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Shifting readership ends Lowrider magazine, as much about Chicano identity as about cars

Dorany Pineda
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — Jerry Navarro wanted a car when he was a kid. What he really, really wanted was a lowrider: a white, 1958 hardtop Chevrolet Impala with a red interior.

So he started reading Lowrider magazine around 1985 in his hometown of East Los Angeles to indulge his fantasies of car ownership. Later, when he began working in the auto industry, the magazine became a rich and vital source of information about the car world.

For decades, Lowrider magazine was as much a statement about Chicano identity as it was about the long, ground-hugging vintage cars.

“You wanted to see what was the hottest car, who was selling what, what tires were the best, and who was doing good interior. … Back then there weren’t (smart)phones so you had to get information from magazines,” said the 45-year-old technician from Chuy’s Auto Electric Shop in East L.A.

Those days will soon be over, though. Lowrider, an icon of Chicano culture for more than 40 years that offered a mix of cultural and political content alongside photographs of unique vintage cars, will cease to print.

The magazine is one of 19 titles that TEN: The Enthusiast Network will shutter by year’s end.

“Simply put, we need to be where our audience is,” wrote MotorTrend Group President and General Manager Alex Wellen in a memo obtained by Folio. “Tens of millions of fans visit MotorTrend’s digital properties every month, with the vast majority of our consumption on mobile, and three out of every four of our visitors favoring digital content over print.”

For decades, Lowrider played a critical role in forming the culture and image of lowriding, its lifestyle and aesthetics. Particularly popular among Mexican Americans, the magazine was as much a statement about Chicano identity as it was about the long, ground-hugging vintage cars.

Lowrider was first published in 1977, founded by San Jose State students Larry Gonzalez, David Nunez and Sonny Madrid (Nunez died in 2011, Madrid in 2015). With a shared mission to feature the Chicano lowrider community, the trio pitched in a few thousand dollars each to get the magazine off the ground and distributed its first copies — roughly 1,000 — in January that year.

The DIY publication struggled at first. Growth was slow but sales picked up when Lowrider began featuring bikini models on its covers at the end of 1979.

For Navarro, the bikini-clad women were part of the magazine’s appeal.

The cover of the January 2001 issue of Lowrider. The magazine stopped featuring scantily clad women several years ago.

“There used to be a lot of pretty girls on the magazine,” he said in a phone interview. “The mentality back then was, ‘The better-looking the car, the better-looking girl you’re going to get.’ ” That combination of gorgeous cars and women, he said, “was beautiful.” (The publication stopped featuring scantily clad women on its covers several years ago.)

Figures like ex-Olympic boxing champion Paul Gonzales, the legendary stoner duo Cheech and Chong and rappers Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg also graced the magazine’s cover.

In its first generation, Lowrider was more than just a car magazine. It was capturing historical moments within the Chicano community. For one of its regular sections, “Lowriders of the Past,” readers would send in photos of family members posing with their customized vintage cars from back in the 1940s Pachuco era. Another section, “La Raza Report,” featured writeups about political or educational happenings in the community. The magazine also ran a Dear Abby-like advice column, poetry and short stories.

“It was really an art magazine, a community history magazine, all around the love of lowriders,” said Denise Sandoval, a lowrider expert and professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge. It even funded a scholarship program for Latino students.

In the 1980s, the magazine’s mostly Latino readership started to shift. White, Asian and African American men were immersing themselves in the lowriding world and picking up Lowrider from the stands; the magazine became a multicultural hit. Though the magazine’s political and social messaging eventually diminished, it continued to celebrate and lift up an otherwise overlooked and underrepresented community.