The chromed caravan of lowriders rumbled up to Robert Clausell's funeral Monday, as colorful a collection of athletic vehicles as could be found.
Respectfully, more than 100 of the heavily customized cars jumped and danced as their drivers pulled into the parking lot at the Crenshaw Christian Center.
They came to pay tribute to Clausell, a native of Compton who organized car shows that helped spread the popularity of Los Angeles' cottage lowrider industry nationwide--and even overseas.
To this generation of lowriders, Clausell was a pioneer. He'd not only built award-winning lowriders and formed his own company to sponsor car shows, he also was one of the first to sell cars to Japan. Young people in Yokohama, the Japanese city most taken with lowriding, paid $50,000 to buy the cars they'd seen rap artists like Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg driving in music videos.
The poignancy of Monday's service before 300 friends and relatives lay in the fact that Clausell did it all while he was young. When he died last week from a rare form of kidney cancer he was only 31.
"Celebrate his life," Pastor Milt Jackson urged the gathering. And so they had, coming from throughout Southern California in their classic Cadillacs, Impala convertibles and Regals restored to mint condition and equipped with hydraulic lifts.
For generations, the sight of such audacious cars has sparked apprehension among other motorists. Yet many of those who came to pay their respect said it was lowriding and what they learned from people like Clausell that kept them out of a life of crime and gangs. In this world, they said, neighborhood boundaries and race melted away. Here, the car was all that mattered.
"He was a perfectionist," said Searcy Macon, a 31-year-old member of the Majestics car club from Compton.
"He brought people together," said Matt Riordan, 33.
"He was looking for something else, something to make of himself, and that's why he got into lowriding," said Juan Hernandez, a young enthusiast. "Lowriding keeps you out of the gangs, it gives you a sense of family."
They remembered the grass-roots car shows Clausell put on. They remembered the cars he built, his nicknames--Mr. Blvd. on his license plate, and the street name Zuess, a reference to Dr. Seuss, which he had carried since childhood. They remembered his specialty, souping up Chevy Impalas from the 1960s. He was one of the first to sell those cars to eager customers in Japan, often for twice what it cost him to build them.
In time, the high school dropout built up a worldwide reputation making and marketing lowriders and moved to Tustin. It was simply what he knew best, he said in an interview with a Times reporter last year. He loved the feeling of seeing one of his cars head across the ocean--"you got your check. You got paid"--and he fantasized about who might be driving his cars overseas.
"Robert was a die-hard lowrider," said Albert Lopez, publisher of Pomona-based Lowrider magazine. "His death will be a loss to the lowrider movement."
Lopez said his magazine, the national bible of the craze, plans to include a chapter on Clausell in a book it is producing about the 40-year history of lowriders in Southern California.
RC Entertainment Co., the car show company Clausell founded, operated throughout the West.
"They were always family-type gatherings," said Mike Garcia, a longtime friend. "They were down to earth shows and his cars were always top-notch hoppers."
"What he did gave young people a positive outlet for their energy," said Garret Dong, 37, a business partner.
The health of his business was his major concern after doctors found that he had cancer last year, shortly after a car show in Las Vegas.
"The cars, the shows were his life," said Garcia, who said he was at Clausell's bedside when he died. "It was the last thing he talked about."
"He never gave up," said Andre Clausell, an older brother. "And I promised him I would never give up on his business."
Clausell is survived by his parents, Lonnie and Lula Mae Clausell of Riverside, two other brothers and three sisters.
"His last car was always his best," Andre said.
It was a fiery red 1963 Chevy Impala loaded with 21 batteries and six pumps.
"It could leap," the older brother remembered, raising his hands for emphasis. "It could fly."