What Happened To Hydraulics? Nothing. It’s Still Here
And has been for quite some time.
The modern lowrider, the result of car hydraulics, is an icon of an important, yet sometimes forgotten part of American culture. Just saying the words “low rider” is likely to invoke a vivid image for pretty much anyone. For me it’s a 1964 Chevy Impala bouncing up and down - in a way that doesn’t seem healthy for its suspension - in a Dr. Dre music video.
For many, the peak of “the lowrider culture” came in the 1970s on Whittier Boulevard in Los Angeles. It's here you’d find circles of vibrantly painted muscle cars that glided “low and slow” throughout the streets as depicted in the 1979 film Boulevard Nights. The muscle cars featured so prominently in the ‘70s are no longer as mainstream, but for those who think lowrider culture is gone, it’s only because you stopped looking. But let’s take you through some history:
Lowriders, and by extension car hydraulics, is an outgrowth of Mexican-American culture in southern California and dates back all the way to the 1930s. Back then there was a thriving tradition, and a reactionary law against it (Booooooo), of customizing cars and lowering them by literally cutting them down to size.
Then, in 1959, a man named Ron Aguirre figured out that he could take a General Motors X-frame chassis and attach it to some hydraulic pumps that lowered and raised the car with the flip of a switch. Thus, the modern low rider was born.
First released in 1957, the X-frame, basically the backbone of a car, (so named because its wishbone suspension looked like, yep, an X) changed the course of low rider history. Unlike the typical ladder frame chassis, it allowed for more support on the vertical access, which is the up and down force that is applied to the car. The unique shape also left a lot of room for the guts of the hydraulics themselves. The 1964 Chevrolet Impala is considered the “classic” frame and body for hydraulic implementation.
And that’s the really cool thing about car hydraulics; it was born of necessity, there were no ready-made kits like they have today. The ideas for the systems didn’t come out of a massive corporate think tank for mass production. People who wanted to do it had to make everything from scratch, and that included using the hydraulic dumps – valves and pipes that allow hydraulic liquid to flow from the pumps to the rest of the system – from war surplus bombers landing gear. Now, I like to think of myself as a DIY kind of guy, but I don’t think I could ever come up with repurposing military bomber equipment to make my car go down.
There is no shortage of lowriders these days. Just google car hydraulics wherever you live and you’ll find plenty of outlets that will make your car into a bouncing demon. There are also online stores where you can buy your own supplies and turn hydraulics into a weekend hobby. It has international appeal as well - the lowrider, and car hydraulics are huge in Japan with their own special place in Japanese sub-culture. So, yeah, car hydraulics is just as much, if not more so, a thing now as it ever was.