How Lowriders Work


Image Gallery: Custom Cars "Lowrider drives a little slower." This 1962 Chevrolet Impala can hop and dance with the best of them, though. See more pictures of custom cars.
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On nights when the weather's nice, they come out. Shiny hunks of metal rumble and growl their way to parks, parking lots and quiet side streets. The best from Detroit's golden years are usually displayed in their meticulously preserved glory at classic car meet-ups and cruise-ins. But as modified cars grow in popularity, you're more likely to see them on the road. One of the most recognizable modifications gearheads make to their cars is to lower the suspension so that the body skims the ground. This basic modification has given rise to an entire subculture of the car hobby: the lowrider.

It's not clear when lowriders first entered car culture, but as long as people have been modifying cars, they've lowered or raised the suspension to change the car's performance or look. Modifying old cars was a popular hobby in the late 1940s and 1950s and gave birth to hot-rods and rat-rods. While many hot-rod builders would lower their car's suspension, it was only one of many common changes. Eventually, lowriders as class of modified cars emerged and gained popularity by the late 1960s and early 1970s. They remain one of the most popular types of modified cars.

For many people, lowriders are more than cars -- they're a way of life. "Lowrider" refers not only to a type of car, but also to a person or lifestyle. People who call themselves lowriders typically own and show lowrider cars and follow urban and hip-hop culture. Lowriders as a trend started out in Mexican-American and Chicano communities in Southern California. Later, the cars became popular in urban African-American communities. Today, lowriders are a part of hip-hop culture, showing up in music videos and influencing car design trends. Hip-hop influenced lowriders are the most popular ones today. They're large cars from the 1960s and '70s that feature flashy paint and sport oversized wheels and tires. Original-style lowriders still persist in the Southern California communities where they originated. These cars tend to be from the 1950s and use more subdued paint and wheels.

So what models are best suited for lowrider modification? And how do people make their cars hop and dance? Find out in the next section.

Lowrider Models

A lowrider in Dallas bounces down the street.
A lowrider in Dallas bounces down the street.
DreamPictures/Photodisc/Getty Images

A lowrider is a car or truck that's had its suspension modified so that the car rides lower to the ground. Popular models for modification include Chevrolet Impalas from the 1960s as well as 1970s and '80-era Chevrolet Monte Carlos, Buick Regals and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes. Classic 1950s and '60s Ford and Chevy trucks, as well as the Chevy El Caminos are also popular.

In addition to their lowered suspension, lowriders often also feature flashy paint jobs, ornate rims and interior modifications like luxurious and eye-catching materials and large stereo systems. Some lowriders further modify their suspensions, allowing the car to buck up and down -- something that's known as dancing or hopping.

Before you understand how a car's suspension is lowered, you need to understand how a suspension works. A suspension protects the car and allows it to perform at its best by absorbing bumps and imperfections in the road's surface. Think of a suspension as a car's joints. Joints, like your knees and ankles, flex, allowing you to move comfortably and efficiently. If you jump, you bend your knees to cushion yourself as you land. A car's suspension flexes like your knees to cushion the ride. Similarly, you can bend your knees and shift your weight between them when you need to turn a corner or change direction (just try to walk around a corner without bending your knees -- you'll be in for a slow and uncomfortable time!). A car's suspension does the same thing: It allows the car's weight to shift around, maintaining speed and balance.

Car suspensions are typically made of two main components: springs and shock absorbers. Springs can come in many different forms, but the most common are coil springs (which look like the springs you see in cartoons) and leaf springs, which are flexible pieces of curved metal. Shock absorbers usually use a spring and a chamber filled by a piston, as well as a gas or liquid. The spring moves the piston up and down and the gas or liquid provides resistance, which keeps the car from bouncing or floating around too much.

So how do lowrider suspensions actually raise and lower a car? Go to the next section to find out.

Lowrider Suspensions

A Chevrolet lowrider competes in a dance competition in Los Angeles.
A Chevrolet lowrider competes in a dance competition in Los Angeles.
Robert Yager/Stone/Getty Images

The most common type of suspension for lowriders is an air suspension. In air suspensions, the metal springs are replaced with a very strong rubber bag. The bag is connected to an air reservoir and an air compressor that can inflate or deflate the bag, raising and lowering the car. Air suspensions are popular because they provide a smooth ride and are fairly easy to install. A simple air suspension involves swapping out the springs for air bags, adding a reservoir and compressor, and a control unit. The simplest systems cost around $400 U.S., while a more sophisticated set up can cost more that $1,000 -- just for the parts. The amount and cost of the labor involved depend on the system's complexity.

The most coveted type of suspension is a hydraulic suspension. A hydraulic suspension can quickly raise and lower the car, making it hop and jump -- or dance. Some lowrider shows have dancing car contests.

While an air suspension uses an air bag to replace the springs, a hydraulic suspension uses a hydraulic actuator -- a bladder that can be filled quickly with fluid. It's attached to a compressor, which shoots liquid into the actuator with incredible force, causing it to expand rapidly. Think of it as a small explosion within the actuator. The actuator expands with the force of the fluid entering it and as it does so, it pushes hard on the components around it, causing them to spring away. This is the same principle that you'd use to jump off the ground. You exert a force from your legs against the ground, and that force propels you upward. When the force is removed (because you're no longer touching the ground) you come back down. Actuator systems exert force that causes the car to push against the ground. Since the ground isn't going anywhere, the car goes up.

An actuator system is usually powered by several extra car batteries. In cases where it would be unsafe for anyone to be in the car because it can hop so high, the actuator is controlled by a remote switch. These types of suspensions are complex and expensive. A single actuator (or pump) can cost $500, and at least two (and up to four) are needed for each car. Other necessary components (like batteries) cost extra, and installing such a system is extremely labor intensive.

Both air and hydraulic suspensions are considered height adjustable suspensions, because they can raise or lower the car. However, when most people think of a height adjustable suspension, they are thinking of a suspension that can raise or lower a car slowly, changing its stance before a crowd. This modification allows drivers to raise the car while they are driving it, avoiding imperfections in the road, and lower it when they get to their destination, allowing the car to looks its best.

Lowriders are expensive to build, but how much are they worth? Find out about lowrider prices in the next section.

Lowrider Prices

Building a lowrider like this 1953 Mercury can be quite expensive. It's best to treat such a project as a hobby rather than as an investment.
Building a lowrider like this 1953 Mercury can be quite expensive. It's best to treat such a project as a hobby rather than as an investment.
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Lowrider prices vary widely and depend on the car's condition, the expertise that went into the modifications, the type of modifications and the type of car that was modified. Some lowriders cost as little as $2,000 to $3,000, while especially desirable models with top-notch technology cost as much as $20,000. It's rare, however, to find a lowrider that costs much more than that since typical lowrider modifications don't do much to increase the collectability of a car. But because collectability is dependent upon market trends, the more popular lowriders become, the more collectable (and more valuable) they become.

Building your own lowrider is a popular car hobby. Some people think it's cheaper than buying a ready-made model. Others want specific modifications. And some simply enjoy doing the work themselves. The last two reasons are the best reasons to build your own lowrider, as the investment of parts, labor and time may end up costing more than the car is actually worth. Builders can spend thousands of dollars finding a car to modify, buying the parts and performing the work, only to end up with a car that won't sell for what they spent. Building a lowrider is best for people who do it as a hobby -- not an investment.

Though lowriders can be insured by regular car insurance companies, they're likely to be insured for the value of the car before any modifications. Regular insurance companies won't take the collectability of the car into account when insuring a lowrider. Collector car insurance is offered by a few small companies. While these companies deal mainly with classic cars, they can also insure a lowrider, and take the full value of the car into account when dealing with claims.

But a lowrider is much more than just a car with a lowered suspension. What are some other changes that make a modified car look the part? We'll take a look at lowrider exteriors and interiors in the next section.

Lowrider Exteriors and Interiors

Most lowriders have simple interiors to keep the focus on the outer car, but this 1979 Chevy El Camino breaks the mold.
Most lowriders have simple interiors to keep the focus on the outer car, but this 1979 Chevy El Camino breaks the mold.
Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images

A lowered suspension isn't the only modification that makes a car a true lowrider. Switching stock wheels for larger ones is an easy change that most lowriders make to their cars. The larger wheels fill up the wheel wells -- especially when they're paired with a lowered suspension. Larger wheels also show off decorative rims or flashy metal work on the wheels themselves. However, larger wheels require thinner tires. As a wheel gets bigger, the rubber on the outside of the tire gets thinner -- otherwise the whole setup won't fit in the wheel well. Since there's less cushioning, thinner tires usually mean a rougher ride, but the visual payoff is enough to make larger wheels a lowrider signature.

Paint is also extremely important for completing a lowrider's look. As a general rule, paint on lowriders is flashy. Bright colors that would almost never be seen in any car showroom are common. Multiple colors on a single car, as well as pinstriping (thin stripes used to enhance a car's lines or form) are techniques that lowrider owners use to make their cars stand out. Some lowriders feature metalflake paint, plaint flecked with bits of shiny metal. The metal reflects extra light, giving the car a sparkly, disco ball look.

Some lowriders also make changes to their cars' bodies. A common modification is chopping a car's roofline. When a car is chopped, the roof is removed along with several inches of supporting metal. The roof is then replaced, giving the appearance that it's been lowered. Modifiers may also change the rake (angle of their car's windshield) or take a four-door car and turn it into a two-door.

Lowrider interiors are no less important than their exteriors. While outrageous interior materials and gadgets get a lot of attention, some lowriders prefer simple interiors, so the focus stays on the outside of their car. However, one thing is fairly standard to most lowrider interiors: a powerful stereo system.

A loud stereo is important for lowriders because it allows the car to provide its own music for dancing. It also means that the car can play music for an entire gathering. Since lowriders are commonly shown outside in a festive atmosphere, a loud stereo is a pretty practical modification.

How does a lowrider handle in daily life? Go to the next section to find out.

Lowrider Life

Lowriders are social cars meant to be shown, shared and enjoyed.
Lowriders are social cars meant to be shown, shared and enjoyed.
John Lund/Blend Images/Getty Images

Because of their modifications, lowriders have some special needs that make them a little more difficult to own and drive than other cars. The rubber bladders in the suspensions are tough, but they must be checked for leaks. If the suspension is adjustable, it uses hoses to raise or lower the car, and those hoses can spring a lot of leaks. And while making a car hop or dance looks cool, it's actually pretty rough on the car (just like jumping up and down repeatedly on a hard surface can damage a person's joints or bones).

Rough roads and speed bumps are particularly hard on lowriders, unless the car has a height adjustable suspension. A car with a lowered suspension (or an adjustable suspension in the lowered position) doesn't have the space the suspension needs to move when it encounters a bump or dip in the road. That leaves the car vulnerable to scraping its undercarriage, or everything underneath the car. Scraping the undercarriage repeatedly, or scraping it particularly hard, can lead to some expensive damage to the frame, exhaust system and suspension.

Aside from avoiding bumps, lowriders don't drive much differently from other cars. While lowering a car's suspension typically leads to improved handling, that usually isn't the case for lowriders. Though lowering the car's center of gravity makes it more stable, other suspension modifications, like upgraded anti-sway bars (which contribute to vehicle steering and control) are needed to make the car handle better. Common lowrider air or hydraulic setups don't help much with maneuvering since their point is to make the car look cool. And since lowriders tend to be built out of old, large cars, they don't handle too well to begin with. Gas mileage is another consideration: Suspension modifications add a lot of weight to the car, which has a negative impact on fuel economy. But, since most lowriders are show cars, not commuters, most owners don't worry about how well they corner or how many miles per gallon they get.

Though laws vary, most states don't regulate modifications that can be made to cars -- as long as the car can pass a safety inspection. Some lowriders get into trouble for having windows tinted too darkly, or playing a stereo too loudly, but beyond that, most states let people modify their cars however they wish. But before buying or building a lowrider, you should investigate the laws in your state to see what, if any, issues you might run into.

To learn more about lowriders and car suspensions, cruise over the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Cabrera, Marc. "Lowrider car show celebrates mystique of custom car culture, lifestyle" March 17, 2008. Monterey County Herald. http://www.montereyherald.com/local/ci_8600290
  • Car Bibles.com. "Suspension Bible." http://www.carbibles.com/suspension_bible.html
  • Hamilton, Frank. "How to build a Lowrider." Voyageur Press, Minnesota. 1997.
  • Elliot, Kev. "Rear suspension and Chassis Tuning." Road and Custom Magazine. http://www.rodandcustommagazine.com/howto/4928/index.html
  • Penalnd, Paige. Lowrider. Motorbooks, 2003.
  • Vargas, Saul. "Baggin' A Bomb." Lowrider Magazine. http://www.lowridermagazine.com
  • Size Matters -- Hydrotech. Lowrider Magazine. http://www.lowridermagazine.com/tech/lrmp_0707_hydrotech/index.html

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