This weekend, an estimated 3,000 people will gather in East L.A. to pay tribute to the greatest lowrider car of all time. Individual lowriders typically resist "best of"–type generalizations (it's about the culture more than the individual cars), but when it comes to the Gypsy Rose, the distinction of All-Time Greatest is all but unanimous. Lowrider Magazine calls it "the world's most famous lowrider," and the Petersen Automotive Museum, which made it the centerpiece of a 2007 lowrider showcase, calls it “the most influential custom car ever built.”
The easy answer is its looks. “It’s pink with roses going up through the back, layers of different colors of pink,” says Pep Williams, one of the organizers of this Saturday's event, which showcases an array of famous lowriders. “The roof is what really gets people. It’s totally custom, almost like glass, and it has roses under it. The inside is all pink, with a chandelier in the back.” It also has its own cocktail bar in the back seat.
The Gypsy Rose's legendary status is also a result of its complicated past. The current Gypsy Rose is actually its third incarnation. In 1960, Jesse Valadez, then president of one of the most prominent lowrider car clubs in the world, The Imperials, was inspired by the famous burlesque singer Gypsy Rose Lee to design a pink lowrider and name it after her. He chose a Chevy Impala because they were extremely cheap and had clean lines and lots of wide, flat surfaces. The hood was basically a canvas.
The first incarnation was a 1960 Impala, which was a simpler version of the design, pink but without the ornate flowers. Then he used a 1963 Impala to expand on that design, adding flowers and the glass roof. It became an instant success, winning hot rod shows around Southern California, but was soon stoned by jealous rivals. Valadez re-created it a third time with the 1964 Impala we see today. He kept it in perfect condition and had it until he died in 2011, when it was bequeathed to his son, Jesse Valadez Jr.
The car became so much of a staple on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. that it eventually appeared on NBC’s 1974 sitcom Chico and the Man, which took place in the neighborhood. Many young car enthusiasts, like Williams, fell in love with it.
“I’m 44, and when I was in kindergarten that car used to get me in trouble,” he says. “I loved it as a 5-year-old. I would always draw it in class. I was supposed to be doing my work and I would be drawing the car and the teacher would be like, 'What are you doing?'”
Lowriders emerged in the 1950s, some say as the Latino community's reaction to the more conservative Anglo culture in the postwar economic boom. Drivers started putting sandbags in their trunks to create a lowered look. Amateur engineers took it a step further and began lowering the body onto the chassis itself. “Low and slow,” was the motto; the cars were meant to be stared at as they rolled through the neighborhood. To add to their status as moving art displays, lowrider owners began painting their cars with ornate and often Latin-related designs and themes.
Lowriders became an anti-establishment symbol in communities across the country. Williams, for instance, grew up in Florence, a neighborhood next to Huntington Park. “The first cars I can remember were lowriders," he says. "All my neighbors had them. My first Hot Wheels, I would make them bounce.”
The ability to bounce, according to Williams, is a mandatory feature of a lowrider. Hydraulic suspensions allow them to do all sorts of tricks.
“Your car is better than the next guy’s car because you can sit up on three wheels, or drag and bounce down the street and spray sparks,” he says.
Lowriders did not adopt hydraulics solely for show. As a reaction to the burgeoning practice of lowrider modification, the California government passed a law in 1958 that made it illegal to operate a car with a body lower than the bottom of its wheel rims. So customizers installed hydraulic pumps that could instantly change the height of the car using switches on the dashboard.
The Gypsy Rose has premium hydraulics, of course, which only add to its status. While it will be the centerpiece of this weekend's event, called L.A. Story, it will not be alone. Twelve of the most respected lowriders in the game will also be featured, though the final list has not been announced yet. The Petersen Museum is choosing three of the 12, while organizer Antonio Pelayo and his team will pick the rest. There will also be Latin music and art.
None of it, however, will outshine the Gypsy Rose, whose mere appearance in East L.A. alone will be enough to draw thousands.
L.A. Story, Plaza del la Raza, Lincoln Park, East Los Angeles; July 25, 7 p.m.-1 a.m., 21-plus, facebook.com/lastoryevent.
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