Some car buff's take a look at some of the low riders during a low rider car show at the Pima County Fair, Saturday April 16, 2005 in Tucson, Ariz.

James S. Wood / Arizona Daily Star

They have been described as “butterflies with transmissions.” Their aesthetic is best stated as “low and slow, mean and clean.” What are they? Low rider cars.

Low riding began just after World War II. It is in some sense a reaction to the mainstream cult of speed and efficiency — the style with which you arrive is more important than the speed with which you travel. You can start with just about any car, lower it, install hydraulic lifters above all four wheels, give it a rich, many-coated paint job, customize the interior with an emphasis on luxury . . . and you have a low rider!

Although low riding has moved beyond Chicano culture, it is still strongly associated with a very traditional aesthetic within that culture. I learn through epiphanies, so let me tell the story of one of those experiences.

In the late 1980s I was at a low rider show in a parking lot at the Tucson Museum of Art, part of a larger festival celebrating local Hispanic culture. In a corner of the lot was a carefully polished mini pickup, painted with many layers of yellow paint. It was equipped with hydraulic lifters above each wheel, and also on each corner of the bed, so that truck and bed could be moved independently. The cab was packed with hi-fi equipment.

The owner stood off to one side, dressed in black trousers, shades, a small hat, and a T-shirt with the name of this club. Remote controls in his hands, he was dancing his truck in time to the music that was coming from the speakers.

About a block away, in another parking lot, a mariachi was playing waltzes. An impeccably groomed palomino horse was dancing in time, while its rider, dressed in full charro regalia, stood on the saddle doing rope figures in time to the music. Same culture, same aesthetic. And that’s why I call low riders “folk art.”

The roots of the low rider aesthetic go even deeper into the culture. The aesthetics of a formal low rider display, which include implied motion, richness of color and materials, and richness of detail, really take us back to the 18th-Century baroque art of Mexico, as exemplified in the San Xavier Mission.

There will be low riders (and low rider bikes as well) on all three days of Tucson Meet Yourself. Sponsored by the Dukes car club, they will be across Alameda from El Presidio Park, in the streets and parking lots near the Tucson Museum of Art. There should be a record number of cars and bikes, as well as hopping demonstrations, food sales, and other events.