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Lowriders

For Richmond collectors, miniature lowriders offer chance to own ‘dream come true on wheels’

on December 8, 2022

The parking lot of Richmond’s Veterans Memorial Hall is filled with the growling of engines as rows of hulking lowriders set up for an upcoming show. Just beyond the crisp chrome clad lines of a blue Chevy Impala, Daniel Vargas and Cruz Arroyo gently unpack tiny versions those classic cars they love but never could quite afford.

From afar, Vargas and Arroyo’s remote-control miniature models may seem overshadowed by their larger counterparts. But at one-tenth scale, these lowrider replicas are not simple mimicry of the “real thing.” Rather, they represent artistry in of themselves. With interchangeable chrome parts, specialty 3D printed details, and intricately patterned paint jobs, the miniatures reflect the personalities of the artists. 

With its origins in the Chicano counterculture of the 1950s, lowriders began as a rejection of the post war hot rod obsession in many white communities; a car movement that championed speed over all else. Lowriders, on the other hand, emphasized eye-catching stylized cars with small rims sitting low to the ground that could cruise “low and slow.”

As the culture developed, so did the cars, which now sport intricate paint jobs, hydraulics allowing them to hop and drive at odd angles, along with bespoke interiors. Cars often pass down through families, with each one sometimes taking years to build.

“I’ve always loved them, but I would say that I was never able to afford it,” Vargas said. “I would just be with magazines and all that. I never could actually own an actual car.”

Lowriders
Daniel Vargas connects a new battery in his model 1964 Chevy Impala. (Sasha Schell)

Indeed, lowriding is a hobby that not only requires time, but also significant monetary investment. Often award-winning vehicles are built with upwards of $100,000 in specialized parts and additions. For many, this investment happens over the span of years, as new parts are added when finances and free time allows. Even so, owning one is generally reserved for those with the money, the mechanical knowhow, and the space to keep a car-sized work of art.

That creates a high bar for entry. Not so for the miniatures, where base prices for new models remain in the hundreds of dollars. When Vargas brings his remote-control cars off the display table and drives them around, activating the simulated hydraulics and hopping his small ’64 Impala mere inches off the ground, a crowd of smiling faces inevitably forms around him, as it did in October when he set up the display at Veterans Memorial Hall.

It may appear odd, even goofy to see grown men giddy over such small versions of the heavy rumbling classic cars usually associated with lowriders, but models and scale miniatures have been a part of the culture since the early days. Armando Flores, the godfather of model lowrider building and member of the legendary Lifestyle Car Club, recounts how as early as 1975, while in junior high, he ripped the motor out of a Tyco slot car and used it to power the hopping of a lowrider toy he owned.

Eventually becoming an engineer and working in aerospace, Flores took to machining his own parts, and adding ever more complex motor systems to make award-winning replica lowriders in the early 1990s. But these one-of-a-kind hand-built models, much like the steel chassied classics on which they were based, required technical knowledge to build and operate.

Vargas, who didn’t have that engineering background, recalls how satisfactory models were nearly impossible to find. As a kid, he’d buy flimsy cars controlled with a wired remote at flea markets for no more than $10. Their only virtue was their ability to hop like a real lowrider. A far cry from Flores’ custom creations.

Lowriders
Cruz Arroyo (left) and Daniel Vargas drive their remote-control lowriders in Arroyo’s backyard in Richmond. (Sasha Schell)

That has changed, however, thanks to Jeroen “Jevries” de Vries, a Dutch disciple of Chicano culture who has long been a staple at model lowrider shows and competitions. An avid model car builder and lover of lowrider aesthetics, de Vries made a name for himself in model lowrider circles with impressive miniatures that were among the earliest to incorporate a wireless remote control. Flores, who befriended de Vries’ at a model car show in the early 2000s, calls the moment he saw a remote control Impala a game-changer.

“That blew my mind. That’s on another level,” he said.

It looked sleek, as de Vries’ car didn’t have cables coming out the back like other powered models. This one was free to drive around. The only thing separating it from the real deal was its size and its lack of an internal combustion engine. After over a decade of wowing car show-goers with his creations, in 2019, de Vries launched a line of one-tenth scale lowriders with Arizona-based radio-controlled car company Redcat Racing. This release has made him something of a celebrity among those collecting model lowriders.

“I’ve showed my appreciation to him in emails,” Vargas said. “I shout him out every time I post something because I’m very thankful that him and Redcat came through with this dream-come-true on wheels.”

This “dream-come-true” lies in the fact that these models are both financially and technically approachable. They sit on a middle ground between the built-from-the- ground up miniatures that Flores makes and the cheap toys Vargas used to buy at the flea market. The cars come built, ready to drive, but offer myriad options for owners to make them expressions of who they are.

The shells can be purchased without any color, allowing hobbyists to paint them. A good friend of Vargas and Arroyo even had one of his own painted at a body shop. Arroyo’s pride is a car he’s named “Family First.” It features specially made photo decals of his whole family, including a sister who died in 2003.

Beyond the paint job, there are 3D printed grills and trim to be added, new wheels and rims to swap out, and even tiny magazines to drop on the dashboard. The car’s innards are also a world in of themselves, with faster servo motors for speed, extra weight in the rear for higher hops, and larger batteries to support multi-colored headlights. Most importantly, the remote control allows the cars to cruise around low and slow. Just like a real lowrider does.

Lowriders
Mario Madrid’s model 1979 Chevy Monte Carlo that was painted at a body shop (Sasha Schell)

What de Vries and his Arizona collaborators have tapped into is not simply the enthusiasm of a bunch of hobbyists, but a longing among many lowrider lovers for a foot in the door to an otherwise expensive cultural pastime. It is a way for those who grew up admiring lowriders to realize a childhood dream without the intimidating cost.

Vargas and Arroyo show their cars with a childlike exuberance combined with the seriousness of a museum curator, placing them atop mirrors to show custom-chrome underbellies, or turning them lazily on rotating displays.

That it took someone from the Netherlands to bring the American classics closer to the people whose culture created them, is odd even to de Vries. He admits that despite his success, he still feels like an outsider looking in because he is not Chicano, and he lives in Europe.

Flores, who has acted as something of a guide for de Vries these last decades, stresses that in the lowrider community, inauthentic deviations from the culture’s norms are not easily forgiven and certainly not forgotten. For de Vries, this amounts to a degree of pressure to ensure that his creations measure up to their cultural heritage.

“There are people out there that live their whole life being a lowrider,” de Vries said. “I mean, you can’t come up with crap with this. Be authentic. This is very important to me.”

Through the hobby, Vargas and Arroyo have become like family. Along with a third friend, Mario Madrid, the three men from Richmond help each other out with builds and sometimes bicker like siblings about what new components should be added to any one model.

They each differ distinctly in their approach to their cars. Arroyo prefers a flashy look with lots of decals and colorful exteriors. Vargas enjoys a cleaner style with limited decals and plenty of chrome. Madrid is the mechanic of the group. His cars feature faster motors and powerful batteries that allow them to hop and dance in intricate ways.

Vargas says that beyond the cost, the thing that kept him away from lowriders for so long was the lack of a mentor, someone to bring him in and show him the ropes. Now he’s the one playing that role for anyone who wants in on the lowrider miniatures. And he need not go far for recruits. He is helping his brother-in-law, who just became the proud owner of a blue Redcat brand Impala.

This is what lowriding is ultimately about, Flores said. Beyond the competitions and tinkering, it’s about creating something beautiful to keep the culture alive.

The three friends go to as many events as they can, roughly two per month. If someone can’t go, the others go alone. But once the display is out, no one is ever really alone. A crowd always forms to watch the miniatures cruise.

Lowriders
Daniel Vargas (left) and Mario Madrid test their remote-control lowriders. (Sasha Schell)

2 Comments

  1. Catalin on December 10, 2022 at 8:24 am

    I love this! I spend a lot of time thinking about climate chaos and how we need to change away from our general car culture, and then I look around at my neighbors who so deeply love their trucks, and I wonder how they could give that up. I see the miniature car movement as a way for people to hold onto that culture, with less pollution, less resource consumption, less space needed, less danger. The joy that small things brings is deeply ingrained and seemingly nearly universal.

    Maybe the model train museum down by Miller-Knox needs a new wing devoted to miniature sideshows!

  2. Cathlyn White Guerra on December 12, 2022 at 8:22 pm

    As a teen in the fifties, in Southern California, I was was always excited when new car models came out each year, but I was only vaguely aware of the guys “cruising” the streets in their low-riding cars, bookworm that I was!

    When I connected with my (now passed away) husband at our 45th HS reunion, he was saddened to realize I hadn’t been aware of his dark green chevy with the word, “Sleepwalk” professionally painted in elegant cursive above the rear tire, and tuck and roll upholstery he had gotten done in Mexico. Hadn’t I noticed him slowly driving through town? I wish I had! He was a wonderful husband and I miss him still!

    My thanks for this fascinating article on the Richmond low-rider model builders, Cruz Arroyo, Daniel Vargas and the others who were mentioned! Amazing work!

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