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LOWRIDERS: A LOVE AFFAIR THAT BEGINS WITH FAMILY.

Byline: Brent Hopkins Staff Writer

SAN FERNANDO - Abel Perez was a rough kid, but a '66 Chevy Caprice saved his life.

His dad, Joe, was a North Hollywood hot rodder back in the 1930s and his brothers all loved cars. As a kid, he'd cruise with his old man in a '59 Pontiac Bonneville and bounce around in the back of his siblings' lowriders. Whenever they had a chance, they'd be out in the driveway, heating the springs of their long, heavy cars to make them hug the ground and installing hydraulics to make them jump.

They were like Aztec artisans carving temple walls, Abel remembers. The Perez brothers with their tools could take plain metal and make it beautiful.

He watched them in awe. The eldest, Emilio, who everyone called Babe, could do anything with a wrench. Steven, next in line, had that beautiful Caprice, the upscale version of an Impala; Steven was smart but had problems. As far back as the now 44-year-old Perez can remember, he was immersed in cars.

But Abel Perez had other pursuits that weren't so wholesome. He hung out with troublemakers, got his thick arms covered with intricate green tattoos that he hates today. He saw Steven get into drugs and die at the age of 18 of a drug overdose. Their heartbroken father gave Abel the Caprice and told him to take care of it.

Things would never be the same.

``I've become successful, and it was because of this,'' he said sweeping an arm over the brilliant fuchsia hood of his current lowrider. ``I was a gangbanger, but when I was 16, I fell in love with this. I decided you can't hang around guys like that; you can't have a car like this and bang.

``I made friends with the guys who used to be my enemies because we all drove cars like this.''

Working with his surviving brothers, Perez made cars his life. They didn't care about racing, didn't get hung up on horsepower and torque. They cared only about looking good when they rolled slow down the boulevards, catching eyes and getting respect from the other guys on the street.

On Wednesday nights, they'd cruise Van Nuys Boulevard, mingling with the hot-rod guys, the surfers and their friends with the metal-flake rides with the little whitewall tires. The girls were nice, the coup de grace, but the ultimate compliment was when another driver said you had the baddest car on the block. As Abel recalls it, he always did.

``Getting the car ready, that was the best high in the world. You didn't need drugs, you didn't need a beer, just the anticipation of driving around with the best car in the Valley.''

For a Saturday night on the town, they'd head north to San Fernando and ease down the main drag. Babe built a record player into his dashboard on special shock absorbers so it wouldn't skip and he'd crank up Rare Earth's ``Get Ready.'' Once they got near Maclay, they'd pass Tom Carroll Chevrolet, where it was really time to show off.

Throwing their rides into a slow U-turn, they'd watch their reflections in the dealership's huge, mirrored front window. You could see the whole car, paint gleaming in the streetlight, wire rims sparkling so beautiful you could cry. It was, in cruisers' parlance, so bitchin'.

``We don't have a lot of money, we've got a 9-to-5 job. But dammit, we've got nice cars.''

Over the years, Perez figures he's owned 80 cars and 18 lowriders. Monte Carlos, '62s, '63s, '64s - but mostly Impalas. He always loved Impalas. Now he's got a '65 model, with a 327-cubic-inch V-8 Super Sport laid in its gleaming engine bay and a plush purple interior nicer than many living rooms. The paint job alone costs $16,000, he estimates, with detailed pinstripes running under the hood, inside the wheel wells and across the belly.

He calls it Fantasia.

When he was a single guy, he didn't go out for an entire year, saving his money every week to get it painted. Later, after he got married and split up with his wife, she got the house and he kept the car. No one would take away the ride he and Babe built themselves.

He doesn't drive her much, not wanting to risk a dent or a scratch on her precious bodywork. Occasionally, he'll haul her on a trailer to a show with the Premier Car Club, but mainly he just fiddles with her in the garage. When he recently took her out for a daylong drive, however, he felt a rush he hadn't known in years. Even in his 40s, with Prada glasses and a manager's job with Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, he feels the pride of a teen-age lowrider.

The family he built his cars with is mostly gone. Joe died when Abel was 18, leaving him to help raise the brothers. Complications of diabetes got Babe five years ago, when he was 56. Javier died the next year - testicular cancer. Daniel died in '64, claimed when he was just a little kid by leukemia. It's just Abel and David now.

He's thought about selling Fantasia, finding a new hobby. The car might go - he's already bought, sold and bought it back before - but he knows he'll never fully walk away from the life he loves.

``It's not the car, it's what it symbolizes,'' he said. ``I've had a lot of tragedy in my life with my brothers, so this car is like me telling them I haven't forgotten them.''

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Meet Fantasia,- Abel Perez's pride and joy. Fantasia,- his '65 Chevy Impala lowrider with a 327-cubic-inch V-8 Super Sport laid in its gleaming engine bay and a plush purple interior, is nicer than many living rooms.

(2) Abel Perez's love for cars has been a family affair. In this photo, Abel's father, Joe Perez, sits atop a Ford from the 1930s.

(3) Abel Perez's grandfather started with hot rods, and Abel's father, shown here in a family photo with his Ford, continued the tradition of making autos an important part of his family.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 7, 2006
Words:1034
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