Highland Avenue in National City has been a major hub for cruisers since the 1970s.
On December 12, Charger Steve jumped into his lifted Toyota, flipped on the under-chassis neon lights, and drove to meet his buddies at D’s Ribs & Wings, a block west of Highway 67 in Santee to grab a bite. “We’ve been visiting areas with our vehicles to bring some much-needed foot traffic and a huge morale booster. Not just for the car people, but the local merchants and restaurateurs.”
Photograph by Ron Morales
About 20 vehicles pulled up, including hot rods, classics, lowriders, and a 2020 Corvette. “While the official permitted car shows we all have grown accustomed to are gone, for now, these new unofficial versions are popping up in creative ways to help San Diego County and still work within the guidelines provided to us.”
Before sunset, the group jumped back into their rides and cruised the nearby neighborhoods to scope out the Christmas light displays.
“Setting up cruises is very difficult,” Steve continued, “harder than car shows, in my opinion, because everyone gets separated by lights and traffic. So it’s a big challenge, but I printed maps for anyone who got left behind, and I think overall it went well.”
From 2006 till 2020, Charger Steve organized the El Cajon Classic Cruise, where hundreds of auto enthusiasts rendezvoused and cruised downtown El Cajon. The “Charger” in his stylized name, is based on his other ride, a Dodge Charger that appeared in the 1970-1980s Dukes of Hazzard series.
“So while we canceled the 2020 cruises due to the pandemic, a lot of car folks are still visiting downtown El Cajon with their cars on Wednesday evenings to show their support to the community and small business owners. So, it’s not an ‘event’ but just to create a boost in revenue, so anyone is welcome to join in, bring a ride, or just look at cars and grab a drink or dinner.”
Steve was careful with his phrasing when we direct messaged one another. “The county has discontinued issuing permits temporarily due to the pandemic, so events on public property that require a permit were postponed.”
Rafael Perez is a professor at Cuyamaca College about five miles south of downtown El Cajon. He lives in Sherman Heights and cruises a clean ’51 Chevy Styleline Deluxe.
Back on August 30, about 6:30 am, Perez wiped down his ride, slid into its white-and-gray bench seat, and mashed the gas pedal. “I cruised down the 805 around 7:30 am, arrived at the venue, and just before 8:30 was the first car to go in.”
From 2006 till 2020, Charger Steve organized the El Cajon Classic Cruise, where hundreds of auto enthusiasts rendezvoused and cruised downtown El Cajon.
Photograph by Mercedes Rose
Perez rolled into the Cruise for the Cause event at the Otay Ranch Towne Center mall in Chula Vista. Unlike the 17-car show-and-cruise benefits before, “this 2020 cruise hit differently.... There was a photo booth to drive up to and have photos taken, and everyone in the interview area was wearing a mask and respecting social distancing.”
Magic 92.5 streamed a Facebook Live video of the event; Xavier the X-Man, midday host of the radio station, interviewed the vehicle owners.
Perez pulled up into the frame. The design on his face mask is as menacing as the chrome grill on his ride that he salvaged from a 1953 Corvette.
“Would you consider this a bomb, a lowrider, or just a classic car?” Xavier asked Perez.
“All of the above,” Perez responded. “I’ve been into lowriding since I was a kid. I started with a lowrider bike.”
Xavier, a lowrider owner and avid cruiser himself, is the founder of the annual cruise that raises money for the Emilio Nares Foundation, a San Diego-based non-profit that hooks up kids battling cancer and their families.
“Is there anything special about the car that you love?” Xavier asked Perez.
“I love that it has a [Toyota] Prius bottom color, and Lamborghini [colored] top.”
As Perez rolled out of the shot, the metallic paint job glistened with a rainbow effect as the sunlight refracted off the pearl in the clear coat.
Rafael Perez is a professor at Cuyamaca College about five miles south of downtown El Cajon. He resides in Sherman Heights and cruises a clean ’51 Chevy Styleline Deluxe.
Photograph by Rafael Perez
I talked with Perez after his interview with Xavier. “After the Facebook Live interview, did you park with the other vehicles, or did you jam back to your pad?”
“I left. I knew that the intent was to clear the area and to keep it moving. I took a long way home, though, and put the car away. That’s the irony with Cruise for the Cause this year. The cars are running and in motion, instead of parked on display.”
At Xavier’s past events, hundreds of car owners linked up at the same spot he and Perez interviewed in the Eastlake part of Chula Vista. They would meet at the SDCCU Stadium parking lot, which some cruisers still refer to as “Jack Murphy Stadium,” and then they’d hit the road and cruise in large caravans throughout the county. “I started with 25 cars,” Xavier says, “and it’s gone up to 650 cars. When I changed [venues] to Qualcomm, it went crazy.”
“I saw you were rolling your ‘61 vert through our Cherokee Point neighborhood a couple of years ago,” I told the X-Man. “I was trying to holler at you, but you gassed it and were out.”
Xavier laughed.“You have two choices to go to Costco: You can take your Toyota daily driver, or your lowrider. I’m going to take the lowrider to Costco. I’ve even taken it to work a couple of times recently.”
Xavier The X-Man: “You have two choices to go to Costco: You can take your Toyota daily driver, or your lowrider. I’m going to take the lowrider to Costco. I’ve even taken it to work a couple of times recently.”
Photograph by Ron Morales
Xavier owns a 1961 Chevrolet Impala, which he named “Doing It To Death.” It’s a black-and-red convertible that sits on 14-inch TrueSpokes wire wheels and can be lifted and dropped to the pavement via a flip of four switches that activate the custom hydraulic system mounted in the trunk. Among the accents on X’s whip are the shifter, which resembles an old school microphone, and the Dia De Los Muertos skulls airbrushed on the trunk lid.
“Aren’t you worried about getting your car dinged in the Costco parking lot?”
“I used to worry about that when I was younger,” he responded, “this whole pandemic makes you re-think life and how we are supposed to enjoy life. Cars are meant to be driven. Some people are like, 'You know I built this car, and it took me X amount of years and with X amount of dollars, and that’s why you build a car, to enjoy it and say I’m going to enjoy as much as I can to the fullest.' You probably wouldn’t realize that as much if you didn’t go through this pandemic, and you wouldn’t fully realize the value of family and the appreciating of life itself.”
On June 6, when graduation ceremonies were deemed illegal throughout the county, Mar Vista High students’ parents and guardians took it upon themselves to celebrate their teenagers’ milestones. But instead of hijacking the school’s football field and having their kids walk the line discreetly, they formed a caravan and cruised around Imperial Beach while the locals came out and cheered for the 2020 graduating class.
An 11-minute YouTube video of the IB graduation cruise surfaced. The YouTuber filmed the cruise on Seacoast Drive across the street from the Surfhenge art installation at Portwood Pier Plaza, the entrance to the city’s fishing pier. The caravan was lead by a red diesel truck with the driver blaring its airhorns.
According to the California Vehicle Code, “Cruising” is defined to mean the driving of a motor vehicle two (2) or more times within a four (4) hour period, in a particular direction, past a traffic control point
Photograph Courtesy National City Police Department
According to the California Vehicle Code, “cruising” is defined to mean the driving of a motor vehicle two (2) or more times within a four (4) hour period, in a particular direction....”
Had signs been stating “no cruising” along Seacoast Drive, and the graduates and their chaperones returned past the same spot at about noon to stroll on the pier, they could’ve been cited. But the beachfront community supports car culture.
About ten years ago, I.B. dwellers introduced an idea of implementing an image of a woody — an older station wagon with wood panel accents — within the city’s street signs. Then-Mayor Jim Janney reportedly said he “liked the idea” in a 2011 Patch article headlined: “New Imperial Beach Streets Signs May Carry Woody Logo.” “I believe when you are advertising or promoting a community, you keep hitting the same thing over and over again,” Janney said in the article, “in this case, it has been the woody logo. I think it is something that brings a sense of your place to Imperial Beach.”
Almost nine years later, the City of Imperial Beach signs still depict a woody with surfboard protruding from its rear door.
“When the City of I.B. had a sandcastle event, they came to our club and requested six VW Buses, so Mayor Dedina and all the city’s people could cruise the buses in the parade,” said Mario Peña Machado.
Peña Machado founded the San Diego Air Cooled Car Club and organized the Fiesta En La Playa car show. In June, I visited him at his garage, which faces Palm Avenue, about a half-mile northeast of the pier. Peña Machado was tinkering with his 1956 VW Bug.
Mario Peña Machado founded the San Diego Air Cooled car club and organized the Fiesta En La Playa car show.
Photograph by Mike Madriaga
“Vrooom,” rumbled a pack of old school motorcycles that passed us. “Yeah, man, since our shutdown, I’ve seen more cruisers roll through. Check out that lowrider.”
A ’50s bomb that resembled Perez’s ’51 Chevy crept by us, and the driver hit the hydraulic switch to acknowledge my thumbs-up gesture. “Were those your VWs at the graduation cruise?” I asked him.
“No, that was the Wolfpack Car Club.”
By coincidence, a matte black VW Bug rolled past us. The driver threw a rev, and then waved at us. “That’s the president of the Wolfpack. He was a member of our San Diego Air Cooled Club, and all of a sudden, he started his crew.”
“So I was cruising in my VW Bug, and I stopped by his house. A bunch of the guys from our SDAC club were there, and they were having some drinks. Then he got in my face telling me that he and the dudes that were behind him were splitting from our club.”
Peña Machado understands the car club scene and its logistics and drama. He was a kid when he started cruising at Playas de Tijuana in the mid-1970s sitting shotgun with his uncle Eddie from Kronos, a Tijuana-based car club. In 2002 Machado began Tijuana Aircooled, a club of vintage VW owners based across the border. In 2005, he moved the club to I.B. and changed the name.
“So back to the Wolfpack, are you guys cool now?”
“Yeah, we squashed it, and as you can see, we say wassup,” he responded.
Sierra Hubbard is a 23-year old tattoo artist from I.B. “When Covid-19 hit, I was no longer able to tattoo during the pandemic,” she said.
To pass the time during our countywide shutdown, Sierra Hubbard tinkered with her project: a 1968 Chevy Nova with the original in-line six motor topped with a single-barrel carburetor.
Photograph by Mona at NinerGirlPhotography
To pass the time during the county shutdown, she tinkered with her project: a 1968 Chevy Nova with the original in-line six motor topped with a single-barrel carburetor. “I just added a Flowmaster 10 series muffler, and a nice and shiny exhaust pipe with a pencil tip.”
Hubbard has attended car shows and cruised as a co-pilot since the early millennium. In May, she wanted to level-up her love for the gear head culture and set up a car cruise. “I made an online post and sent it out to all my lowrider and classic car friends and family, and it got a lot of attention. So much attention that I got called by San Diego Sheriffs telling me that people did not want me cruising through Imperial Beach. But they couldn’t do anything about it because I posted Covid guidelines and implemented them.”
By happenstance, Hubbard found another auto customizer from the Rollerz Only Club that was throwing a cruise on the same May 23 date she planned hers on. “His name is Josh, and he has a beautiful G body with lovely pinstripes on it. We joined our cruises together, matched our routes, and he helped me run it the way we needed it to.”
Come May 23, about 50 cars showed up to Hubbard and Josh’s cruise launching from J Street in Chula Vista. Their route was from J Street to Imperial Beach, then back up to Chula Vista, and on to Highland, then park at the Price Breakers parking lot on the corner of Highland and Plaza.
The same spot cruisers parked and chilled over 40 years ago.
“Another group that set their cruise on the same day saw that their cruise was small [in numbers], and saw that mine was a big hit,” Hubbard explained. “So [the organizer of the smaller cruise] had his people meet up with us at Highland and tried taking over my show. Josh and I both made it clear that if I say we roll, we roll. So [the other cruise group] got mad and left, but that’s the name of the game. You don’t take control of someone else’s cruise. That’s a big no-no.”
“I wanted to share that with others and show people you could be a girl and still do shit like this. At first, it was a worry in the back of my head that I was a girl setting up a car show and cruise. But the cruisers all proved my fears wrong.”
Highland Avenue in National City has been a major hub for the cruisers since the 1970s. Just as Hubbard faced a confrontation from an opposing cruise organizer in 2020, similar beefs brewed on the 1.7-mile cruise strip that runs north-south between Interstates 5 and 805, north of Highway 54.
“We’d hear gunshots,” said Fred P., a local chef and cruiser now in his 40s, “that’s why the city of National City made it illegal to cruise here in 1992. But we didn’t care so much about the cops and the fighting. Well we did, but we were always distracted looking for girls.”
“They didn’t have this center divider [island] back then, so when we would see someone we liked, if it was later in the night or further down the strip with fewer cars, we’d flip a u-turn [to pursue] them, or if it were packed, we’d switch passengers.”
The custom of switching passengers would start with two cars; one had a pair of gals and the other, a couple of dudes. The passengers would switch cars with one another, cruise the boulevard, and the pairs would get to know one another.
Fred used to roll a brown Buick Regal from the early 1980s that he purchased for $500. He ended up dropping “thousands of dollars” into the mid-size sedan shortly after. “I had a diamond tuck interior and a hydraulic system with two pumps and six batteries.”
Fred and I drove on Highland Avenue in June to see if there was anybody cruising.
“Back then,” Fred said, “I bumped ‘Back to the Hotel’ [by N2Deep] on my system, we had super loud systems.”
“Where was the starting point of the cruise strip again?”
“Right here on 2nd and Highland Avenue by the car wash,” he said, “by 7 pm, it was already bumper to bumper here, and the pinche gruas [fucking tow trucks] would line up right here on the side.”
“How’d you get busted cruising back then?”
“When the policeman stopped us, they’d say, 'I saw you a couple of times, and if we see you cruising here again [tonight], we will give you a ticket and impound your car.'”
We drove southbound on Highland Avenue. “This was another chingon [badass] spot, this car wash [on 5th] was always bien lleno [very full], and we’d park here too.”
As we stopped at the corner of 8th and Highland, Fred pointed at the 7-Eleven to the left and laughed. “The manager there would always call the cops on us if we were there too long. In fact, there was a tow truck waiting there too. He was like, ‘Our customers need to park there.’”
We proceeded past E. Plaza Boulevard, and on the left side lay the Price Breakers parking lot where Hubbard and her fellow cruisers rendezvoused about two weeks prior. “They didn’t have that Panda Express back then,” Fred said. “Around here, I hit the three-wheel motion, and I accidentally hit a dude’s car.”
Three-wheel motion is when the driver of a vehicle with a custom hydraulic suspension dumps the rear corner pump and simultaneously lifts the opposite front corner pump, to make the car roll on three wheels, as the suspended wheel continues spinning in mid-air.
“During that time, we didn’t have cell phones, so I went inside there, it used to be a Hollywood Video, and used their phone to call the police. We exchanged numbers, but the guy never called me.”
We approached Sweetwater High on the right side on 30th and Highland, which is about 1.7 miles from the beginning of the cruise strip. “This is where we’d make a u-turn and head back on Highland, or grab a carne asada burrito at the El Cotijan right there, back in the ’90s burritos were like $4.”
“And if you go that way [westbound on 30th] then turn right on D Avenue, that’s where some of the cars on ‘time out’ would cruise,”
“After the police warned us, we’d cruise there because there were no 'no cruising' signs, and some of us would park there at Kimball Park and hang out.”
On August 28, I reached out to the National City Police Department about the legality of cruising in their city.
“The City has a city-wide municipal code for cruising NCMC 11.68.050 / CVC 21100(K),” responded Captain Graham Young, “however, one organization [SD Low Rider Association] went in front of City Council for special events permit to allow cruising on a limited time after a charity fundraising event in Kimball Park on September 21, 2019.”
La Vuelta Barrio Logan is another popular cruise affected by the pandemic. In July, the organization canceled its 2020 summer event. “La Vuelta is an open street, and you cruise what you got,” explained Perez, the professor with ’51 Chevy Styleline Deluxe.
“The cruise strip here is from Chicano Park to just past Lucky’s where Logan Avenue curves. Cars were meant to be driven, and La Vuelta allows that to happen, to see the art in motion. And now, it’s a compromise format due to Covid-19, but goes back to the roots of cruising - wheels in motion.”