When Luke Tracer fired up the engine of his blue-and-white '64 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport, it boomed to life in a cloud of smoke. With a jolt, the car's back end raised up high and then lowered until it was mere inches off the ground, bringing smiles to everyone standing nearby.
As vice president of the South End Ryderz car club, Tracer is part of a tight-knit group of locals who live and breathe lowriders -- cars with shortened suspensions that ride close to the ground.
Members spend years and thousands of dollars converting old luxury behemoths into flashy cruising machines that tour Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Rainier Avenue and First Avenue most summer weekends.
Lowering a ride
- Creating a show-quality lowrider is no small effort, says Franklin Wisniewski, owner of Franklin's VW Werks in Kent, who lowers everything from old GMs to Volkswagen buses.
- It can take more than 100 hours of work and $5,000-$10,000 to lower a typical Impala and add a hydraulic system.
- Wisniewski recommends building a lowrider around the wheels. "You start with the rims," he says. "If you don't have the rims, you don't have the car."
- From there, you'll need to determine the suspension, put in shorter springs, install drop spindles and reshape the car's body by cutting away parts of the inner fender wall so the wheels can turn.
- In Seattle, a car can be lowered to three inches off the ground. As a rule of thumb, if you deflate the tires and the frame touches the ground before the air is out, the car is too low.
"Everyone in the club, it's pretty much our lives. That, and our families," Tracer says.
Tracer spent six years restoring his car, adding 24-inch wheels, a custom paint job and an airbag system that allows his car to rise and drop with the flip of a switch.
Most owners say they have been fascinated by the lowrider style since they were children, spending hours studying photos in magazines.
South End Ryderz co-founder Vern Reeder was one of those kids.
"I even lowered my toys," he laughs.
Part of the lowrider draw is the unlimited number of ways a car can be modified -- altering the size of the rims, choosing chrome accessories or installing outrageous additions, such as hydraulic systems that allow a car to ride on three wheels or bounce into the air.
Once members of the South End Ryderz have shown dedication to the club, they are allowed to mount its chrome plaque in their back window -- becoming part of a new family, says club co-founder Ray Delgato.
While lowrider culture got its start in California, it now permeates the Northwest. Seattle is home to at least 13 active clubs, each with a strong sense of dedication and community.
Like their California counterparts, Seattle lowrider builders favor chrome-laden General Motors cars from the late 1950s to late 1970s, especially Oldsmobile Cutlass convertibles, Cadillacs and Chevy Impalas.
"Those are the best years; the characteristics are beautiful," Tracer says.
"Craftsmanship and love were put into those cars when they were built. They are versatile and you can put a range of engines into them, and new parts are also compatible."
Reeder says that since the early 2000s, the hobby has become a family affair and the local lowrider clubs have been on good terms with one another.
"Respect goes out to the blood, sweat and tears that go into fixing a car," he says.