Every car worth showing off has a story.
Consider Mike Molina's powder blue 1972 E-100 Econoline Ford van, which he inherited after his father died during the early months of the pandemic. The in-process remodel looks a bit out of sorts, not quite as polished as the other lowriders and vintage cars drifting by on Van Nuys Boulevard in Los Angeles on a recent Saturday night. But it emotes a certain character, in the way a well-loved car often does.
"It's a rare find, because it's a shorty box, no windows." Molina said of his father's van. "In his memory, I'm keeping it. It runs perfect."
Molina is one of dozens of car lovers drawn to a monthly cruise night of lowrider and custom vehicles. Onlookers post up on the sidewalk, sometimes with folding chairs and coolers. The sounds of funk, freestyle and R&B oldies ooze loudly from passing cars. Sometimes people get up and boogie.
"It's culture, and it's history, because my dad used to cruise Van Nuys Boulevard in this van," said Molina, 52, who also blasts music for the cruisers.
The custom of leisurely drives on urban boulevards in dropped and dolled-up vehicles never went away completely, but cruising is reaching heights not seen since the heydays of the 1980s and '90s, say car owners, law enforcement officials, neighbors and car aficionados.
The cruising phenomenon has ratcheted up even further in the past year. Call it a function of collective boredom during months of stay-at-home orders. Social-distancing guidelines made vehicle caravans the new normal for birthdays, protests, graduations and funerals.
Lona and Ed Aguirre drove to the cruise night in her "baby" — a tangerine and pearl white 1951 "Shoebox" Ford sedan, with suicide doors and a creamy leather interior.
"It's a full custom. Everything's been touched," Ed said of his wife's car.
She also can drop her vehicle. "It's a hidden button," she said. "We have six grown children, so I needed a toy."
She watched as several vehicles on the boulevard made their front wheels jump off the ground, using custom hydraulic compressors activated by a switch. People on the sidewalk cheered and took videos or photos to share on social media.
"It's all about fun," said Lona, 56, "the love of the cars, the love of the culture."
A global phenomenon
But there are other shifts. The iconography of vintage lowrider cars is embedded all over popular culture, from films to music videos, video games, museums, marketing and even the digital NFT art world. Lowrider adherents flourish in Japan, Brazil and Europe.
"Pretty much everything in lowriding has flipped around," said filmmaker Estevan Oriol, a leading lowrider documentarian. "The past five to 10 years, there's been a resurgence."
Arman Utudzhyan, 49, standing on the sidewalk, remembered similar events from when he was a teenager. A member of a Los Angeles car club, he shows off his 1960 Chevrolet Impala lowrider, painted verde chiaro, an earthy and inviting green, with the sheen of a trophy. Admirers seem magnetically drawn to it when it is parked.
These days, Utudzhyan is trying to get younger motorists interested in the craft of maintaining a vintage vehicle, so he's building a new lowrider with a nephew.
"He's 16. I got a Cadillac for him. Keeps him busy, gets him out of trouble," he said.
While some people argue that lowriding is making a comeback, others point out that it's always been around.
Juan Ramirez, an organizer with the Los Angeles Lowrider Community coalition, said that the fresh popularity of lowriding is drawing people to the cruises even if they have no car to show off.
"A lot of people are starting to adapt to this culture," Ramirez said. "It's crazy now."
The cruise night revival started around 2009. The gathering fell off again a few years later, then picked up steam once more with the help of Martin Jimenez, 35, a dedicated organizer via Facebook and the son of an old-school cruiser.
"It's been packed the last two years," Jimenez said from the sidewalk, where he monitored the cruise with co-organizers.
With attendance building last year, cruisers and onlookers started spilling over into an adjacent residential neighborhood, clogging narrow side streets and gathering at supermarket parking lots. When the locals complained, the Los Angeles City Council worked with organizers to move the event to a commercial stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard where they can loop at will between 5 and 10 p.m. every third Saturday of the month.
Complaints dropped. And cruise night was saved.