Julio Ochoa Ruelas, a co-founder and first president of Dukes So. Cal, the oldest lowrider car club in continuous existence in the world, died of heart failure Jan. 21 at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. He was 62.
The history of the lowrider has been written by men like the Ruelas brothers, who lived the lowrider life and promoted the best of it, even when time seemed to have passed it by. From their base in South Los Angeles, the brothers spent 40 years heading a car club that now has 29 chapters, including one in Japan, and restoring cars in the lowrider style that turn heads even in L.A., a city with more than its share of car connoisseurs.
“Every discipline, no matter what it is, needs some icon to be the one everyone turns to,” said Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. “In hot rodding it’s Wally Parks. In NASCAR it’s Tony Stewart, and in lowriding it’s the Ruelas brothers.... They were the godfathers of lowriding.”
Their cars have appeared in the pages of Life magazine and in the movie “Zoot Suit.” Meguiar’s, a manufacturer of car care products, honored the brothers in 2004 as “Treasures of the Hobby,” whose “substantial contributions to low riding as a sport and lifestyle have encouraged family-oriented car clubs around the world.”
The story of the brothers is intertwined with that of the lowrider, which begins with World War II, when factories that normally produced cars instead made tanks and other vehicles for the war effort, Messer said. During those years and shortly after the war, it was impossible to buy a new car. Many of the veterans who settled in Southern California after the war brought with them new skills, money and a desire for something uniquely theirs.
“So these guys just took their old cars and customized them and changed them and did all these things ... to make them individualized,” Messer said. Lowriders are “artistic creations that are also mechanical marvels.” They ride low. They ride high. They “hop.” They are canvases on which art is painted.
The Ruelas brothers learned to love lowriders in a multiethnic neighborhood of South Los Angeles, where they were raised and worked. Julio Ochoa Ruelas was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Dec. 5, 1944. When he was 12, his mother moved the family to South Los Angeles. She worked in a factory and later owned a grocery store. She raised her five boys without the help of a husband but with the assistance of extended family that included Uncle Tinker.
A mechanic who owned a shop on 41st street, Uncle Tinker looked for ways to keep the brothers out of gangs. He introduced them to go-carts and minibikes, then moved up to cars. He also taught them to work; they cut grass and shined shoes.
“We started doing the car thing when we were very young,” said Ruelas’ brother Fernando. “At 11, 12, 13, we basically owned our own cars already. Back then you could buy a car for $15.”
By the time they were old enough, they were not just driving in style, they were cruising: along Whittier Boulevard, in Elysian Park. “You get in there with a nice-looking vehicle and cruise up and down to show your car off,” Fernando Ruelas said. “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 Dukes. They socialized, went to dances, cruised, shared their love of the lowrider. During the Vietnam War, each brother was drafted to serve except Julio, who ran the store and kept the car club alive.
By the early 1970s, the brothers had returned and Fernando had opened Ruelas Custom, which specialized in building lowriders and a variety of other customized work. Julio ran the grocery store and on the side began searching out hard-to-find parts for old cars and supplying them to owners, a task he continued until his death.
“Used to be those guys who worked on the telephone lines or inspectors could see into backyards, they’d let me know what people had stashed ... in their backyards or garages,” Julio Ruelas once told a Times reporter. “Then I’d go pay them a visit.”
As the brothers became fathers, they shared their passion with their families. The club purchased a bus, painted it with the Dukes logo and used it to take their wives and children to the shows. Today the custom shop is Ruelas and Sons. The brothers have a sizable car collection.
Ruelas is survived by his wife, Carol, and four daughters: Patricia Molina of Anaheim, Carol Langevin of La Habra, Elizabeth Velis of Apple Valley and Veronica Ochoa of Los Angeles. In addition to Fernando, he is survived by brothers Oscar, Ernesto and Rene.
In 2000 the car Ruelas loved most, “Duke’s ’39,” a Chevrolet, was exhibited at the Petersen Automotive Museum’s exhibit “Arte Y Estilo: The Low-Riding Tradition.”
“A true lowrider is someone who comes from the heart ... a true working person [who] loves automobiles,” Ruelas said in a narrative that accompanied the car. “Lowriding is just a name, it is really a customized car.”
The car runs on a 235-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine from a 1957 Chevrolet. The brothers lowered the vehicle by cutting the suspension coils and installing lowering blocks in the rear. Later they installed hydraulics. The car has chrome plating, a 22-karat gold “Body by Fisher” emblem embedded with turquoise -- Julio’s birthstone -- and other touches that make it a work of art.
The lowrider show “was the most popular exhibition we’ve ever done,” Messer said. “It brought all the Latino culture into the museum that normally would not have come here. It’s gone across cultural lines, but it started with South-Central Los Angeles, with the Latino culture.”
People who love the lowrider know this. In a display of respect, the members of at least five car clubs arrived at Ruelas’ funeral in lowriders, some outfitted with parts he had acquired.
“His funeral looked more like a car show than a funeral,” said Richard “Chivo” Ceniceros, a longtime friend and original member of the Dukes. “Everybody knew Julio.”