Few places in America stirred the soul in quite the same way as ’60s East Los Angeles, with its clamouring crowds and bustling, vibrant pavements.
From the clatter of exhaust shops, flashing neon liquor-store lights and the smell of simmering esquites to the swinging strains of the Thee Midniters spilling into the streets from packed music halls, the city was alive with culture.
The opening credits to the 1974 sitcom Chico and the Man offer a fascinating glimpse into the decade that followed and the sprawling barrio of 1970s Los Angeles, but by far the most evocative image from that ageing tape is that of a low, slow and intricately painted Chevrolet Impala – the most famous lowrider of them all: Gypsy Rose.
If the US was a cultural melting pot in the 1960s and ’70s then Los Angeles, east of Boyle Heights and south of El Sereno, was the crucible – an area where Mexican heritage blended, influenced and sometimes clashed with white America.
At its heart was Whittier Boulevard, miles of wide, sprawling asphalt stretching east from the end of 6th Avenue and the LA River towards Brea, which became the epicentre and spiritual home of the lowrider movement.
It was against this backdrop that a young Jesse Valadez found himself after his family moved to America from Mexico in the late ’50s, settling first near San Antonio, Texas, then putting down roots near 6th Avenue in East LA.
Before long Valadez was drawn to the modified cars that cruised the streets, joining in with a green ’57 Chevy with custom Pontiac tail-lights and, along with his younger brother Armando, being involved in founding one of the most famous lowrider groups – Imperials Car Club.
The Chevrolet kicked off a line of cars that led to the first Gypsy Rose, a 1960 Impala.
With its elaborate rear wings and strakes along each flank the Impala was already a striking car.
It was kept largely standard with the exception of a pink paintjob and its name pinstriped on the window, and was fairly unremarkable – at least in comparison to its second iteration.
For his next car, a 1963 Impala, Valadez had a vision completely unlike the lowriders of the day – a wild design that would be brought to life by one of the best pinstripers in the business.
While celebrities such as Steve McQueen courted Von Dutch, true pinstripe connoisseurs went to a small shop in Van Nuys, California, run by a wild-haired recluse named Walt Prey.
Known as the ‘Kid Striper’ in his youth, Prey made a name for himself painting cars on his drive before taking a job at Kent’s Customs on Sepulveda Boulevard, then Carter Pro Paint, and striking out on his own in the early ’70s.
Prey wasn’t one for the limelight, never venturing more than a few miles from his shop and in later life shunning modern affectations such as mobile phones and televisions.
From 1975 he only owned one car, a Chevy Nomad. But while he never sought fame, it certainly found him – at least for those in the know.
Valadez was one such admirer, and he asked Prey to take on his biggest project: the second Gypsy Rose.
Partly inspired by the brightly coloured frontages of the local Mexican restaurants, and in part by his adoration of burlesque legend Gypsy Rose Lee, Valadez wanted his car to stand out from the crowd and settled on a rose motif unlike anything seen before.
This would be Prey’s first full custom paintjob and he threw his heart and soul into it: 72 roses adorned the slab-sided flanks, boot and bonnet of the Impala – it was a break from the norm of the time, which tended to feature solid colours or flames.
The interior, meanwhile, got custom seats that flipped up and swung out when getting in and out.
Pink was the overriding colour, and it caused a sensation when it was first shown at the ’68 Winternationals Rod and Custom Show.
The second Gypsy Rose quickly became the stuff of legend in Los Angeles, bringing Valadez and the Imperials to prominence, but while its star shone brightly, it didn’t last.
The car met an untimely end after just nine months, when the Imperials strayed into the wrong area to host a party – a dangerous game in a town where gang violence was rife and territory jealously guarded.
When members of a local gang were turned away, the caravan of lowriders set off leaving Gypsy Rose at the kerbside, its Imperials plaque mounted in the rear window.
The official line is that the car was destroyed in an accident, but word on the street was that the Impala had been set upon with tyre irons and baseball bats.
“The true story is that it was bumperjacked,” says Mike Torres, Valadez’s best friend and the current treasurer of Imperials Car Club.
“Back in the day we didn’t want the club to have any affiliations that made it look as if it was a gang – that’s something Jesse established – so we said it was an accident. Jesse kept it under wraps.”
Unbowed, Valadez was determined that the Gypsy Rose would be reborn, and after much persuasion convinced Prey to once again pick up his brushes – no mean feat given the time and effort invested.
The old car was given to the painter, who changed its colour to yellow and moved it on, while Valadez sourced a two-door hardtop ’64 Impala from a local sheriff to serve as the basis for the third and final Gypsy Rose.
From the outset it was a more ambitious undertaking. Valadez spent an entire summer feverishly preparing the car for paint, with Prey and Don Heckman setting about an even wilder paintjob featuring a staggering 115 hand-drawn roses.
The intricate flowers each took around an hour and half to paint, complemented by more than 2000 leaves entwined with freehand pinstripes, veiling and cobwebbing.
Most striking of all was the roof: dozens of immaculate roses against a pink metalflake background.
The entire car was drowned in clearcoat – as much as 20 gallons, according to legend.
“Some say it’s way too overdone, some people say it’s just right, and I say it was a lot of fun,” says Heckman.
After a particularly arduous night of painting, Heckman arrived at the shop in the morning to discover a rag soaked in thinners sitting on the roof; when he removed it, a hole had been burned clean through to the metal.
A new pink rose was painted in its place, brighter than the rest owing to the filler beneath it.
A wide-eyed nine-year-old Torres remembers seeing the car being painted during his regular trips to Prey’s shop with the Valadez brothers: “I saw the final stages, when Prey was doing the leaf work and roses. I thought it was going to take for ever.
“When I went back a few months later I was surprised they’d got so much done; it seemed as if they were working around the clock. It was amazing to see it being done by hand – the time it took, and the patience.
“I remember the way he would take a small brush and would just swirl… this guy made lines as if it was nothing. Like an artist with a canvas, he was doing it to the car. He was doing something special.”
A fully customised cabin complemented the paintwork, with just about every surface clad with pink crushed velvet.
A television and Craig 8-Track player were fitted in the centre console, while the front seats were replaced by captain’s chairs from a Dodge van that could be turned through 180º to face the rear, where the bench had been removed entirely.
“I would go down to the shop where the interior was put down, Gil’s Auto Upholstery in Huntington Park,” says Torres.
“At the time, Jesse and Armando worked for their older brother Gilbert. The interior was really interesting – especially the rear seat. It was completely custom-made, it was like a bathtub.”
Further adornments came in the form of chandeliers on each C-pillar, while built into the boot space there was a cocktail bar with neatly arranged Champagne flutes.
Beneath the otherworldly paint, the Impala appeared largely as it had left the factory, albeit lowered to within 5in of the road and originally riding on trick wire wheels.
The body was unmodified from standard, as were the 327cu in Turbo-Fire V8 and Powerglide transmission, while the bank of batteries and powerful hydraulic compressors – to raise and lower each corner of the car independently – were added in later years.
The overall effect was mesmerising, and the new Gypsy Rose quickly eclipsed the memory of the last when it burst on to the scene in 1974, picking up countless awards and touring the shows held at the LA Convention Center, the LA Sports Arena and the Long Beach Center – often as part of larger hot-rod events.
But it was on the streets of East LA that the Gypsy Rose’s legend was created, in the Chicano community to which lowriders meant so much.
“I had the privilege of cleaning everybody’s car. Come Friday afternoon I’d rush home from school to clean Gypsy Rose,” enthuses Torres, coming to life at the memory.
“I’d move it from Jesse’s across the street to my place, driving it up and down the street as a 13-year-old. They’d go hang out at ‘the lot’, and from there we’d cruise the Boulevard.
“We had a meeting every Sunday, and after we’d go to Shakey’s. It was always something special.
“We used to cruise the Gypsy Rose – it wasn’t just for shows. The car was always out on the street. It was a thrill back then, to see all these beautiful cars and be part of it.”
Already a fixture on Whittier Boulevard, the Gypsy Rose came to national prominence when a clip of the car cruising East LA was used in the title sequence to Chico and the Man at the suggestion of its star, Freddie Prinze.
With its owner at the wheel, Gypsy Rose was beamed into millions of homes every Friday night.
After achieving the height of its fame in the ’70s, Gypsy Rose gradually took a back seat as lowriding experienced a dip in popularity.
With attention turning towards VW buses in the ’80s, the car was laid up for a number of years before passing from father to son.
While it was off the road, the scene struggled to distance itself from the gang culture that Valadez had so successfully avoided, and cruising Whittier Boulevard was outlawed amid a background of violence and arson attacks on rival garages.
Lowriders only returned to the famous road when the ban was temporarily lifted out of respect to Valadez, who died in 2011 at the age of 64.
As he was laid to rest in a casket painted in homage to his treasured car, a procession of nearly 400 lowriders followed the Gypsy Rose along Whittier Boulevard to the church, with representatives of countless car clubs and former rivals joining to pay their respects.
“When he passed away, so many people showed up at his funeral,” says Torres. “I realised the impact he had on the lowrider community. He was very modest, very humble – a beautiful person.”
The send-off sparked renewed interest in the Impala and ‘Little Jesse’ rose to the challenge, taking the reins of the Imperials and bringing the car back into the public eye via a brace of lowrider exhibitions at the Petersen Automotive Museum and a trip to Japan.
But the pinnacle came in 2017, when Gypsy Rose went on display on the National Mall in Washington DC, becoming the first lowrider to be inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register with its history immortalised in the Library of Congress.
Gypsy Rose returned to the Petersen for a third exhibition before tragedy struck the Valadez family again, as Little Jesse lost his battle with cancer in 2019 at the age of 45.
Like his father, Valadez Jnr made a final journey down Whittier Boulevard in a casket painted by Edgar Villegas, accompanied by an outpouring of grief that was testament to the impact that man and car had not only on the world of lowriders, but the Chicano community as a whole.
The Impala rose to prominence for its striking paintwork, but its significance was sealed by the men who owned it.
Reflecting their stance against gangs and dedication to charitable work, the Chevy evolved in to much more than just a custom car – it became an icon of East LA and an enduring symbol of cultural pride.
Images: James Mann
Thanks to the Petersen Automotive Museum; Mike Torres, Isela Valadez and everyone at the Imperials Car Club