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Take a little trip and see

TIMES STAFF WRITER

THE PETERSEN AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM is not, it must be said, a very controversial place. With its mission to “explore and present the history of the automobile” in the most car-centric city in the world, it might as well be the Newcastle Museum of Coal. But with the new exhibit “La Vida Lowrider: Cruising the City of Angels,” the Petersen drops a splendid argument in favor of openness and acceptance right in the middle of America’s immigration debate.

Born of Mexican pride and defiance after World War II, lowriding -- a customizing trend in which cars are lowered onto their suspensions, reupholstered and extravagantly painted -- has become a quintessentially American tradition, embraced by African Americans as well as white kids. It’s also become one of the country’s sexiest cultural exports. Top-tier lowriders can sell to Japanese collectors for six figures; you can see teenagers wandering around Tokyo’s Roppongi district in baggy jeans and Virgen de Guadalupe T-shirts. In design and graphics, lowriding style has become the Hispanic equivalent of manga.

The Petersen exhibit -- 21 cars, two motorcycles and a collection of raked, gold-plated custom bicycles -- offers a brisk summary of lowriding from its beginnings in East L.A., as a kind of automotive extension of zoot-suiting and pachucos fashion; through the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the low and slow (bajito y suavecito) style can be read as a reaction to white auto enthusiasts’ hot rodding; to the present, when it is a multibillion-dollar hobby and industry with its own bible, Lowrider Magazine. Like hip-hop’s profusion into the larger world of pop music, the lowriding aesthetic -- the iridescent “candy” paints, the filled seams and shaved door handles, the ground-hugging ride height -- has changed the dynamic of mainstream car design. The Chevy HHR, for example, is essentially a mass-market lowrider.

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Much of the movement’s history can be told in the story of a single car: Jesse Valadez’s ecstatic “Gypsy Rose,” (on our cover) a 1964 Chevy Impala strewn with 150 hand-painted Mexican roses across a field of candy-pink, red and white metallic paint. Valadez is a member of the Imperials Car Club, one of many close-knit groups whose members cruised Los Angeles streets in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. At the time, lowriding clubs had fierce and sometimes violent rivalries, and the style of the car was associated with gang warfare (the term “lowrider” was actually coined by the police after the Watts riots of 1965). Valadez was among the first to attempt to bring connoisseurship to the hobby with the sumptuous, and expensive, paint scheme on his car.

But the streets were still not safe. In 1972, soon after Valadez finished his first “Gypsy Rose,” a ’63 Impala, it was destroyed on Whittier Boulevard by brick-throwing youths.

In the 1970s, the police in Los Angeles and other Southwestern cities began cracking down on lowriders, whether they were gang members or not. By 1979, Whittier Boulevard was closed to cruising. “Whittier was a good thing,” Valadez told Lowrider Magazine in 1980. “But it got out of hand -- too much violence. The sheriffs didn’t close the boulevard, the people did.”

Meanwhile, Valadez had re-created “Gypsy Rose” (the exhibit’s ’64 Impala), and that car was destined to become famous. Shown bumping down the street in the opening credits of the Freddie Prinze sitcom “Chico and the Man,” the “Gypsy Rose” was the first lowrider most white Anglo-Americans had ever seen. Lowriding’s cultural assimilation had begun.

In the first decades of the hobby, lowriders fixed up used cars that were cheap and plentiful, like the now-iconic Impala, which was one of the bestselling cars of all time. But the more money artisans poured into their cars, the less likely they were to take them cruising on the street. By the mid-'70s, “Gypsy Rose,” as well as Joe Ray’s groundbreaking 1971 Buick “Dressed to Kill,” started showing up, and winning, at car shows.

Today, lowriding has its own calendar of competitions and most elite lowrider cars are barely ambulatory, only able to roll onto and off the show stage. Some, like Alejandro “Chino” Vega’s 1979 Chevy Monte Carlo, the gorgeous “Orgullo Mexicano,” can disassemble themselves, the hood, trunk and fenders levitating on struts and hydraulics. Others are like four-wheeled Faberge eggs. For sheer provocation, the most remarkable car in the show is Amor Barut’s glittering 1988 VW Jetta, the religion-themed “The Passion.” Pinstriped panels in the paint contain leaves of a King James Bible (Jeremiah, Psalms), even inside the engine bay. The gullwing doors have large engraved crosses. The transaxle (the traverse transmission-drive unit) is painstakingly engraved like the breech of a vintage Beretta shotgun, the execution itself a sign of devotion.

“The artisanship and skill in some of these cars is as good as I have ever seen,” says Dick Messer, the Petersen’s director. “It’s just unbelievable.”

And in the back, a huge sound system integrated into a custom-molded fascia. The Lord is a homeboy.

Middle Americans visiting the museum might have a little trouble parsing the imagery of lowrider culture, in which murals of big-breasted hotties and crazed urban clowns reside on the same car with images of devotion..

For Angelenos, they will see their city’s recent history reflected in the lowriders’ murals and mirror-chrome wheels. It’s not always pretty. In the 1950s, the Chicano enclave of Chavez Ravine was bulldozed to make way, ultimately, for Dodger Stadium. Ry Cooder’s 2005 album “Chavez Ravine” tells the story of that lost community. And the musician commissioned lowriding legend Fernando Ruelas to build a lowrider ice-cream truck and Chicano artist Vincent Valdez to paint murals on it commemorating Chavez Ravine, including the heartbreaking scenes of the last, defiant evictions. The Petersen exhibit is the first time the vehicle has been shown.

Of the millions of Chevys, Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Cadillacs that rolled off assembly lines in the 1960s and ‘70s, almost all have gone to their rest -- compacted, melted down or left in open fields for the elements to disassemble. It’s hard not to think of the cars in the Petersen as supremely lucky, not only to have survived but also to have been transformed into these passionate works of art.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

‘LA VIDA LOWRIDER: CRUISING THE CITY OF ANGELS’

WHERE: Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; ends June 8

PRICE: $10; $3, ages 5 to 12; $6, parking

INFO: (323) 930-2277, www.petersen.org

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A SAMPLER OF EVENTS FEATURING LOWRIDERS

FRIDAY

Sakos Cruise Night

and Car Show

Sakos Sandwich Shop, 12000 Slauson Ave., Santa Fe Springs. 7-9 p.m. (562) 693-1138

SATURDAY

Reflections Car Club Christmas Toy Drive

and Car Show

Fuddruckers Restaurant, 5229 Clark Ave., Lakewood, noon-6 p.m. www.myspace

SUNDAY

Suspect Car Club

Annual Toy Drive

Ernest Debs Park, Pasadena, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. (323) 321-4716

Giving Back Car Show

and Hop

Hosea Chapel, 220 S. 5th St., Alhambra, 1-5 p.m. (626) 281-0754

Oldies Car Club Annual Christmas Toy Drive

Brewline Coffee, 1240 Truman St., San Fernando, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (818) 679-5763

Chicano Style Car Club Best of the Best Car Show

Roosevelt High School, 456 S. Mathews St., L.A., 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. (323) 440-1559


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