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Lowrider Magazine Riding Higher Than Ever

Car culture * There have been bumps, dips and even a detour or two along the way, but all signals suggest that the cruiser's bible has finally arrived.

April 19, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attendance at the lowrider exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has been stunning organizers since the show opened in February.

But Ricardo Gonzalez doesn't think anyone should have been taken by surprise.

The publisher of Lowrider magazine knows how interest in the lowered, highly customized cars--and the lowriding lifestyle--has spread in recent years.

Lowrider, after all, holds the distinction of being the best-selling newsstand automotive periodical in the country. Although a number of more mainstream automotive titles, monthlies such as Motor Trend and Road & Track, have far more subscribers, no other auto publication comes close to Lowrider's amazing success on the newsstands--arguably the toughest arena in which to sell magazines.

So when folklore specialist Nancy Fister, assistant director at the Petersen, exclaims that the lowrider show that runs through May 28 has doubled overall attendance, quadrupled weekend crowds and resulted in a big boost in the number of Latino and African American visitors, Gonzalez just smiles and nods.

FOR THE RECORD - Dings & Scratches
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 26, 2000 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Financial Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong make--If you ever want to find out how much attention your readers are paying, just make a mistake. We did last week, when we incorrectly identified La Mirada lowrider Tony Montez's 1939 Chevrolet as a Dodge. It is gratifying to see how many people out there know the difference--and cared enough to write or call.

Lowrider, with an average monthly circulation of about 210,000 copies--190,000 of them bought at the hefty and rarely discounted cover price of $4.25 at food markets, liquor and convenience stores and drugstores--is no longer just a magazine for the barrios of Southern California.

Today's lowriders are Latino, Anglo, African American and Asian American. They customize everything from classic Schwinn bicycles to contemporary import luxury cars, and they live everywhere from East L.A. to East Hampton, N.Y.

Indeed, Gonzalez says the most recent analysis of Lowrider's audience shows that although Latinos remain its largest audience, they account for only 58% of total circulation. Whites account for 25%, he says, African Americans for 10% and readers of Asian descent for 7%.

"Our magazine spread the word about lowriders," he says. "We have always been one of the largest Hispanic platforms on the newsstands and, with the rise of music videos, cable networks like MTV and the whole rap culture in the early 1990s, you suddenly couldn't look at TV without seeing a lowrider car." When rockers such as ZZ Top started using lowriders in their videos, Gonzalez says, "interest in [the cars] expanded beyond the Hispanic community and into nontraditional markets, like Indianapolis. We're everywhere."

*

Lowrider magazine's story is one of ups and downs, of obstacles overcome, perseverance and, finally, growing acceptance--largely paralleling the history of the movement and culture it chronicles.

The magazine was started in the social turmoil of the late 1970s by San Jose State student activists Larry Gonzalez, Sonny Madrid and David Nunez, who sought to present a voice for the Chicano community in the Bay Area. The first issue was dated January 1977.

Growth was slow in the early years--the magazines were delivered to outlets throughout the state each month by the editorial and advertising staffs, a process that ate up a week of production time and kept everyone on edge.

It wasn't until Lowrider started putting bikini-clad models on its covers at the end of 1979 that sales began to accelerate. But the burgeoning success spawned several imitators that ate into Lowrider's market, and in December 1985, after being taken over by its printer, the magazine folded.

It came back, though, in June 1988, rescued by a group of loyalists including layout designer Alberto Lopez; his brother, Lonnie (the magazine's current editor); and co-founder Larry Gonzalez (no relation to current publisher Ricardo). Lowrider's headquarters were moved to Southern California--bringing the magazine closer to the heart of the lowrider community--and Lopez and his crew shrewdly decided to devote much of their coverage to trucks to capitalize on the popularity of imported mini-pickups.

The first issue sold 20,000 copies within a week and, by October 1988, monthly newsstand sales had hit 60,000.

As sales have continued to swell, the magazine has developed into the flagship of a multicultural mini-conglomerate with six titles, a merchandising unit and an events division that last year sponsored 15 car shows that collectively drew about 300,000 fans to fairgrounds and stadiums from San Diego to Kansas City.

Lowrider Publishing Group, owned since 1997 by Anaheim-based automotive periodicals giant McMullen Argus Publishing (itself acquired in 1999 by Primedia of New York), has done a world-class job of taking a niche subject and reaching out to every conceivable part of its audience, says Michael Pashby, vice president of consumer marketing for the trade group Magazine Publishers of America.

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