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Cruisin’ low, bouncin’ high: RC model lowriders taking over Southern California


By Victoria Johnson,

Contributing writer

They dance, they hop, they bounce.

Their axles contort mechanically, allowing them to pop up and cruise along on three wheels — or even just two. Music blasts from their speakers as they roll along, preening, showing off custom paint jobs with intricate, radiant designs.

These are lowriders all right – just at one-tenth scale.

At long last, the worlds of lowriders and radio-controlled cars have come together. And lowrider and RC enthusiasts alike couldn’t be happier.

“These are long overdue,” Dee Knight, 44, said as he fiddled with the remote controls of his tiny, black 1979 Monte Carlo, customized to look like the one in the film “Training Day.” Knight owns the hobby shop, RC’s Your Price in South Central Los Angeles.

Knight’s friend, Gabriel Luevanos, 41, echoed that sentiment as he drove around his own RC 1964 Impala, coated in a sparkling silver, created with the same paint used on actual cars.

“I wish I had these when I was growing up, man,” Luevanos said.

Both men grew up around full-size lowriders and continue building them, but they have also found that the smaller versions are a natural homage to the real thing. The RCs, they said, seem to have driven into a special spot in the hearts of those in the lowrider community.

“They love these things,” Luevanos said. “They get a lot of attention. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I used to have (a full-size) one just like it.’”

Dozens of these pint-size lowriders will be on full display Sunday, May 15, at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. The event is part of a larger exhibit at the fair celebrating all things lowrider: cars, bicycles, mural artists and, of course, these latest additions to the family: radio-controlled lowriders.

“Low and Slow”

Lowriders have been an important part of Los Angeles Chicano culture since they first started cruising the streets, sometime in the 1940s, according to historians. Mexican Americans across the Southwest had begun cutting coils and lowering blocks to create a sleek, dropped look that fit right in with the zoot suit aesthetic of the era. Car culture continued growing in sprawling Southern California, particularly among World War II veterans who used the mechanical skills they gained in the global conflict — along with pocketbooks fattened by the booming post-war economy — to customize their cars.

While some automobile enthusiasts worked to make cars faster, it was that ethos of “Low and Slow” or “Bajito y Suavecito” that took hold in Chicano communities. It wasn’t until 1958, however, that what we now think of as a lowrider was born. That was when California law made it illegal to operate a vehicle with any part lower than the bottom of the rims. Customizers then began installing hydraulics from war planes to their lowrider car frames, allowing them to lift up to legal heights whenever police were around.

From 1:1 to 1:10 scale

Just as the full-size lowriders have captured the imaginations of generations of car lovers in California and beyond, model lowriders have found just as much appreciation among those who prefer things in miniature.

For decades, model carmakers have endeavored to bring the Impalas, Monte Carlos and Caprices down to scale, and it didn’t take long for them to add motors and remote-controlled steering. But the holy grail was always figuring out how to do that thing — that beautiful thing — that lowriders do:


Bringing that effect to model cars, though, was no small trick.

Early successes involved the motors from cassette players and fishing line, but these rigs were short-lived. They had a fatal flaw. The fishing line would eventually snap.

At the same time, RC technology was making great strides, but more so in the area of speed and off-roading. That mired RC lowriders in a niche world of die-hard hobbyists willing to take apart their diminutive vehicles and rig them up using static, lowrider model kits and whatever other parts they could get their hands on.

It was one such die-hard that would finally bring the RC lowrider to the waiting masses.

From SoCal to Amsterdam and back

It was the early 1990s and Jeroen “Jevries” de Vries was a young skateboarder when, one day, he came upon Lowrider magazine. He became hooked — on lowrider bicycles.

“All of the sudden I saw these lowrider bicycles, and I was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “Netherlands being a big bike culture, I started building lowrider bicycles in ’91 or ’92.”

Not long after that came Lowrider Bicycle magazine and an article about model lowrider cars.

“I was like, ‘Dude, this is so cool’” de Vries said. “Everything came together at that point, and I never quit.”

De Vries set to work putting static model bodies on RC car chassis and using those cassette motors and fishing line to pull and make the car hop. He spent the next two decades perfecting the effect and making it look ever more realistic.

His efforts garnered him plenty of attention in Southern California, including LA exhibitions in 2006 at the Ben Maltz Gallery at the Otis College of Art and Design and again in 2018 at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

He was also amassing a loyal following on social media, where he caught the attention of Redcat Racing, an RC company out of Phoenix.

“He was building models that were truly works of art,” said Redcat executive F.C. Brigham. “They were one-offs, but when we saw what he was doing, we thought maybe we could bring him on as a consultant.”

So de Vries and a team of engineers got to work to make the first mass-produced RC lowrider.

The fishing wire had to go. RC lowriders for mass consumption needed to hop thousands of times instead of the 30 or so hops older models got with fishing line. So Redcat got with Reef’s RC, a maker of special motors for RC products, to design a way for a 20-inch long Impala body hop as proportionally high as the big ones.

By 2019, Redcat was ready. But as the company prepared to release a 1964 Chevrolet Impala model, its executives had no idea what to expect in terms of sales.

“If you would’ve been a fly on the wall when we were talking about how many to produce,” Brigham said, “we were talking anywhere from 500 to 50,000 because we just didn’t know how they were going to be received.”

The company, he said, ultimately landed “somewhere in between” those two numbers – Brigham declined to give precise sales numbers, not wanting to tip off competitors – and presales were sold out before the shipping containers had even arrived.

“That happened with the first few shipments,” Brigham said.

The lowriders proved so popular that they transformed Redcat’s business to the point that executives had to change the company’s “fast-affordable-fun” tagline to account for the slower lowrider models.

Patrick Peralta's custom radio-controlled 1964 Chevrolet Impala is displayed on the counter of the hobby shop where he works, RC Street Shop in Long Beach. (Photo by Victoria Johnson, Contributing Photographer)
Patrick Peralta’s custom radio-controlled 1964 Chevrolet Impala is displayed on the counter of the hobby shop where he works, RC Street Shop in Long Beach. (Photo by Victoria Johnson, Contributing Photographer)

The new tagline: “Scale fun for everyone.”

Redcat released its second model, a 1979 Monte Carlo, earlier this year.

The company also has three new lowrider models in the works, with one, and maybe two, rolling out later this year.

“We can’t keep them in stock,” said Patrick Peralta, 31, a sales associate at RC Street Shop in Long Beach. “Chicano culture is big here, so I think it has the potential to grow.”

Peralta created his own 1964 Impala, with a red paint job and after-market gold side trims and wheel rims. A tiny sticker that reads “(Expletive) Cancer” adorns the rear windshield in honor of his mother, who died of lung cancer in 2011.

Same thrill, smaller scale

Martin Lara, 36, of South Gate, has also seen the hobby’s popularity explode.

Lara grew up around lowriders and continues building the full-size ones, but now also customizes the RC versions as part of his Delegation Car Club. He’s quickly becoming overwhelmed with requests for help customize RC lowriders, Lara said.

Lara helped organize the LA Fair event and said expects the hobby to grow even faster as more people are exposed to the RC models.

“Every show that we’ve been to, it grows maybe by double,” Lara said. “A lot of people are still not aware they can buy them. It seems like the exposure just keeps growing.”

Lara created his RC 1964 Impala with a custom tangerine paint job to match the full-size one his dad owned in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He even re-created graphics on the roof from memory and old photographs. It was a natural move, Lara said, from working on full-size lowriders to RC models.

“It’s just something that I grew up with,” he said, “and I decided to incorporate it with the RCs as well.”

South Gate resident Roberto Sanchez, 42, has never built full-size lowriders — but fell in love with the RC versions.

A radio-controlled 1964 Chevy Impala custom painted to look like South Gate resident Martin Lara's father's full-size lowrider. (Photo courtesy of Martin Lara.)
A radio-controlled 1964 Chevy Impala custom painted to look like South Gate resident Martin Lara’s father’s full-size lowrider. (Photo courtesy of Martin Lara.)

In the vein of building so-called “aspirational” models, Sanchez said, he loves how much less money he spends on customizing his RC Monte Carlo than his relatives spend on their full-size ones.

“They’re spending tens of thousands of dollars to get their cars fixed, and on top of that, these take time,” Sanchez said. “My brother-in-law just dropped off a 1964 Impala and it’s going to take two years (to restore it and add hydraulics).

“You can get one of these RCs and work on it,” he added, “and you can get it ready to go in about a month or so.”

Though Redcat’s lowriders are ready to drive right out of the box, Sanchez said, virtually everyone customizes them somehow – changing out motors, customizing rims and paint jobs, or all of the above. Hobbyists also still use static model kits from other companies to swap bodies onto the lowrider chassis.

An entire cottage industry has even cropped up around the hobby, with people producing and selling their own accessories – de Vries has his own line – including miniature televisions that actually play clips and tiny, tree-shaped air fresheners in various colors.

The Monte Carlo also doesn’t hop right out of the box, so hobbyists almost always modify it to bounce like the Impala.

“As soon as I got my Monte Carlo, I started to customize it,” Sanchez said. “It’s competitive in the same way the full-size lowriders are, so people really want to stand out.”

Sanchez admitted that he’s put a fair bit of cash into the RC hobby. His wife and three children have also taken to it, resulting in the family collecting some 20 RC vehicles over the last year.

But, Sanchez said, when taken by themselves, there’s no comparison between the costs of the big and little cars.

“You’re spending maybe a thousand, or a few hundred dollars,” he said, “as opposed to $10,000.”

Knowing that hobbyists want to get the most interesting custom lowrider they can, Knight said, the RC models undergo myriad customizations before he displays them in his shop. There, you can find models with custom interiors, featuring custom seat covers, custom miniature soda cups and custom fuzzy steering wheel covers.

The exteriors boast kaleidoscopic paint jobs and graphics; silver and gold side trims, with intricate, swirling designs; and exhaust pipes that actually smoke. Even undercarriages get the custom treatment with RC lowriders.

“A lot of people can’t afford to spend $15,000 or $16,000 in a few years to fix a real car up, so they’d do something like this for even more of a thrill with less problems,” Knight said, noting that RC lowriders also bring less drama than the full-size ones. “Real lowriding is illegal. We just get away with it often.”

Fewer problems, lower cost.

Same dance, same hop, same bounce.

Just smaller.

Welcome to the burgeoning world of RC lowriders.

If you go

What: RC lowrider exhibit

When: 11 a.m. Sunday May 15; competitions begin at 1:30 p.m., followed by an award ceremony at 5 p.m. and a cruise at 6 p.m.

Where: LA County Fair in Pomona, near the hot rod museum as part of the larger lowrider exhibit, “The Culture of the Low and the Slow.”

Cost: Price of fair admission

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