drivers hoodies or T-shirts, marking them as members of the Ultimate Riders Car Club, a group of lowriders holding their monthly meeting at Fairmount Park in Riverside, Calif., about 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

On the outside, the vintage cars seemed identical to lowriders that could be seen cruising during the 1960s and '70s.

But under the hoods of the pinstriped, chromed-out cruisers was something unusual. These lowriders all sported massive motors, late-model Detroit-built V-8s capable of two to three times the horsepower of the engines originally installed in them.

What used to be a world of "low, slow, and show" has turned into "low, show, and go."

For decades, custom builders chopped the bodies on their classic American cars, then altered the suspension to bring them as close as possible to the pavement. They decorated the vehicles with outrageous paint, pinstripes, and chrome, and paraded them slowly down boulevards and in front of car-show judges.

The cars were a point of ethnic pride and cultural heritage, and the lowrider car clubs offered a sense of community. The cruising scene helped spawn the "brown-eyed soul" music born in East Los Angeles in the 1960s.

Later, the lowrider cars, including some of the ones on display recently at Fairmount Park, became fixtures in movies and music videos such as Straight Outta Compton, Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," and the Game's "My Life," featuring Lil Wayne.

They took top prizes at car shows, winning points for most creative paint job, most complex pinstriping, or most extravagant chrome.

Then, lowrider builders like Ultimate Riders cofounder Vernon Maxwell started pumping up the power, bringing bigger engines and more ingenuity to an area that had been mostly ignored.

Maxwell and other builders started adding $25,000 motors to cars whose owners already had spent $40,000 to $60,000 restoring and customizing their vintage '60s cruisers.

"We used to be low and slow, but under the hood, we weren't doing that much," said Lowrider Magazine editor Joe Ray. "Then we started investing in performance."

Over the last couple of years, judges at competitions began awarding extra points for drivetrains. The message spread: "If you have the ultimate paint job, you better have the ultimate engine," said Ray, who often is called upon to judge lowriders at car shows.

In 1998, after years building storage tanks for oil refineries, Maxwell turned his talent for welding and metalwork into a successful business making hydraulic lift systems for lowriders who wanted cars to rise and bounce.

About five years ago, he started installing big engines, ditching the vintage 1960s V-8s in favor of LS motors found in late-model Chevrolet Corvettes.

An LS7 Corvette engine will cost $18,000 to $20,000 to buy, and $15,000 more to install, accessorize, and customize.

That could bring the total price to $75,000-plus, Maxwell said, for one of his customized Impalas.