It’s one of those slow afternoons, and a few lowriders from the Low Conspiracy Car Club have gathered at the garage of current head Sergio Martinez. Surrounded by vintage car prints, show trophies, and shelf upon shelf of model cars, members reminisce over slices of pizza on the organization’s 40-plus years of history.

These memories are bittersweet, reflections trigged by the recent loss of José “All Nighter” Martinez, president during the club’s first decade, and later in life, a regular judge in Lowrider Magazine’s car shows. Last week, the club honored him with a memorial cruise down Santa Clara Street. Now, as they pass around old photos and magazine clippings, a few of the older auto aficionados reflect on the club’s deep impact on their lives.

“It starts out as a hobby and turns into a lifestyle,” muses Abel Hernandez (a retired member of the club, but one of the 10 original high schoolers who first brought it to life back in the ’70s). Sergio smiles his agreement, the Impala symbol tattooed on his arm proof to his friend’s statement. That same mindset holds true across the club. It’s evidenced in the matter-of-fact way club members can rattle off the painters and modifiers behind their cars with the level of pride art collectors reserve for listing the masters framed on their walls.

There’s no argument that these cars are drivable art. “You’re not going to take a family vacation with those,” Abel comments with a chuckle. Sergio nods, “I kinda made mine a trailer queen and chromed everything.” If you’ve witnessed members’ painstaking attention to detail, you’ll understand why. For starters, there’s the handmade Zenith wire wheels with plated spokes in chrome and gold. There’s the big-bodied builds (practically with a couch in the backseat). There’s the hydraulic suspension (some with the power to raise up on three wheels or jump). Occasionally, there’s hidden murals tucked inside the door jams (ready to flash whenever the driver enters or exits
the vehicle).

“It starts out as a hobby and turns into a lifestyle.” – Abel Hernandez

And of course, don’t forget the wild paint jobs—a factor which happened to be José’s specialty. “Anybody can paint,” José’s wife Lisa Martinez says. “But you have to be an artist for it to really come out. They used to call them rolling canvases.” It’s not an exaggeration. If you want to win a car show, you play for keeps. Flashy flourishes of sparkles, patterns, and pin-striping get you on the podium. Or as Lisa puts it, “Go big or go home…Make it so that when it drives down the street, it gives people a headache it’s so bright.”

At times, lowrider painters have been known to take a little creative license. “Sometimes you tell them what you want, and they know that’s not going to look good,” Sergio explains, gesturing at his ’78 Grand Prix’s sunset-style two-tone fade from tangerine to scarlet, a coat accented with crisp yellow pinstripes. “I didn’t want orange on there—but he put it on there. When he told me, I wasn’t happy. And then I saw it…and I went back to him and said ‘Put more on.’ ”

“Carlos [Lima] did that to me, too, with my truck,” Sergio adds. “I wanted different colored flames—and he put a kind of magenta. And first thing I thought was ‘Pink. You painted pink flames on my truck?!’ But every truck show I went to with that truck, I won best flames.”

Judges not only look at the paint but scrutinize all the hidden little details, Sergio explains, describing the spotlights and turntables used to reveal every last facet and angle. And for rides with engraved undercarriages, you better believe their owners bring out the mirrors to capture those beautiful underbellies.

Fittingly, these cars with their loud personalities have an equally memorable origin story. It all started with young Chicano lowriders in post-World War II
Los Angeles.

Tired of whitewashed cultural norms in the States, Mexican Americans expressed pride in their heritage with their own counterculture. So, in response to the nation’s obsession with speedy hot rods and raised trucks, Chicanos embodied their new motto, “Low and Slow,” by cutting coils, lowering blocks, and even adding sandbags or bricks to their trunks.

Unfortunately, apprehension of minorities ran rampant in the ’50s and the media stoked irrational fears of gangster ties. The result was police harassment as well as a 1958 California law that banned lowered cars. Rather than conform, lowriders met this with a cheeky response: hydraulics. Repurposing aircraft landing gear, they could now elevate their ride height to “appropriate levels” at the flip
of a switch.

East San Jose was arguably the hub of the lowrider golden age during the late ’70s and through the ’80s, despite its LA roots—a period Abel refers to as the “King and Story Days.” From Friday to Sunday, Low Conspiracy (which was 80-members strong at its peak) cruised the boulevard with dozens of other clubs late into the night. Thousands of car enthusiasts milled around on the sidewalks and daydreamed themselves into many a driver’s seat.

Cruising acted as a night club on wheels, as much a social staple of the time as spending your nights at the roller rink or the bowling alley. “Once you saw another car flying your plaque [in the rear windshield] you would follow him. Before you knew it, you had a dozen club members cruising together,” Sergio explained in an interview with Lowrider Network. “That was how we met up back when no one had cell phones.”

It was the place to see and be seen. Drivers would showboat by hitting their hydraulics. They’d roll down the windows and blast Latin rock. “Good days when we were out there, huh?” Lisa says to the friend sitting beside her. “That’s when we were young. The guys were out there with their beautiful cars—looking at the girls—who were looking at the guys.”

Unfortunately, the assumption that lowriding and gangsters were somehow linked was still being made by public and police. “They always thought we were up to no good,” Abel recalls. Sergio nods in agreement, “They started fining people, and they were going after the nicest cars because they’re the ones that stood out.”

José, however, was determined to overcome that stigma. “He would approach the chief of police and say, ‘Yo, this is an event we want to do,’ ” Lisa recalls. “He didn’t want them to be hassled.” José and the club also collaborated with local firefighters on toy drives. The message was clear: we’re not here to cause trouble. “You have to give back to your community and show that you’re part of the community,” Lisa states. “You’re not the problem.” These gestures earned them respect among law enforcement.

“Some people are scared of [lowriders], but, nah, it’s all families nowadays,” Sergio verifies. “I’ve been doing it my whole life. I’m older and I got a couple of little grandkids too…the whole family gets into it!” In fact, on more than one occasion, the club has chauffeured young ladies and their quinceañera courts to party venues. “They get a kick out of it,” Abel smiles.

At the end of the day, the club is one big family. Again and again, the Low Conspiracy guys refer to the special brotherly bond shared by members. “When I first started going with them, we happened to park all of the Martinez’s together, just coincidentally,” Sergio recalls, “and somebody noticed and said, ‘Hey, are you guys all brothers?’ And José pops up right away. ‘Oh yeah, we’re
all brothers.’ ”

“And he loved being the big brother,” Lisa shares. “He was always referring to Abel as ‘my little brother.’ With everybody. Even the younger guys that were starting, he’d say ‘Oh that’s my son.’ And people thought he had all these kids!” She chuckles at that. Though José retired from the club for a time, it was Lisa who encouraged him to rejoin a few years at the end of his life.

As the group returns to the present from this trip down memory lane, conversation steers toward the upcoming car show at History Park. It’s going to be in July, just in time for the club’s 45th anniversary and will reward a scholarship to a kid who wants to go into auto painting (in memory of José, of course).

Sergio sits back and watches his friends refill their plates with pizza. He gives a contented glance around at his patch of paradise, brightened with tools and trophies. “I’ll be in the club forever,” he declares. “You’ve seen my garage. I’m not going nowhere.” 

Article originally appeared in Issue 13.4 Profiles (Print SOLD OUT)