I’ve seriously been into custom cars and part of the Southern California automotive scene since the early 60’s. So I always get a kick out of listening to guys talk about “Back in the Day,” especially when they’re talking about the 90’s! “LOL” They talk about the ‘Import Car Scene’ like it’s what actually defined SoCal. One dude at the Eibach Meet even told me that SoCal used to be the Car Capital ‘Back in the Day’ (i.e. the 90’s), but now it’s Japan. Even though I had to give this guy an “F” in SoCal Automotive History, I think it’s sad that people like him are just so uninformed. The actual truth of the matter is that SoCal has NEVER followed anyone or anything! We’ve always been the innovators and set the pace that others have merely followed! I’ve seen different fads come and go, but in the end it’s always been about the originality, the ingenuity, and the creation of the sweetest rides!
The real “Back in the Day” in the SoCal car scene started right after World War II in the late 1940’s. Guys started hopping up Flat Head Ford V8’s and dropping them into ’34 Ford coupes, 1923 T-Buckets, and anything else they could get their hands on! One of the main guys back then was Wally Parks, who was one of the founding principals of Motor Trend Magazine in 1948, as well as, serving as their first editor. He also started the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) in 1954, which is still going strong today. You should check out the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum at the Fairplex in Pomona for a real slice of SoCal automotive history.
During this same period when guys building Hot Rods were trying to make their cars go faster, over in East LA they were all about making cars look better, and had been since the 1930’s. The Pachucos were all about style and class and were the original Lowriders! The 1939 to the 1948 Chevy Fleetlines were the most popular cars of choice back then. By the 1950’s and the 1960’s, Lowriders became the main attraction on Whittier Boulevard. They were even portrayed in movies, and it soon spread to most of the Southwestern states. Customizer Ron Aguirre, who just passed in May, was one of the giants in the history of Lowriding. He came up with the idea of installing Pesco Hydraulic Airplane Pumps into an automobile in 1959. The 1970’s brought us Lowrider Magazine which further defined the culture and the lifestyle. Lowriding has always been about “Bajito y Suavecito,” which means ”Low and Slow!”
Throughout the 60’s and the early 70’s, SoCal was ‘Muscle Car’ heaven all the way up to the oil crisis of 1973. Besides racing at Lions Drag Strip and other venues, there was only one man who was able to bring all the Lowriders, Hot Rodders, Whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans together. That was Big Willie Robinson, a 6’6’, 275lb. Vietnam Veteran who had a simple dream of unity, and finding a safe place to race off the streets! Big Willie is the President of “The National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, Inc.” Back in the 60’s we met behind the May Co. Department Store on Crenshaw and Santa Barbara in LA on Saturday nights. We would then travel to undisclosed locations for a night of racing, with secondary and even third locations for when the cops showed up. American Muscle was supreme and “Made in Detroit” was right up there with ”Made in Heaven!” You would have been totally laughed out of there if you showed up in an import, and “Made in Japan” was truly a joke! Willie had the Lowriding Division and the Hot Rodding Division, Hot Rodders raced for speed and Lowridders had “Scrape Races” to see who create the most sparks coming out from under the rear end of their rides! There was no fighting, no gang activities, no racial tension; it was just about who had the fastest car, or who could throw the most flames! Willie opened Brotherhood Raceway Park in Terminal Island in the 70’s and ran it until it was closed by the city in 1995, but he has never, ever lost the dream!
I got drafted in 1969 and when I returned in 1972, the SoCal scene had started to change, but the real game changer was the Oil Embargo in 1973! Because of the high cost of gas, and not being able to get it, Detroit basically discontinued the Muscle Cars. We had odd and even days at the pump, which was determined by the last number on your license plate. That was the only day you could get gas for your ride and you still had to wait in long lines to get to the pump. There was a lot ugly gas station dudes getting laid by really fine chicks back then! “LOL” This was by far the single greatest thing that ever happened to imports because they were already making 4 cylinder cars that got great gas mileage. Detroit was unprepared and offered us the Chevy Vega, the Ford Pinto, and other assorted pieces of crap, it wasn’t pretty! Because of the Oil Crisis, people started trying Toyota’s, Honda’s, Fiat’s, and other imports besides the Bug.Detroit lost a lot of customers that they never got back. But where it really hurt them the most is that they lost their kids and all those future sales! Detroit really put the nails in their own coffin in the 80’s when they came out with one crappy car after another allowing the imports to gain even more market share.
In the early 1980’s another phenomenon was also going on, Japanese entrepreneurs were seriously buying up American Lowrider cars. At that time, these cars were the hottest fad in Tokyo, and everybody wanted one! You could actually list your ride for sale in the LA Times and almost immediately, you’d be contacted by a car broker. They would pay your full asking price, or more, and within a week your ride was on a cargo ship headed for Japan. Obviously most Japanese kids couldn’t afford to buy these cars, but they could imitate them, and that’s exactly what they did! If imitation is suppose to be the sincerest form of flattery, then American Lowriders should really be flattered. The first cars in Japan to copy the American look were originally known as Haiso cars (high society salon cars). They eventually became known as “VIP” cars, ‘bippu’ in Japan; such as the Celsior, CIMA, Cedric/Gloria, and Crown, just to name a few; and in SoCal it’s still the Lexus GS and LS, and the Infiniti M and the Q series. Guys who don’t have a legit “VIP” platform have applied this look to their rides and they call it “VIP STYLE!”
I don’t want anyone to think that I’ve left out the Tuners, because they will be in my “Tuners and the JDM Effect on SoCal” article. I’m going to talk about when Imports first started showing up at Brotherhood Raceway Park in the 1980’s and people were just trying to figure out how to get more power out of them. So stay tuned and…”I’ll see you out on the streets!”