Custom cars have been around almost since the first motorcar took to the road. Most car owners were satisfied with their vehicles as they came from the manufacturer but for a few there was a desire to enhance the appearance and/or performance of the their automobile to suit their personal tastes. In the beginning a customer would have the original builder or a speciality shop perform the modifications necessary to meet his or her particular needs and wants. The cost of this was considerable and a few brave souls undertook the work themselves. Either way the end result was what is referred to as a "custom" car. By the 1920s and 1930s an increasing number of young people were applying custom touches to their everyday transportation and small shops were being established to supply the same work for those who didn't have the time or skill to do it themselves. The depression years nearly put a stop to the custom coach built luxury vehicle but the average person, working on a standard passenger car, continued to build sometimes very creative and elegant looking vehicles.
After WW2 there was increased interest in all aspects of what was then known as the automotive "hobby", what we would call the car culture today. This included sports cars, racing, hot rods and, of course, custom cars. The interest was so widespread that nearly every young male either drove, or aspired to own and drive, a hot rod or custom car. High school parking lots of the day were filled with customs and rods in various stages of completion. These cars had become truly a culture unto themselves. By the late 1940s nationally published magazines began to feature hot rods and customs and the word of what was primarily a Southern California phenomenon began to spread across the United States. This information was soon being put to use in other parts of the country with distant locales contributing their own unique ideas and traditions to the mix. By the early 1950s this new youthful auto culture was a part of everyday America.
Meanwhile in Southern California WW2 and the booming economy that followed allowed a better life for those who had immigrated north from Mexico. There was now money for nicer cars and even for the custom modification of them. Though these Mexican/American youth were also attracted to other forms of the automotive hobby, such as hot rods, racing and motorcycles, the available evidence points convincingly to the fact that they had a particular interest in and affection for the custom car. Inevitably these Mexican/American kids would bring their own ideas and point of view to the custom car game. Early on they seemed to favor Chevrolet automobiles in particular. These vehicles would be modified with the same modifications seen on other custom cars of the day; shaved hood and deck lid, fancy hubcaps, modified exhaust, a custom stitched interior and paint in some color other than the original that had come on the car. A few after market accessories were often incorporated too, most notably dual spotlights and fenderskirts. More elaborate body modifications such as changed head and tail lights and the removal of the door handles were often seen as well. And a few went an even more radical route and chopped the top. In every aspect the Mexican/American's cars were pretty much like the rest of the custom cars seen cruising the streets. But there did seem to be one constant that stood out on these cars and that was the lowering of the vehicle's ride height above the road. The majority of the customs in those days were lowered but the Mexican/American kids seemed to embrace the concept and take it to a whole new level, which is to say a lower level. It was this look that would begin to define the Mexican/American style of ride and it was something they were proud to capitalize on and identify with. Of course it wasn't long before the rest of the youthful custom car enthusiasts took notice of this trend. And for the most part they didn't like what they saw. Some had legitimate concerns about the practicality of an automobile that lacked the ground clearance necessary to successfully navigate the public streets. But a good many others were motivated by prejudice and racism. They didn't like the radically lowered cars simply because they belonged to Mexicans. As a result by the late 1950s the white kids were calling any radically lowered sedan a "Bean Wagon" or "Taco Wagon". This pejorative term was of course derived from the perceived staple diet of the Mexican/ American kids and, insensitive though it was, it stuck. Pretty soon the term "Bean Wagon" came into wide spread usage, though seldom in the presence of owners of the vehicles being referred to!
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s the interest in custom cars began to decline. There were several reasons for this but that is a subject for another discussion. In any event by the early 1960s the automotive press would all but banish customs from the pages of their publications. One reason for this was that the customs still being built were increasingly based on late model cars and featured less in the way of restyling and custom body work. Typically the newer customs relied on little more than fancy wheels, lowering and a trick paint job. They had custom embellishments but were still in the same basic configuration as they had been when they left the factory. This new look in customs had it's own following though and, in Southern California at least, a sizable number of people pursued it. Local car shows featured these colorful creations even if the print media failed to and the cars were regularly seen cruising the streets and drive-ins. The legendary custom painter Larry Watson was very much responsible for establishing this new style of custom and others followed his lead. While the white kids referred to Mexicans whit radically lowered cars as "Beaners", the Mexicans had a name for white kids with radically lowered cars as well. They called them "Bellflower Boys", and the term was often attributed to the white boys having more money.
The First Hydraulic Lifted Car
Late in the 1950s law enforcement and state legislators had also taken note of the radically lowered vehicles on the street and, not surprisingly, they too didn't like what they saw. In 1957 a law was past by Gov. Brown against lowered cars in California. The law, named the California Vehicle Code 24008, which wasn't enforced until 1958, outlawed any car having any part of the car lower than the bottom of its wheel rim. Having the lowest car in Rialto, California, Ron Aguirre was constantly bugged by a cop named Lester Groves. Lester made it his #1 priority to give Ron tickets for being too low with his Corvette. This really bugged Ron, so after visiting a friends body shop seeing a bodyman pushing a dent out with a hydraullic Port-A-Power tool, Ron started to think. He looked at the ram and instantly got the idea to put this unit between the spring and frame to lift his car. Ron explained the idea to his dad Louie, who was a welder by trade. Louie started to make the cups Ron had designed to hold the rams. Ron had hoses made that would extend into the car, and he set the hand pump on the hump between the seats. Within three months after Ron had bought the car, he had installed the first of what was to be many versions of a hydraulic system in the car. Ron's Corvette would later evolve into a bubble top show car that gained national recognition as the X-Sonic. The X-Sonic was toured all over the United States, and it became known as the first car ever having hydraulic lifts to control the ground clearance. About the same time, and maybe even before Ron installed hydraulics on his Corvette, a Long Beach kid named Jim Logue installed hydraulics on his radically customized 1954 Ford as well. Wether or not Jim's car was fit wit hydraulic lifts before the X-Sonic is an ongoing discussion. Ron claimed that he had lifts from a Port-A-Power tool installed on the X-Sonic at least by October 1958. We know that Jim's Ford had lifts installed when it was featured in Custom Cars February 1959. According to Jim, the photo shoot for that story took place September 30 of 1958, the day before his birthday. Jim can't remember exactly when he went over to Palleys to buy the hydraulics, but he claims that it was late in 1957 or early in 1958. He had all of the original receipts from Palleys and from building the car, but these were unfortunately lost in a divorce. While Ron's Corvette incorporated lifts to raise and lower the front suspension, Jim's Ford was fit with lifts on all four corners. Jim did also use hydraulic lifts to raise and lower the hood on his car.
After some experimentation a hydraulic system was deemed the best way to accomplish the task and cars began to appear on the street that could indeed be raised and lowered at will by flipping a switch. As might be expected this turn of events caught every one's attention. The ground was now truly the only limit with any height in between easily attainable on demand. The new technology was more easily applied to the new breed of late model custom and it just plain looked cool to see a car sitting on the ground. Though the military surplus components of the hydraulic system were easy and relatively inexpensive to come by few adequately understood the principals of installation. It was kind of a black art at first but as more individuals got involved more cars were seen using the height adjustable hydraulic suspension. By the mid 1960s many of the better customs featured hydraulics and, though few realized it then, a new era was beginning.
As hydraulics opened the door to a more versatile approach to lowering so too did it open the eyes of some former critics. Many of those who had criticized and dismissed the "Bean Wagon" now embraced the even lower stance of the lifted custom. In reality many of these same guys had secretly envied the low look for a long time and the advent of hydraulic lifts seemed, in their eyes at least, to lend it respectability and thus acceptance. But others were not convinced and driven by racial prejudice chose to heap ridicule on the new hydraulic lifted customs by labeling them in the "Bean Wagon" category too. It was even suggested, sometimes in jest and other times not, that some of the owners were themselves "White Beaners". By the mid 1960s relations between those cruising customs and the rest of the youthful car culture amounted at best to an uneasy truce.
About this time a new term appeared on the scene. No one today knows where the term "Lowrider", or "Low Rider", originated but most seem to agree that it succinctly defined the emerging custom car style of the day. It also had the added advantage of applying equally well to the owner/driver of those same vehicles. The word quickly began to gain widespread acceptance and by the end of the decade was firmly established among the youth of Southern California. It would take a few more years before the media would recognize and embrace lowrider cars, let alone the name, but that would come eventually. One thing was for sure though, "Lowrider" was far better than "Bean Wagon"!
The late '60s and early '70s was a time of tremendous change in American society. The Vietnam War, recreational drugs, political assassination, the emergence of the hippy lifestyle and much more had a profound effect on the culture of America. There were many competing interests at work on the country's youth and for many of them the automobile became less a means of individual expression and more of a simple conveyance. For some of the ecology minded it even became the enemy. The custom lowrider automobile, never a huge part of the youthful automotive culture, maintained a surprisingly good bit of its popularity but it seems that the involvement of the white kids began to decline. The reasons for this aren't entirely clear but it is a fact. Interest in the lowrider, with its roots clearly traceable to the "Bean Wagon", was now primarily attributed to Mexican/Americans. It is interesting to note here that many of these die-hard lowriders had by now been in game for a while and brought a more mature approach as well as more money. A more professional approach in the way they and their clubs presented themselves led to more media exposure. But by the time this began to happen the appearance and the reality of lowriding was that it was a Mexican thing. Others have gone as far as calling it a Mexican "invention" but actually it is more of a development that occurred over several decades and involving huge contributions and influences by the Mexican/American community. By the 1970s they pretty much owned it.
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