As the last embers of daylight burn away on a warm April evening, a crowd bubbles around a large glass case commanding a prime spot on the National Mall — the Air and Space Museum on one side, the National Gallery of Art on the other, in the background the Capitol’s dome gleaming marble-white under a wash of flood lamps. Amid the onlookers, a solidly built, middle-aged Latino in a Los Angeles Dodgers jersey and baseball cap steps forward. Behind him, family members and his fiancee clasp their palms in anticipation, their eyes bright with tears. This stage has been nearly a year in the setting, a wave of inspired ideas and dogged planning vanquishing endless spools of red tape and daunting logistics to arrive at this moment. Nearby photographers and video shooters raise their cameras. The onlookers go quiet.
“The Gypsy Rose has always been a part of lowrider history. But today it’s part of American history, too.”
It’s then that Jesse Valadez II flips a switch in his hands, and the glass case alights to reveal the pink and chrome jewel inside, the Gypsy Rose, the ground-breaking custom car his father, the late Jesse Valadez (who died in 2011), brought to life some four decades ago, the Mona Lisa of its genre, the wheeled masterwork that came to symbolize and define a movement born in Southern California’s barrios that now thrives across the U.S., Mexico, and even as far away as Japan.
Low and Behold: HVA president Mark Gessler, below , toasts the Gypsy Rose. Valadez II admires the 1951 Hirohata Merc, also honored in D.C.
For half a century, from Boyle Heights near downtown into East L.A., past the pawn shops and muffler garages and taquerias along Whittier Boulevard, Angelenos have been cruising their cars at a pace that would embarrass a glacier in an internal-combustion riff on the traditional Mexican paseo — where young men and women would gather in town squares to eye each other and mingle, the more determined men arriving on horses decked out like parade floats. In the modern interpretation the saddles are long gone, but the steeds remain: big American automobiles lavished with artwork on par with graffiti by Banksy or an oil by Jean-Michel Basquiat, flaunting wild suspensions chopped to skim the asphalt yet outfitted with aircraft hydraulics to rise, hop, or even dance at the flick of a dashboard toggle — the better to impress the eyes of passing chicas. This is lowriding, “low and slow”—thumping stereos, glinting chrome, and outrageous artistic talent in an endless summer promenade largely the dominion of Mexican-Americans who proudly call themselves Chicanos. And now one of their own, a lowrider — the most famous lowrider of them all, in fact — is standing center stage in the nation’s capital, chosen by the Historic Vehicle Association to be inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register, where its specifications, photos, detailed scans, and entire life story will be archived for all time by the Library of Congress.
Father’s Day: On the Mall, Jesse Valadez II pays tribute to his forebear’s legacy.
“I’m speechless,” Valadez says of the Mall display. “I just wish my dad was still alive to see this.” He pauses to compose his emotions, gazing through the glass at the lowriding icon that has been his since his father bequeathed it to him in 1997. “The Gypsy Rose has always been a part of lowrider history. But today it’s part of American history, too.”
“Jesse put up with a lot of bullshit from other car clubs because of that paint job.”
The elder Jesse Valadez couldn’t have foreseen that one day he’d be known as the godfather of lowriding. Born in 1946 in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, Mexico, he immigrated to Texas in 1959 and settled in Los Angeles two years later, eventually opening an auto upholstery shop in Garden Grove. In his lifetime he built three lowriders all named Gypsy Rose. First came a 1963 Chevrolet Impala. Cheap, flat, and broad, it made an ideal sheetmetal canvas. Valadez painted it a flashy pink in homage to the renowned burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. But if the original got lost in a burgeoning crowd, the second version, another ’63 Impala that Valadez completed in the late 1960s, rocked the lowrider scene. “Jesse wanted to do a theme car, something that stood out from every- thing else,” says Joe Ray, chief editor for Lowrider magazine, longtime friend, and sometimes rival of Valadez. “He wanted to do roses, and he brought the idea up to his mom because she liked flowers. His mom loved the idea of putting roses on the car.”
Paint and Suffering: After obsessively painting the second Gypsy Rose, Walter Prey ultimately shook off that car’s loss to complete an even more intricate masterwork.
After the new Gypsy Rose made its debut at the 1968 Winternationals Rod and Custom Show in Pomona, once again pink but now adorned with more roses than a winning Kentucky Derby thoroughbred, lowriders were never the same. “When I first saw that Gypsy Rose,” Ray says, “I thought it was beautiful, a work of art.” Of course, the design had its critics, too. “Jesse put up with a lot of bullshit from other car clubs because of that paint job,” says Tomas Vasquez, 65, president for the past 20 years of the Imperials, the legendary East L.A. lowrider club founded in the mid-1960s by Valadez and his younger brother, Armando, who was still in junior high school at the time. “They used to dog on him like, ‘How can you put effin’ roses on your car, man?’” Sorel Knobler, 63, a member of the rival Lifestyle club and owner for the past 26 years of the renowned lowrider L.A. Woman, remembers those digs. “Yeah, our guys would make cracks about the Gypsy Rose. But of course it was an Imperials car, so they had to do that. But privately they also said, ‘Wow!’” The Gypsy Rose’s fame eventually extended well beyond Los Angeles — especially after it landed on the pages of the March 1972 edition of Car Craft magazine. A lowrider had finally gone mainstream.
“The El Monte gang made Jesse an example. They just destroyed his car.”
Soon, however, Valadez’s glamorous Gypsy Rose was gone. “Today it’s one big friendship. Everybody helps everybody out, no matter what club you’re in. But in the early days, lowriding was gangs on wheels,” Vasquez says. “You’d catch a guy from another club on your turf, and just for the hell of it you’d smash his rear window and take his plaque.” (If a car meets a particular club’s standards, its owner is allowed to “fly” a stylized club name, or plaque, inside the rear window.) No one learned that the hard way more than Valadez. “The Imperials thought it would be cool to have a party in El Monte,” says Ray, himself a member of the Lifestyle club. “And they went ahead and had it without clearing it with the local gang. Back then, if you were going to drive your car into a rival club’s neighborhood, at the very least you had to take down the plaque on your car. Well, when a few of the El Monte guys came down to the Imperials’ party and were told they couldn’t come in, they came back with their whole gang and found the Gypsy Rose parked out front. Everybody knew you couldn’t do what the Imperials did, and the El Monte gang made Jesse an example. They just destroyed his car.”
Doors Slammed: Sorel Knobler’s El Camino, L.A. Woman, is a lowriding tribute to a song by Jim Morrison’s trailblazing rock band, The Doors.
Valadez was devastated, but his dream would not be forgotten. Soon he built the third, enduring Gypsy Rose, this one a ’64 Impala, pushing the limits to create a masterwork beyond anything the lowriding community had ever seen before. “On his final Gypsy Rose, Jesse just went wild,” Vasquez says. “That car was just way ahead of its time with that crazy-ass paint job.”
Like the first flowered Gypsy Rose, the latest car was painted to Valadez’s concept by custom legend Walter Prey. “Walt was a recluse,” says Ray, who knew him well. (Prey died in 2011.) “He never went anywhere, maybe a five-mile radius from his shop, didn’t like people watching him work. But he was the best striper ever. Everybody talks about Von Dutch, but back then great painters like Larry Watson and Bill Carter would hire Walt to stripe their cars because he was the best. Walt knew color coordination, how to add lines of color between the patterns, bring them all together. But … there was so much work involved. When the first flowered Gypsy Rose got destroyed and Jesse approached Walt to paint another one, Walt got really bummed out about it. He really didn’t want to do it.”
Fortunately for history, Prey eventually did take on the new Gypsy Rose. Working with painter Don Heckman, he created a canvas of intricate roses — the new version with 115 flowers compared to 72 on the second car — gauzy veils, and immaculate striping on a background of pearl white, candy red, and pink body panels. Lore has it that the paintwork is layered with more than 20 gallons’ worth of clear lacquer. To complete the car, Valadez had the interior finished in crushed velvet (his older brother Gil did all the upholstery), plus chandeliers and even a rear-seat cocktail bar.
“I had my dad right there to show me, help me. He always said, ‘Have fun with the car.’ ”
Even though he hired others to do much of the work, Valadez was an artist in his own right, a visionary who elevated lowriders from mere custom cars into works of art. At the same time, as a community leader, he pushed back hard against the gang mentality so prevalent in the mid-1960s, advocating respect, values, and above all the importance of family. But it was the third and final Gypsy Rose, unveiled about 1974, that would cement Valadez’s reputation as lowriding’s godfather, eventually earning the car the moniker “the most famous lowrider of all time.” Later that same year when NBC launched the hit Mexican-American sitcom “Chico and the Man” (starring Jack Albertson as the owner of a down-and-out garage in East L.A.), the rising young comic playing Chico, Freddie Prinze, insisted the Gypsy Rose be included in the title sequence. For four seasons—tragically, Prinze took his own life during the third season—viewers across America caught a glimpse every week of the Gypsy Rose with Jesse Valadez at the wheel. The car would later go on to appear in TV commercials and even a few feature films. “The Gypsy Rose didn’t have any body or engine modifications or, at first, even any hydraulics,” Ray says. Valadez added hydraulic suspension years later. “It was just pure artistry. Since then there have been lots and lots of lowriders that are way more advanced, with modern hydraulics, chopped tops, suicide doors, big V-8s, really elaborate mural paintings. But the Gypsy Rose set the benchmark. There’s a piece of the Gypsy Rose in every lowrider you see today.”
Cruise Ship: It’s the 1970s all over again as Jesse Valadez II and the Gypsy Rose lead a “low and slow” promenade down Whittier Boulevard.
“We want to tell the stories of auto genres that have been overlooked,” says Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association. Based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and boasting 375,000 members, it is the world’s largest historic-vehicle owners’ group. “For our first event on the Mall three years ago, we showcased the original Meyers Manx dune buggy. I always say, people come to D.C. for two things: policy or heritage. We’re trying to bring the country’s auto heritage to the people, rather than having them come to a museum. When people get up close and really see the Gypsy Rose, all that handiwork, they just go nuts.” Indeed, Gessler admits even he had much to learn. “The more we got into the Gypsy Rose and the Imperials, the more we saw them fighting the stereotypes, shaping the community to go against gang culture, working to be an outlet for something good in a tough area. Really, it’s kind of amazing that someone would pour so much time and money into a car like this and then take it out into an environment like East L.A. in the 1970s. It’s startling.”
The Gypsy Rose’s flamboyant rear seat includes a cocktail bar.
It’s now been a half hour since the lighting ceremony, and Jesse Valadez II is still circling the big glass case, barely taking his eyes off his car inside. “When the guys at the HVA first came to me about this event, at first I was 50/50 whether I’d do it. I mean, a lowrider on the Mall, Washington, D.C.? Is this for real? Plus, I try to be very selective about the shows I bring the car to. The Gypsy Rose is older than me by a couple of years, and I have to be very cautious, keep her out of the sun as much as I can.” His eyes drink in Walter Prey’s exquisite roses behind the glass. “She’s faded over time but faded beautifully. Of course, once I realized this event could really happen, I had to do it.”
Jesse well remembers that day in 1997 (he was still in his early 20s) when his father passed his prized Gypsy Rose on to him. “I was scared to death. It took me some time, some guts, before I’d even work on her. But I had my dad right there to show me, help me. He always said, ‘Have fun with the car.’ And I never really knew what that meant. But then later on I realized. Like being here in D.C. today, the Gypsy Rose has taken me to places I never even dreamed of.” Speaking those words, Jesse’s eyes well up. Then he raises his gaze to the Capitol beyond, shakes his head. “Before, I didn’t know that would happen. But my dad … he knew.”