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From West Coast to Westside, Kansas City's lowrider culture has spread beyond its Latino roots

A row of colorful cars are parked on a paved lot. People can be seen walking around them.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Joe Shugrue's black 1979 Chevy Monte Carlo and a few other cars from his shop at The Car Show competition on April 30 at the Kansas Speedway.

What started as a point of pride for many people in one of the city’s historic Mexican American neighborhoods, now includes car shops all over the metro, and builders and riders from every background.

Lowrider culture in Kansas City began in the 1950s as a strictly Mexican American thing. But founders still on the scene say the subculture has grown more diverse over the decades.

“When we first started doing this, it was mostly a minority thing with Mexicans and small group of Black people,” says Tim Lona. “But it gradually expanded to everybody — every color and every race.”

“Like, everybody just wanted to be a lowrider,” he says.

Tim and his brother Chris Lona have been leaders in Kansas City’s lowrider scene since the 1980s, when they took over Lona and Sons Automotive. The shop was founded in the Westside neighborhood by their grandfather, Wesley Lona Sr., nearly 60 years earlier.

Two men lean on the chrome bumper of a red car that is lifted on the passenger side inside a garage.
Tim Lona
KCUR 89.3
Tim and Chris Lona inside their hydraulic and custom car shop located off 31st Street and Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City's Westside neighborhood.

Although the elder Lona’s original idea was to service cars in the neighborhood, the brothers wanted to take the shop in a new direction. They marked the transition with an adapted name for the shop: Lona and Sons Hydraulics.

"We were the only full-time lowrider shop, and we did all the shows — we represented Kansas City all over the nation,” says Tim.

At one point, the Lonas came out with their own product line, called Wicked Hydraulics, that was sold all over the country and in Japan, Europe, Australia and Canada.

“So we put our stamp on lowriding here in the Midwest,” Tim says.

During the height of their run, the shop competed in shows in Florida, Texas and Illinois. They built thousands of lowriders for local and regional clients.

“I was one of the originators of car-dancing, and that got really popular,” Tim says, referring to the practice of controlling the hydraulics from outside the car while making the tires bounce independently or in unison like a tap dancer.

Like many lowriders, Lona custom builds feature high-powered hydraulics that allow cars to hop 20 inches or more off the ground, and reinforced chassis that can handle the weight of a bouncing car.

They’re often painted in bright colors and busy patterns that feature Mexican American themes. A set of 14-inch, chrome- or gold-spoked Dayton rims finish the classic look.

‘It’s a calm, peaceful lifestyle’

Since no two lowriders are the same, each car starts out as a blank canvas for Chris and Time Lona to showcase their creativity. Chris Lona relishes every opportunity to do just that.

“To make a car that goes on three wheels — that's crazy,” he said with a grin and a laugh. “Or have it hop 20, 60, 70, 80 inches off the ground. Those are things you're not supposed to do.”

A blue station wagon with gold-colored rims bounces off the ground while people in the background look on.
Tim Lona
KCUR 89.3
Tim Lona's 1985 Chevy station wagon dances at a car show in 1998.

“You're basically an artist when you get that car,” Chris says.

Building these works of art is a way for the Lona brothers to showcase their ingenuity and Latino pride. But Tim says, when they first got started, people had a different idea about what the lowriders culture stood for.

“We fought against the stereotype … that every lowrider is a gangster or drug dealer,” Tim says. “We wanted to show that this is a positive, family-oriented, good thing to be in. It's a lifestyle and it's a calm, peaceful lifestyle.”

The brothers have made plenty of inroads throughout the metro since then. Their cars have appeared in a Kansas City Chiefs Monday Night Football halftime show, and they were the first to host a lowrider show at the American Royal’s Hale Arena, in the early 2000s.

They’ve also helped develop builders who aren’t Latino, like Joe Shugrue, owner of a two-shop operation called Twin Cities Customs, on east Truman Road.

"Fifteen years ago, I went out there and they had the hop competition going on and, I mean, they were clearing some big inches,” says Shugrue, who is white. “Back then, that was kind of really unheard of and really impressive.”

“I just kind of ran with it from there,he says.

Before getting into the business, Shugrue had no expertise in hydraulics. But he knew exactly where to go to learn.

“Started off with the old Lonas and Sons ‘Kansas City special,’ where everybody knew to go growing up. And, I mean, that escalated really quick,” he remembers. “It went from just playing around to now I want (the car) to hop.”

Now 20 years into the business, Twin Cities is one of the leading lowrider shops in the metro. Several cars from the shop appeared in the latest edition of The Car Show at the Kansas Speedway.

A man wearing a dark, hooded jacket stands next to a black car that has a jacked up suspension.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Joe Shugrue standing next to his 1979 "Training Day" Chevy Monte Carlo, which he entered in the April 30 competition at Kansas Speedway.

Finding ways to contribute

Frank Quiroz also grew up following the Lona brothers’ lead. The Westside native — who owns a tricked-out, candy-apple red, drop-top 1964 Chevy Impala Super Sport — got his start young.

“Watching them made me a car enthusiast. I started lowriding when I was in high school and I’ve kept riding since then,” said Quiroz. “I am more of a rider, too — I'm not a builder.”

Being a rider means Quiroz helps in the engineering and design phases of the car build, but, when it's time to put all the parts together, he hires others.

Quiroz has found his own ways to contribute to the culture. His shop, Quiroz Customs, at 12th Street and Belmont Avenue, focuses on two essential elements of any lowrider build: the wheels and the audio system.

A glossy cherry red 64 Chevrolet convertible sits on a showroom floor. Behind it are other classic cars can be seen in the background.
Frank Quiroz
Frank Quiroz's candy-apple red, drop-top 1964 Chevy Impala Super Sport at the 2021 World of Wheels Car Show in Kansas City.

And because the Lona brothers no longer travel the national show circuit, Quiroz has started to fill the gap.

“I try to go to most of the lowrider shows here in town. But we do out-of-state stuff, too,” says Quiroz. “If you're on a level where your car is real nice, then you obviously know about the lowrider people around you, and want them to know about it.”

“You want to represent Kansas City and go with other people — that's really cool,” he says.

The pride he and the others take in their art is obvious. Their craft and cars will be on full display this weekend; the Cinco de Mayo holiday is one of the biggest of the year for lowriders.

Local shows are planned on Sunday along Southwest Boulevard and in Werner Park in Merriam, Kansas.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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