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Lowrider Magazine Riding Higher Than Ever

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attendance at the lowrider exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has been stunning organizers since the show opened in February.

But Ricardo Gonzalez doesn’t think anyone should have been taken by surprise.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 26, 2000 Dings & Scratches
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 26, 2000 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Financial Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong make--If you ever want to find out how much attention your readers are paying, just make a mistake. We did last week, when we incorrectly identified La Mirada lowrider Tony Montez’s 1939 Chevrolet as a Dodge. It is gratifying to see how many people out there know the difference--and cared enough to write or call.

The publisher of Lowrider magazine knows how interest in the lowered, highly customized cars--and the lowriding lifestyle--has spread in recent years.

Lowrider, after all, holds the distinction of being the best-selling newsstand automotive periodical in the country. Although a number of more mainstream automotive titles, monthlies such as Motor Trend and Road & Track, have far more subscribers, no other auto publication comes close to Lowrider’s amazing success on the newsstands--arguably the toughest arena in which to sell magazines.

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So when folklore specialist Nancy Fister, assistant director at the Petersen, exclaims that the lowrider show that runs through May 28 has doubled overall attendance, quadrupled weekend crowds and resulted in a big boost in the number of Latino and African American visitors, Gonzalez just smiles and nods.

Lowrider, with an average monthly circulation of about 210,000 copies--190,000 of them bought at the hefty and rarely discounted cover price of $4.25 at food markets, liquor and convenience stores and drugstores--is no longer just a magazine for the barrios of Southern California.

Today’s lowriders are Latino, Anglo, African American and Asian American. They customize everything from classic Schwinn bicycles to contemporary import luxury cars, and they live everywhere from East L.A. to East Hampton, N.Y.

Indeed, Gonzalez says the most recent analysis of Lowrider’s audience shows that although Latinos remain its largest audience, they account for only 58% of total circulation. Whites account for 25%, he says, African Americans for 10% and readers of Asian descent for 7%.

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“Our magazine spread the word about lowriders,” he says. “We have always been one of the largest Hispanic platforms on the newsstands and, with the rise of music videos, cable networks like MTV and the whole rap culture in the early 1990s, you suddenly couldn’t look at TV without seeing a lowrider car.” When rockers such as ZZ Top started using lowriders in their videos, Gonzalez says, “interest in [the cars] expanded beyond the Hispanic community and into nontraditional markets, like Indianapolis. We’re everywhere.”

*

Lowrider magazine’s story is one of ups and downs, of obstacles overcome, perseverance and, finally, growing acceptance--largely paralleling the history of the movement and culture it chronicles.

The magazine was started in the social turmoil of the late 1970s by San Jose State student activists Larry Gonzalez, Sonny Madrid and David Nunez, who sought to present a voice for the Chicano community in the Bay Area. The first issue was dated January 1977.

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Growth was slow in the early years--the magazines were delivered to outlets throughout the state each month by the editorial and advertising staffs, a process that ate up a week of production time and kept everyone on edge.

It wasn’t until Lowrider started putting bikini-clad models on its covers at the end of 1979 that sales began to accelerate. But the burgeoning success spawned several imitators that ate into Lowrider’s market, and in December 1985, after being taken over by its printer, the magazine folded.

It came back, though, in June 1988, rescued by a group of loyalists including layout designer Alberto Lopez; his brother, Lonnie (the magazine’s current editor); and co-founder Larry Gonzalez (no relation to current publisher Ricardo). Lowrider’s headquarters were moved to Southern California--bringing the magazine closer to the heart of the lowrider community--and Lopez and his crew shrewdly decided to devote much of their coverage to trucks to capitalize on the popularity of imported mini-pickups.

The first issue sold 20,000 copies within a week and, by October 1988, monthly newsstand sales had hit 60,000.

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As sales have continued to swell, the magazine has developed into the flagship of a multicultural mini-conglomerate with six titles, a merchandising unit and an events division that last year sponsored 15 car shows that collectively drew about 300,000 fans to fairgrounds and stadiums from San Diego to Kansas City.

Lowrider Publishing Group, owned since 1997 by Anaheim-based automotive periodicals giant McMullen Argus Publishing (itself acquired in 1999 by Primedia of New York), has done a world-class job of taking a niche subject and reaching out to every conceivable part of its audience, says Michael Pashby, vice president of consumer marketing for the trade group Magazine Publishers of America.

In addition to Lowrider, publisher Ricardo Gonzalez and editor Lopez oversee the publication of several spinoffs: Lowrider Euros, designed for the new wave of enthusiasts who prefer foreign marques like Volkswagen and Toyota over Chevrolet and Ford; Lowrider Truck, for the pickup crowd, a big part of the lowrider culture; Lowrider Bicycle, aimed at preteens and young teenagers who don’t have cars but have begun practicing the elaborate customizing arts on their two-wheeled vehicles; and Lowrider Arte, a quarterly that trumpets the art of the custom cars and bikes.

There is also a Tokyo-based version of the main magazine, Lowrider Japan, published under license from Fullerton-based Lowrider Publishing Group.

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One big fan is Yuzuru Oishi, 38, a Japanese car importer who was so captivated by his first sighting of a lowrider car in Los Angeles a dozen years ago that he began importing vintage Chevrolet Impalas and turning them into lowriders in his Yokohama shop.

Oishi left Japan five years ago, he says, because he had become so immersed in the scene that he wanted to join Lifestyle, one of the preeminent Los Angeles lowrider car clubs. Emigration became his only option, Oishi says, when club President Joe Ray said he had to live in Southern California to be a member.

These days, Oishi, who proudly wears a stylized “Lifestyle” tattoo on his right arm, builds lowriders in a small shop in Buena Park for export to Japan, where they appeal to collectors of Americana and to car enthusiasts “with a desire to be different,” he says.

For Oishi, a lowrider isn’t just a car--or a label for a person.

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“Being a lowrider, building a lowrider, is a way to express what’s inside you,” he says.

*

That, Gonzalez says, is the message Lowrider magazine preaches.

“This is a sport for average guys who use the vehicles as a means of expressing themselves,” he says. “There’s a perception that it is gang-related, but that is not the case anymore. The car clubs offer social and cultural support, but that’s it.”

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With car shows, contests and expansion into the import vehicle and pre- and early-teen scenes, the magazine has worked to “make the sport into something that appeals not only to the guy who builds the car but to his friends and family as well,” Gonzalez says. “This is how we fight the gang image. By making everyone involved.”

Still, the magazine has rough edges.

“We need to be raw and edgy for a purpose: to make our readers read it and talk about it,” Gonzalez says.

The strategy seems to be working. Indeed, Lowrider uses a fairly standard, and highly effective, formula of trying to grab readers with the cover and then hook them with what’s inside.

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“It’s the babes and the cars,” says journalism professor Samir Husni, head of the magazine program at the University of Mississippi.

“They are using what I call the Maxim strategy,” he says, referring to the popular British men’s magazine that unabashedly trumpets sex, music and other lifestyle pleasures on its covers. “They both use the lowest common denominator to appeal to new readers--only Lowrider has been doing it much longer.”

In fact, Lowrider has been combining women and cars on its covers since a trench coat-wearing woman at a Gilroy lowrider car show was featured on the inaugural issue.

The magazine first put a bikini-clad model on its cover in November 1979. The model, a fan named Mona, was subsequently expelled from her Catholic high school for the then-scandalous pose, according to the magazine’s official history.

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“We get criticism every issue for the girls,” Gonzalez acknowledges. “But, hey, we’re a business. We’re aimed squarely at 18- to 25-year-old males, and they’re interested primarily in two things. Cars are one of them. And until our audience revolts, we’ll keep using the girls.”

That’s actually OK, Husni says, because behind each month’s cover is a smorgasbord of content that seems to please a broad audience.

And the hook--the thing that keeps readers coming back--is the magazine’s format, providing coverage not only of the cars that gave the movement its name, but also of music, fashion, cultural issues and controversial subjects such as California’s Proposition 187.

The magazine routinely preaches a message of racial and ethnic pride and trumpets the value of education and of cultural coexistence. It funds an annual scholarship program that last year awarded readers more than $60,000.

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Lowrider’s letters section is peppered with testimonials from readers who say the magazine has helped them feel better about themselves and understand their culture.

*

Ultimately, of course, it’s the cars that keep most readers coming back month after month, not the bikinis or the social message.

Mario De Alba Jr., 31, has been reading Lowrider from its earliest days, having picked up his father’s copy when he was 8. He hasn’t put down the magazine since.

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De Alba says that he isn’t too interested in the magazine’s political and cultural content--that he reads it religiously instead “for the articles about the cars and for shop tips and new products.”

“I especially like when I get to see vehicles from the East Coast,” he says. “The movement is national, but I can’t afford to travel to check out what they’re doing in other parts of the country, and Lowrider lets me see.”

De Alba is a member of the Pomona-based Elite Car Club. His first of several lowriders was a Euro, a 1979 Toyota Celica GT hatchback that won three national champion trophies when he entered it on the show circuit.

He now tools around in a customized 1979 Chevrolet Suburban and is in the process of building a 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood lowrider in his family’s Montclair auto-body shop, Mario’s Auto Works.

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De Alba became a lowrider, he says, “because when you are brought up around something, that’s what you get into. My dad always had a good-looking car when I was young. His cousin got him involved in car shows and sometimes they’d bring me along. It was cool to be around all the cars. And when the magazine came out, it was strong and cool, and that made me say, ‘Hey! That’s what I want to get into when I’m old enough to drive,’ and that’s what I did.”

* The Petersen Museum exhibition on lowriders, “Arte y Estilo: The Lowriding Tradition,” documents the Mexican American car culture through displays of 20 lowriders, ranging from the classic “bombs” of the 1930s and ‘40s to the Chevy Impalas of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd. (at Fairfax Avenue). (323) 930-CARS. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ends May 28.

Times staff writer John O’Dell covers the auto industry for the Business section and Highway 1. He can be reached at john.odell

@latimes.com.lowrider 2

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Bomb Squad

Enthusiasts for lowered, tricked-out cars and trucks are an increasingly diverse bunch, and so are the vehicles they choose to customize. An illustrated look at six major classes of lowriders:

Euro

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A 1994 Honda Civic lowrider built by Larry Gonzalez of Blythe, Calif., features the ground-hugging stance, 100-spoke wire wheels, small tires and elaborate exterior paint of its domestic counterparts.

Truck

This example from Alan Spicola of Colorado Springs, Colo., shows what truck-loving lowrider enthusiasts are doing. The gold-plated metalwork, fancy paint and zero-clearance stance proclaim that the 1990 Chevrolet pickup is firmly in the lowrider camp.

Traditional

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This passionately purple, chrome-bedecked 1964 Chevrolet Impala convertible was built in the classic or traditional lowrider style by John Kennedy of San Pedro. He says he has put about $125,000 into the car. The car is often displayed on jack stands to show off its heavily chromed undercarriage.

Bomb

La Mirada lowrider Tony Montez’s immaculate 1939 Dodge exemplifies the look the original lowriders were after--clean, stately, low and luxurious.

Dancer

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Using powerful hydraulic pumps controlled by the driver to make tricked-out vehicles bounce, jiggle, jump and hop is a modern wrinkle in lowriding, and “dancers” can be quite amazing. This levitating 1992 Toyota mini-pickup was built by Todd Witt of Louisville, Ky.

Sport-Utility Vehicle

Sport-utility vehicles are everywhere, so why not in a lowrider car show? Tony Aquino of Orlando, Fla., built this extravagantly painted, low-slung Lincoln Navigator.

Source: Lowrider magazine

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