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Under the Hood

With 'low and slow' and homegrown R&B, the Ruelas brothers are still bringing people together

July 16, 2006|Lynell George | Lynell George is a senior writer for West. Her work has appeared in Ms., Essence, Vibe and other magazines, as well as in the essay collection "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

Like they have most every Saturday morning for the last 40 years and more, the Ruelas brothers are just getting down to work, bent over one primer-gray ghost of a car or another. The cluttered, grease-stained yard is filled with them--relics that are sensuous arrangements of curves, spheres and dovetailing angles; a scatter of grilles from Buicks and Bentleys and late-'30s and -'40s Chevys; carriages and front ends all rusted out in tones of aging sepia photographs. This yard isn't where cars come to die, but to be reborn. Re-imagined."We build them from scraps," says Fernando, "and put them in arenas and see if they'll win a prize. A 6- or 7-foot-tall trophy."

They've built cars for the film "Zoot Suit" ("and the premiere," Fernando italicizes) and appeared on the cover of Life magazine. They're still supplying cars for parades and television shows and movies and cultural celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo, as well as taking on a succession of commissions. Their most recent work in progress is an elaborate reconstruction of an old-fashioned ice cream truck--its body the canvas for a dramatic wraparound mural by San Antonio-based artist Vincent Valdez chronicling the story of a vanished neighborhood--for Ry Cooder and his Chavez Ravine project. "It's a business, sure," says Fernando, "but it's an obsession."

In all this time at their South L.A. custom shop, they've also built something more head-turning and remarkable: Duke's, the oldest lowrider car club in continuous existence in the world. It's something Fernando doesn't let you forget--because he's proud and president of the Southern California chapter. The shop in turn has become more than a pit stop; it has become a social nexus, sparking lifelong alliances.

The Ruelases--Julio, Ernesto, Fernando and Oscar--have been here not quite as long as some of these ghost cars, but long enough. They've sat tight as the streets have transformed around them. They've been here since the neighborhood was predominantly African American and have watched as it has become predominantly Latino. They've watched as many of the little houses and their shade trees and succulent gardens have been razed to make way for cinderblock warehouses and empty lots, watched as scores that were once settled with fists and blades have been settled quick and dirty with guns. Mostly they've been here long enough to remember when black and brown men could be found under the same car, swapping stories, pulling on beers, grooving to a steady stream of R&B culled from brother Julio's prized and priceless collection. Because, as Fernando knows, who doesn't love cars?

Fernando and his son Alex hover over the husk of a car, a mirrored expression of absorption etched on their faces. Another man, Fernando's right hand (and Duke's sergeant-at-arms), Richard Ceniceros, nicknamed "Chivo," is at the moment just a muffled voice and pair of faded dungarees and work shoes spilling out from beneath the chassis of his 1939 Chevy Master Deluxe 4-door.

Of all the cars that have rolled out of this shop, of all the 100 or so the brothers own personally (and have secreted away in garages and warehouses all over town), they have particularly soft spots for a few. Julio's 1954 Chevrolet was made famous on the cover of Tierra's 1980 album "City Nights." Oscar cruised L.A. in a 1956 Chevy known as "Mr. Know It All." And with great ceremony, Fernando recently bequeathed his prized 1937 Buick, "The Black Crow," to his eldest son, Jay. "I was the only oddball with those Cadillacs and Buicks," he says. "I just loved them because they were loooooong, and when you put the hydraulics on them and lay 'em down they look beautiful."

Fernando's head vanishes beneath Chivo's Chevy. Resurfacing, he barks out his assessment in what is left of a rasp of a voice: "We need to get the right pinion angle on that rear end so we can weld the spring seats." They've already taken out the six-cylinder engine and put in a V-8 350, but there's much more to do before they can fire it up and get it to the muffler shop.

Before long, though, someone has snapped open a beer, and someone else has switched on the radio. It's just a murmur, quiet enough to sound ethereal, doo-wop harmonies rising into the sky. They recall a different time, a more spacious Los Angeles, where grand avenues served as a proper stage for grand old cars, big imaginations and big dreams.

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