Fernando Ruelas, who with his brothers founded Duke's So. Cal, considered the world's oldest continuing lowrider car club, and expanded its reach beyond Southern California during his years as president, has died. He was 60.
Ruelas died of cancer Friday at his home in La Habra, said his brother Ernie.
FOR THE RECORD:
Fernando Ruelas obituary: A news obituary on Fernando Ruelas in the Oct. 27 LATExtra section said the Ruelas brothers founded Duke's So. Cal car club. One of the brothers, Rene, is not involved with the club. The story also failed to mention the help of two of Ruelas' sons, Jason and Alex, in the building of a low-rider ice cream truck commissioned by musician Ry Cooder. —
He was the longtime president of Duke's, which the Ruelas brothers started in 1962 and has grown from a South L.A. car club to a collection of nearly 30 chapters stretching to Australia and Japan. Over the years, the brothers — Ernie, Fernando, Julio, Oscar and Rene — transformed countless cars into lowriders, with the vehicles lowered onto their suspensions and then elaborately customized.
"Fernando was the ultimate ambassador of lowriding, not just the car-customizing experience," said Denise Sandoval, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at
and the curator of two exhibits about lowriding at the
Joe Ray, editor of Lowrider Magazine, said Ruelas was a "pioneer" who could do everything needed to customize a vehicle.
"He was like a history book," Ray said. "He knew a lot of things he could have kept to himself. He shared his knowledge with everybody."
One of the Ruelas brothers' high-profile projects was commissioned by musician
, turning the foundation of a 1953 Chevy truck into a lowrider ice cream truck. It was painted with a mural of scenes depicting the transformation of Chavez Ravine from a Latino neighborhood to the home of Dodger Stadium.
Cooder's 2005 album
deals with the neighborhood and its residents. Cooder saw the lowrider truck as a way to tell the story visually.
"I got to be really good friends with Fernando and his brothers … and the more I got to know him, the more interested I got in him and began to feel a real kinship with him," Cooder told The Times this week. "How he was able to instill this feeling of instilling excellence. You have to have dedication that you're really going to do a good job."
Cooder called the finished product "a miracle" that took several years to complete. He credited Ruelas' high standards, a quality that made him "uncompromising about everything.... To some people it might seem difficult or ornery or hard to handle, but he wanted you to know he wanted things to be a certain way."
who created the mural on the truck, said Ruelas was "such a craftsman. Whenever he was in the room, he was always the nucleus. He was the center and we worked around him. He was so focused on the way something had to be customized.
"Even while I was working on it, Fernando and his brothers would always come in and work around the truck. We had a great time; it was a beautiful combination."
Ruelas was born in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 8, 1950. His mother, Josefina, moved her sons to South Los Angeles in 1956. "It was sunup to sundown to raise us," Fernando told a Times reporter in 2006. "A lot of thanks has to go to my mother and my Aunt Lucille."
Frank Tinker, owned a mechanic's shop and started the brothers' connection to cars and other vehicles. "He was a great influence on our lives," Ernie Ruelas said.
First, there were go-carts and mini-bikes to work on before advancing to cars. Over the years, they have had a series of custom auto shops.
"We started doing the car thing when we were very young," Fernando Ruelas said in 2007. "At 11, 12, 13, we basically owned our own cars already. Back then, you could buy a car for $15."
Lowriders emerged as part of the car culture boom after
, Sandoval said, with drivers using their vehicles "to express who they were and to build community with other men."
The cars are known for their chrome features, custom upholstery and iridescent "candy" paints. They usually include a hydraulic system so the car's height can be adjusted.
Ruelas told The Times in 2007: "You get in there with a nice-looking vehicle and cruise up and down and show your car off. You've got good music of course. You've got a nice-looking lady inside — all three have to go together."
In 1962, the brothers formed Duke's, with Julio Ruelas as the first president.
During the Vietnam era, club membership declined for a variety of reasons, Ernie Ruelas said, but in the early 1970s, when Fernando returned from serving in the Army, he worked to rebuild Duke's as its president with a new name (Duke's So. Cal instead of Duke's L.A.) and some membership limits.
"Twenty-one or older. No drugs. I wanted to be able to legally say, 'Hey you're not suitable,'" he explained to a Times reporter in 2006.
"In the early days, we were almost gangs on wheels," said Ray, who credited Fernando Ruelas' counsel when Ray was made president of the Lifestyle Car Club. Fernando Ruelas "explained things to us.... He wanted to show the good side of lowriding," Ray said. "Their family was like role models."
Duke's became more family-oriented with car shows, cultural events and other activities.
"We do all these things to bring awareness to this neighborhood,"
"You see art being built here. You see something different. A family working together. Friends working together. People working together."
Filmmaker Rick Tejada-Flores, whose
included members of the Duke's car club, described lowriding as a way to "define yourself and your community, reject the melting pot."
Working in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Tejada-Flores said he "was particularly interested in Latino culture and you never saw a positive story about lowriders. They never got any respect.... What I found was those perceptions were completely reversed [among residents]. Lowriding was not something to be looked down on; it was beautiful."
In addition to his mother and surviving brothers, Ruelas is survived by his wife, Gloria; three sons, Alex of Chino, Jason of La Habra and Matthew of La Habra; and a grandchild.
A funeral Mass will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday at
900 W. La Habra Blvd., La Habra. There will be a viewing from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at
2161 S. Fullerton Road, Rowland Heights.