Inside the Custom Cars and Family Drama of South Florida's Lowrider Clubs

This Friday, the film Lowriders will debut on the big screen across the nation. Starring Gabriel Chavarria, best known for his leading role in East Los High; Theo Rossi of the Netflix series Luke Cage; and Desperate Housewives alum Eva Longoria, the film follows a young street artist surrounded by lowrider car culture, in which pros and amateurs alike customize their rides via hydraulic systems, dazzling designs, and other accoutrements.

The movie currently has a rating of 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But its harshest critics won’t be some nerdy New York liberals lounging in a cushy theater; they’ll be the men and women who live the life depicted on the screen.

Lowriders takes place in Los Angeles, the birthplace of the lowrider and a car culture that dates back to the 1950s. But there will be plenty of South Florida viewers with a keen interest in the film. In fact, a large contingent of lowrider owners from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties will swarm the Swap Shop in Fort Lauderdale this weekend to, aptly enough, watch the movie from the comfort of their tricked-out cars at the drive-in.

South Florida's lowrider culture is as diverse as the customizations its members add to their rides. There are, of course, lowriders, which have smaller wheels and became popular when owners began adding hydraulics to make them bounce up and down like sparkling amusement park rides. Then there are donks, or passenger cars fitted with 22-inch wheels or larger. The cars are lifted to accommodate such massive tires, which most often make their way onto Cadillacs, Caprices, Impalas, and Continentals. Models from the '70s are the most coveted. It’s a style that is a truly South Florida invention. Custom trucks, hot rods, import cars, and motorcycles have also become part of the lowrider scene; their popularity in the region actually dwarfs that of lowrider cars themselves.

Inside the Custom Cars and Family Drama of South Florida's Lowrider Clubs
Amadeus McCaskill

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According to Alvaro Torres, a Miami native and a nearly 30-year veteran of the lowrider game, the culture first crossed the country to Florida in the late '80s and early '90s on a wave of music videos by West Coast rappers. That's when Torres fell in love with this world. He always had an interest in automobiles, starting when he was a kid building model cars. That passion followed him into adulthood. It's the reason he has spent more than a decade at Red’s Miami, one of the nation's premier customization shops. It's what earned him his position as the patriarch of the Torres Family car club. It's why rappers such as Rick Ross, T-Pain, and Snoop Dogg have used Torres' cars in their videos.

Torres' most famous car is his 1975 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, or "Great White '75," as he calls it. It has appeared in magazines and scores of videos by artists such as Shaggy, Pitbull, Ludacris, Fat Joe, Olly Murs, and Flo Rida. It also had a starring role in the fourth installment of the Step Up movies.

But the Great White is hardly his only contribution. Torres has worked on dozens of vehicles and built cars for himself, his son, his wife, and his cousins. Call it a bug that bit him or a genetic predisposition toward cars. Whatever it is, it isn’t merely a hobby.

“It’s a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle because it does take time away from your family. It takes time away from your kids and whatnot. Luckily, my own kid is old enough where he has his own car and helps me out and does his own thing.”

Inside the Custom Cars and Family Drama of South Florida's Lowrider Clubs
Amadeus McCaskill

Torres is sitting in an upstairs room of a shop where he freelances, Lextech, owned by Mike Vazquez. He's surrounded by Pioneer speakers, a Scarface poster, a Dub Show Tour award, and an Autocon Finest Vinyl Wrap award. Downstairs, a reggaeton group is inquiring about using some of the shop's cars in promo material. Music is blaring. Someone down the street is burning out his tires.

This might be a stereotypical lowrider setting, but Torres isn’t a stereotypical lowrider owner — or at least he isn’t what most people outside of the culture might imagine he would look like. He doesn’t have tattoos or golds or resemble a "gangsta" in any way. He’s just a dude. He’s laid-back and friendly. He could be the dad next door. In fact, to his neighbors, he is the dad next door. Dads, it turns out, are pretty common in the South Florida car scene.

Last month, Lowrider magazine hosted its second car show in Miami in about ten years. The two-day event at the Fair Expo Center lured car clubs from across the state, including Low Lyfe and Majestic, two of the largest, as well as clubs from as far as aAustin, Texas. The show featured a barber battle and live tattooing; a car hop, or hydraulic car competition; and two gigantic showrooms filled with hundreds of the most elaborately customized vehicles the human mind can imagine.

Wandering through it all were dozens of families. Mother and fathers and children, so many children, crowded every available space, eating and drinking and laughing together. They admired and ogled the paint jobs and the deafening, chest-rattling sound systems. They took photos of the classic Bel Airs and the glittering tricycles.

The following weekend, Local Minis, a car club started in Fort Lauderdale in 1990 with roots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, held its annual picnic at Okeeheelee Park in West Palm Beach. It was an all-day party with barbecue and beer and shit-talking – hours and hours of shit-talking.

Kids were among the biggest fans at the Lowrider event.
Kids were among the biggest fans at the Lowrider event.
Amadeus McCaskill

The conversation at the events made one thing clear: There is blood family, and there is car-club family. Both are important, both will be there for you, but both will also tear your ass apart for any perceived mistakes. For one member of Local Minis who had just sold his donk for $40,000, an Impala that took him 13 years to perfect, there was no getting off the hook. He was roasted by everyone, including his adolescent daughter, who was furious because she was looking to inherit that car.

Torres is very clear: This lifestyle is not possible without the family's support. "I try to explain to people: You gotta have a balance, but if at the same time your family doesn’t support you, then you're gonna have issues."

Unfortunately, not everyone is so blessed. Sometimes a choice must be made. "I've known guys who have girlfriends or wives who say, 'It's either me or the car.' A lot of times they give up themselves, their happiness, to please their wives, which is fine if that’s what you want to do. But if you're as lucky as I am, your wife supports you and never has you make that choice."


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