Cruise Control

Lowriders ride into town.

It's a big night on the boulevard. Federal Boulevard. Cruisers drive along with Mexican flags draped over their hoods, rap music thumping from their stereos and Mexican Independence Day smiles plastered on their faces. In their midst, a purple Impala rolls quietly along.

"Check it out," a passenger says. "That girl on the sidewalk is eyeing your car."

"Yeah?"

Drive, he said: Bill Bernal has been cruising Federal Boulevard for 26 years.
Brett Amole
Drive, he said: Bill Bernal has been cruising Federal Boulevard for 26 years.
Vroom service: Sam Henry and his tangerine '81 Lincoln.
Brett Amole
Vroom service: Sam Henry and his tangerine '81 Lincoln.

"Yeah."

"Okay," says the driver, Bill Bernal. He'll give her a blast from his customized horn, the one with the girlie-whistle sound. People get a kick out of that, he says. It lets them know that he appreciates the attention, although at his age, which is 52, it's not about attention anymore.

At his age, it's more about sinking into the marshmallow-soft leather seats, feeling the low rumble of his 350 engine, popping a ranchera tape in the stereo and enjoying a leisurely drive on a crisp September evening.

"See that?"

"What?"

"The guy at the Jumbo car wash. The one polishing the maroon Monte Carlo. He gave you a nod."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Okay. Bernal will give another horn blast. This time, the old-fashioned "ooo-gaa, ooo-gaa" sound. They like that one, too, he says.

"Nice car," the guy shouts.

"Thanks."

It's also a respect thing, Bernal says. He's been cruising for 26 years now, which he thinks makes him the longest-riding lowrider in Denver. He's probably the last of the early lowriders still out here cruising.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

But it's not just about the cruising, Bernal continues. It's about the attitude and the ambience. It's about parking on the side of the road, kicking back and measuring the competition. It's about watching the sun set, watching the street lamps flicker to life, watching the neon reflections slide off the hood like electric drops of honey.

"That's it," he says. "That's what it's about."


To understand cruising, you have to understand lowriders. To understand lowriders, you have to understand the cars. And to understand the cars, you have to understand the culture. But if you don't want to take the time to do all of that, Bernal says, you can break it down this way: It's really all about something shiny.

And soft.

And sparkly.

Preferably all three.

And ideally, about something with a dozen coats of multi-colored paint, 24-carat gold-plated accessories, crushed-velvet interior, swivel seats, etched windows, a color TV, suicide doors, a suicide trunk, a chain-link steering wheel, a Hollywood top, a customized horn, a mural on the hood, a mega-watt stereo, an enamel finish and a dusting of metal flake. Always metal flake.

"It's got to be wild," Bernal says. "The wilder the better. The weirdest thing you can imagine. With us lowriders, it's got to be different. Creative. Something that no one else has. Something that makes you look twice. And not just look twice, but stop, turn around, go back and see for yourself. We like pink and purple and tangerine instead of black or white or brown. We like fancy stuff like velour, $5,000 paint jobs, shaved door handles and frenched antennas. We shine it all up and hit the boulevard. Because we don't go out unless it's clean. And when we go out, we go all the way!"

And so they do.

Consider the evidence: Bernal's deep purple '64 Impala, which glistens in the late summer sun like a wet piece of candy.

"I call it 'Plum Loco,'" says Bernal, "because it's purple."

And probably because his wife thought he was crazy to buy it. Bernal's friend found the Impala three years ago in a weedy field in western Colorado, where it had been sitting since 1972. The brakes were locked, the gas lines were plugged, the chassis was rusted, the interior was rotted and the engine was gone.

He fell in love.

"For me, $500 was a bargain," says Bernal, who is dressed this day in a black T-shirt, black jeans, black Lowrider Magazine baseball cap and dark sunglasses. "But my wife got mad. She said, 'Why did you buy that trash for $500?' But some people think Impalas make the best lowriders. Maybe because they're old and they're long. Or maybe because the lines are good."

Whatever the reason, Bernal bought the heap and headed straight for his friend's garage, where they spent eight months crafting a classic lowrider that would be featured in MTV rap videos, on a Hooters pamphlet and at about 100 car shows, where it won about 99 first- and second-place trophies.

"It's an eye-catcher," Bernal says, running a finger along the fender. "It's the paint job that makes it. It has seven different colors of metal-flake purple and seven coats of clear enamel. The top is white rainbow flake. I mixed in some green and gold and a little blue. In certain light, it turns different colors."

And quite a few heads, too. Not only did Bernal refurbish the body and add an engine, he also installed an all-white leather interior, a custom shifter, purple neon accent lights, a 1,000-watt stereo system and a backseat speaker panel cut in the shape of the Chevy logo.

"My old car [a Ford Elite] used to have a chandelier, 49 different colors of paint, crushed-velvet interior, round couch seats and suicide doors," Bernal says. "It was like sitting on the couch in your living room. But with this, I wanted it stock."

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