Low and Slow in the Heartland: Kansas City’s Lowrider Culture and History

By Taylor Bye

Lowriders. They scrape the ground, dripping chrome and candy paint, and capable of high-flying hydraulically assisted hops. In Kansas City you can see them on any given day. Headed down Southwest Boulevard on a random Tuesday? You might catch a glimpse of Lona & Sons’ latest build out for a shakedown cruise. Want to swing by Olathe North High School on a Wednesday afternoon? You can find some intrepid young men building a wicked custom bicycle. Out on a warm Friday night? Look for the Camacho brothers and the rest of the Kansas City Majestics out for a cruise. This is Kansas City’s lowrider culture, the subject of this essay.

The lowrider had revolutionary origins in Chicano culture that flourished in the southwest United States. Today however, it appears in rap music videos, blockbuster movies, television shows on the Discovery and History channels, and mega-buck car auctions like Barrett Jackson. Across the country and around the world, people from all walks of life build lowriders. Because lowriding is now so widely embraced, it seems fair to ask whether that growth has come at the cost of its political connotations. This essay cruises through thirty years of Kansas City’s lowrider culture in order to figure out what lowriding means today in Kansas City’s Latinx community. Ride along to learn about the history of lowriding in Kansas City. Who are today’s lowriders? What does lowriding mean to them? And what does the future of lowriding look like? Riding shotgun on this trip are Tino Camacho and Eric Erazo, two longtime local lowriders who were interviewed for the Kansas City Latinx Oral History Project. Camacho is president of the Kansas City chapter of the Majestics and owner of Street Rider Hydraulics, a lowrider shop in Independence, MO. Erazo is the head faculty advisor for Olathe North Hispanic Leadership Lowrider Bike Club, as well as director of the Olathe Public Schools migrant program.

What, or Who, is a Lowrider?

In this essay, the word lowrider will be used to refer to both a person and a vehicle, because you cannot have one without the other. For a person to be a lowrider, they must own or work on appropriately modified cars or bikes, which in turn requires substantial investments of money and time. They may or may not belong to a lowrider club. They may or may not be a mechanic. And they may or may not be of Latinx descent. For a car to be a lowrider, it must have several specific types of modifications, generally done either by the owner or by a shop specializing in lowriders. Defining a lowrider automobile is more difficult, and it is important to note that there is no consensus within the lowrider community. There are also no generic lowriders – they are personalized in every sense of the word. However, lowriders are generally American-made cars ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s. Some trucks, and even some import vehicles can be lowriders. Bicycles and motorcycles are also popular platforms for building a lowrider. Tino Camacho has been building lowriders for years, and explained to me two of the crucial features of a lowrider.

The hydraulic system Camacho referred to uses an intricate system of pumps to lift or lower the body of the car in relation to the frame. Another feature that many lowriders have is an ornate paint job. In the hands of a skilled painter, the options for color and effects are almost limitless. Images of people or other scenes are often incorporated as well. All of these design choices are deeply personal.


“The art of lowriding originated in northern California in the late 1930s and early 1940s,” as a Latinx counterpart to white-dominated hot rodding. 1

The development and adaptation of hydraulics was a key step towards the lowrider as we know it today. Early modifications to lower vehicles involved cutting the springs shorter, or adding weight to compress the suspension. However, vehicle height codes imposed for pedestrian and motorist safety reasons were the bane of lowriders. Hydraulics enabled them to raise the vehicle up.

That “low and slow” ideal was an offshoot of other aspects of Latinx culture in the Southwest. Scholars have demonstrated that lowriding was intimately connected with a phenomenon known as Pachuco culture. Pachucos or Pachuquismo emerged in USA Southwest and Los Angeles Basin in the years before and after World War 2 – at the same time as lowriding. The pachuco was typically a young, Mexica-American man whose persona was of “a type of beloved vagabond or Robin Hood.” 2 Pachucos were “characterized by highly distinctive” and flamboyant “modes of dress, behavior, and speech,” especially the distinctive zoot suit. 3 “Founded in 1979, Lowrider magazine carried images in the form of photos and ads drawing a close association between pachucas/os, zoot suiters, and lowriders.” 4 Another association was with Cholos/as. A Cholo or a Chola was a young Mexican-American “who resides in a low-income barrio in the large metropolitan areas of the Southwest.” 5 These early associations with flamboyant, young, urban, Mexican-American or Latinx men have remained central to the lowrider image.

Men have traditionally dominated Lowriding. “Women have played various, but generally secondary and even subservient roles in different aspects of lowrider culture.” 6 Lowrider magazine (like many car magazines) maintains a section titled “LR Girls” featuring scantily clad models posing with cars. 7 Lowrider clubs remain dominated by men, and some do not admit women members. However some women’s clubs do exist, such as the Lady Bugs based in Los Angeles. Another persistent trope is highly sexualized depictions of women in the paintjobs and murals that adorn lowrider cars. According to Charles Tatum, these gender relationships partly reflect gender relationships in Latinx culture in general.

Scholars have also interpreted lowriding as part of the Chicano movement, which centered around Mexican-American’s “who were rapidly redefining their place, role, and identity in Mexican, American, and Mexican-American social and cultural contexts.” 8 Cars were an important part of these efforts because the automobile in many ways defines twentieth and twenty-first century concepts of place and space in America. Jeremy Packer has studied the social system of car use, known as “automobility.” Crucially, automobility is not an egalitarian concept; “various automobile-related behaviors have been regarded and represented as dangerous to self and society,” and society has therefor tried to limit those behaviors. 9 According to Packer, the driving behavior of racial minorities in particular has long been closely circumscribed in America. Packer further explains that even though an automobile is a commodity, buying and modifying it can be an act of rebellion, and certain vehicle modifications are outlawed in the name of safety and civil order. In other words, race and vehicle modifications – two of the most distinctive attributes of lowriders – are two aspects of automobility that have long been subject to scrutiny and discrimination. However, for Chicanos, these attributes help them make a statement about their identity, and help them claim space in a figurative and a literal sense in American culture. The result is that lowriders have long been targets of police. Eric Erazo relates what he experienced as a young man growing up in Southern California.

However, Eric also suggested that race was not always the primary factor.

Do other lowriders believe that lowriding is an act of rebellion, with political and social symbolism? Furthermore, do those attributes explain lowriding’s persistence and growth? Recent scholarship says no. Ben Chappel argues that while “scholars have come up with interpretations that are plausible enough” they hold up “often in relation only to selected lowriders.” 10 Chappel is deeply skeptical of scholars who described “lowriding as an expression of a unitary, cohesive, a priori culture.” 11 Instead, Chappel argues that most lowriders believe lowriding is about them and their cars. They do not see a higher political or cultural purpose. Chappel argues that in the end lowriding is “more in an experimental and innovative mode than in one simply reproductive of [Chicano or pachuco] memory and tradition.” 12 Clearly politics, race, gender, and discrimination are all parts of the history of lowriding. But if you ask the lowriders, its about their relationships with the cars and each other.

Kansas City’s Lowriding History

On June 30, 1985, the Kansas City Star featured a picture of a metallic purple 1962 Ford Thunderbird built by a man named Jim Vargas. 13 Most Kansas Citians were probably unfamiliar with Vargas. They might have gotten a clue from the big, bold title: “Low Riders.” Kansas City had long been home to a thriving car culture, but the lowrider phenomenon went largely unnoticed prior to the mid-1980s. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s the Kansas City Star routinely covered various car shows and the work of local car customizers. Hot rods, muscle cars, and customs received most of the attention. Events included the National Speed and Custom Car Show, held at Municipal Auditorium starting in 1960, or the World of Wheels, which first opened its doors in 1970. However, in the archival clippings of the Star, none of the articles mention lowriders until the June 30, 1985 edition.

As the Star discovered in 1994, lowriders had been there all along. Early builders included Vargas, Blas Ledezema, and the Lona family. According to Charles Lona, “lowriding was a statement of Chicano pride…we felt it here in Kansas City in the 1950s.” 14 Vargas was “one of Kansas City’s original low riders” who built his first car in 1956, at age 16. 15 Vargas’ signature was intricate paintjobs, and the metallic purple ’62 T-Bird “won boxes of trophies” and “was one of the first cars in Kansas City to have hydraulics.” 16  The Lonas are a Kansas City lowrider dynasty. They started a lowrider shop in the 1980s, “when nobody was doing lowriders there…they created the market in the Midwest.” 17 In June 1995, Lowrider Magazine held a major lowrider competition in Kansas City for the first time. Leo Long’s 1994 Dodge Viper, built by the Lonas, won first place in the ‘90s Sports Car Class, and then repeated the feat at the national competition in Los Angeles later that year. 18 Then, in June of 1996, Lowrider Magazine made Kansas City one of fifteen stops on its 20th Anniversary Tour. The show drew over 300 cars to the American Royal on June 9, 1996. 19 These early builders and major car shows should be acknowledged as a major force for introducing lowriders to Kansas City.

Rap music, especially music videos, are the second major force responsible for popularizing the lowrider in the Midwest. Rap musicians adopted the lowrider as a common image during the 1990s and facilitated its spread. Eric Erazo grew up around the Lowrider scene in Southern California, where lowriding was first popularized. When he moved to Kansas City, he noticed that the influence of rap gave Kansas City’s lowrider scene a different flavor.

The dual developments of lowriding as a competitive business and its popularity with rap musicians took it far from its origins. As Charles Lona put it “[lowriding] is a sport…it ceased being a Mexican thing a long time ago.” 20

Another way lowriding grew in Kansas City was through car clubs. In 2003, Tino Camacho and his brother Fabian founded the Kansas City chapter of the Majestics, a national car club with chapters in all 50 states and overseas.

Still, the lowrider scene in Kansas City did not rival that in places like Denver or New Mexico. For local car clubs like the Majestics, this meant they typically had to travel to shows. Traveling requirements for new members illustrate how being a lowrider demanded dedication.

Despite rising popularity and visibility, the relationship between lowriders, the scene they were part of, and the Kansas City community was not always positive.

Lowriders’ connections to both Chicano culture and rap music have led to a popular association with gang membership. A well-worn trope is the lowrider purchased with drug money. In Kansas City, the Chicano Playaz lowrider club attempted to dispel the gang association of lowriders by bringing their cars to a show at Raymore-Peculiar Middle School in 1998. The club’s president said that while “the cars are a lot of fun” he preferred to “use ‘em [sic] as a tool to reach the kids.” 21 Eric Erazo asserts that the gang connection is misplaced.

One of the problems of untangling lowriders from gangs or other illegal or unsavory activity is that lowriders tend to draw a crowd.

In the end, entirely separating lowriding from gangs may be impossible.

Another controversial facet of lowrider (and car culture in general) is the practice of cruising – a recreational or social form of driving with no destination. Cruising is often done in groups, and often occurs in the same popular location. There have been a number of popular cruising spots frequented by Kansas City’s lowriders, hot rodders, bikers, and other groups over the years, including Prospect Avenue between 47th and 63rd Streets, Noland Road, and Southwest Boulevard. Eventually authorities shut down cruising on Noland Road, and for a long time after that there was nowhere to cruise in Kansas City.

Lowriders in Kansas City do not appear to have been policed as stringently as in other areas, like California, but they have been policed in similar ways. Shutting down cruising spots is one example. In my interviews with Erazo and Camacho, both were quick to deny that Kansas City police targeted lowriders. On the contrary, both suggested that the cops loved the cars too. Camacho acknowledged that when used irresponsibly, the modifications done to lowriders can create dangerous situations for other drivers. It is plausible that with such low numbers, lowriders in Kansas City have gone largely unnoticed. Certainly, racial profiling of Latinx drivers remains a problem.

According to Camacho, Kansas City police have also made it clear to local lowriders they are not welcome in some areas, such as around the Power and Light district.

Lowriding in Kansas City began as an expression of Chicano art and culture, but since the mid 1990s it has served a number of other purposes and been adopted by many other groups. It started out as not even a blip on the radar of the city’s car culture, save for a few determined builders. Growing interest has fuelled a rise in the number of lowrider-related events and probably a substantial rise in lowrider ownership, though conclusively determining that is impossible. Organizations like the Majestics and the Olathe Lowrider Bike Club have proven that lowriding in Kansas City is an evolving and diverse art form. The one constant has been people who are extraordinarily passionate about their cars and their community.


Lowriding in Kansas City Today

Car shows are a crucial part of lowriding today. Lowrider came to town for the 2017 World of Wheels show. These shows are big business for sponsors, media, and competitors. Some of these cars easily top $100,000 in value. World of Wheels is one of three related shows that tour the country annually. Cars compete for the Ridler award, generally regarded as one of the two most prestigious custom car awards in the country. 22 According to Lowrider “A major part of the show also happens to be ‘The Lowrider Nation’ showcase…Representing hard were clubs like Rollerz Only, Viejitos, Majestics, SouthSide, GoodTimes, Real Riders, Royals, and the Midwest Outlaws from Minnesota.” 23


While Tino, Fabian, and the rest of the Majestics still primarily travel to shows, now the shows come to them as well.

Beneath the glitz and glam of the shows, lowriding is about the relationships lowriders forge with each other with and through their cars. One of the Camacho-built cars featured in Lowrider is Fabian Camacho’s Lincoln Town Car dubbed “Most Hated.” 24

I asked Tino what car meant the most to him. His answer illustrated the close association between the work of building a car and the relationship with fellow lowriders.

In addition to the relationships with show-worthy cars and with fellow lowriders, another important aspect of lowriding today is the local community. Kansas City lowriders can be found every year at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Westport. They were also featured at the Latino Arts Festival in Kansas City, Kansas. This event highlighted how lowriders remain one of the most visible icons of Latinx heritage, one which has largely gone mainstream and been adopted – some might even say appropriated – by other groups and cultures. The chief question therefor, is whether the lowrider still retains the radical political connotations inherited from its pachuco and Chicano roots? The answer seems to be no.

The lowrider bike program at Olathe North High School offers a very different vision for the role of lowriding in the community. This program is a component of the Hispanic Leadership program. Students who join spend most of their time refurbishing bikes that are donated back to the community. However, every member also gets to build a lowrider bike at some point. Like the Majestics, there are criteria for membership: students must maintain good grades, and they are responsible for . In this case, the Olathe club has cultivated a very close relationship with the local community.

Other groups and cultures may have adopted the lowrider, but for the Latinx community in Kansas City, there remains a sense of ownership of lowriders, especially with regard to the benefits of lowriding. For Erazo, the Olathe lowrider bike club is lowriding that serves a special purpose for Kansas City’s young Latinx men.

Conclusion: Lowriders of the future

The future of lowriding is unclear. Auto enthusiasts of all stripes face increasing regulation on their abilities to modify their cars and cruise city streets. Some of this is done in the name of safety, some in the name of environmental protection. Battles are already being fought in Congress. The Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA, has been battleing the EPA since 2015 in an effort to block an EPA rule that would make certain modifications to street cars illegal. 25 There are other, more practical obstacles to the future of lowriding. The types of cars that make good platforms for lowriders are almost all long out of production. Clubs like the Majestics have specific criteria for what kinds of cars they permit. Will they change? Lowriders are also prohibitively expensive. Will the next generation be priced out of the hobby? Based on my interviews, these all seem like legitimate concerns that many lowriders may not have considered. However, Erazo and Camacho are both committed to mentoring the next generation of lowriders, both as car builders and as young men.

Lowriding has moved quite far from its Chicano roots. While lowriding remains a touchstone of Latinx heritage and identity, we should be cautious of thinking lowriders reproduce a fixed set of cultural or political ideas. Lowriding is much more dynamic than that. Today lowriding is about the relationship between a person, their car, fellow lowriders, and the rest of the community. Politics and race will always be there in the background, but anyone can become a lowrider, and there is something to be learned through the process of becoming a lowrider.

The people who are lowriders today come from all walks of life. They may or may not be of Latinx heritage. Latinx people clearly feel a sense of ownership of the lowrider. However what the lowriders I spoke with want you to know is that its not about Chicano politics or gangs or hooliganism. It may never have been about that. Today the lowrider is about dedication, freedom of self-expression through craftsmanship and art, and most of all about finding community. The cars may change (or not) but the skills and lessons learned along from lowriding are truly timeless. Erazo put it best when he told me “I think it’s a way to express yourself through something metal. To put your soul out there…when I’m building a car I’m trying to tell a story with that car, and I want to spend a long time explaining it to you.” So the next time you see a lowrider, don’t assume you know who they are or what they’re all about. Stop and ask. They’d love to tell you.




  1. Ruben G. Mendoza, “Cruising Art and Culture In Aztlan: Lowriding in the Mexican American Southwest,” in U.S. Latino Literature’s and Cultures: Transnational Perspectives, ed. Francisco A. Lomeli and Karin Ikas (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Verlag, 2000), 4.
  2. Mendoza, “Cruising Art and Culture,” 4.
  3. Mendoza, “Cruising Art and Culture,” 4-5.
  4. Charles M. Tatum, Lowriders in Chicano Culture: From Low to Slow to Show (Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011) 48-49.
  5. Tatum, Lowriders, 50.
  6. Tatum, Lowriders, 135.
  7. See http://www.lowrider.com/brand/lowrider-girls/  
  8. Mendoza, “Cruising Art and Culture, 4.
  9. Jeremy Packer, Mobility Without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008) 13.
  10. Ben Chappell, Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 17.
  11. Chappell, Lowrider Space, 17.
  12. Chappel, Lowrider Space, 17-18.
  13. Bill Norton, “Low Riders,” Kansas City Star, June 30, 1985, sec. Automobiles.
  14. Joseph Popper, “These Cars go crazy: Hydraulics put bounce in lowriders” Kansas City Star, March 19, 1994.
  15. Joseph Popper, “These Cars go crazy: Hydraulics put bounce in lowriders” Kansas City Star, March 19, 1994.
  16. Joseph Popper, “These Cars go crazy: Hydraulics put bounce in lowriders” Kansas City Star, March 19, 1994.
  17. James A. Fussell, “The low down: How Low can you go? Low Profile” Kansas City Star, September 24, 2006.
  18. Melissa Bedford, “Lowriders riding high at KC meet: Customized vehicles becoming popular with diverse groups in U.S.” Kansas City Star, June 8, 1996
  19. Randolph Heaster, “Lowriders face off in jumping, thumping contest” Kansas City Star June 10, 1996.
  20. Melissa Bedford, “Lowriders riding high at KC meet: Customized vehicles becoming popular with diverse groups in U.S.” Kansas City Star, June 8, 1996
  21. Robert Carroll “Getting the lowdown: Lowrider demonstration gives look at unusual vehicles” Kansas City Star February 26, 1998.
  22. David Freiburger, “Detroit Autorama – 50th Autorama,” Hot Rod, February 2006.
  23. Joe Ray, “2017 Kansas City World of Wheels,” Lowrider, March 17, 2017, http://www.lowrider.com/events/2017-kansas-city-world-of-wheels/.
  24. Edgar Hoill, “1998 Lincoln Town Car – Most Hated – Feature – Lowrider Magazine,” Lowrider, July 1, 2007, http://www.lowrider.com/rides/cars/0707-lrmp-most-hated-98-lincoln-town-car/.
  25. Zach Martin, “Saving Motorsports: RPM Act Update!,” Hot Rod Network, November 17, 2017, http://www.hotrod.com/articles/saving-motorsports-rpm-act-update/.