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King of the Streets brings out the best of San Francisco’s lowrider culture

Mike Thiessen's 1957 Chevy Bel Air jumps at King of the Streets. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Wool Pendleton shirts. The smell of Tres Flores pomade. Creased-up Dickies and cars that bounced so high they seemed to defy gravity.

These were just a few of the sights on full display at the 10th annual King of the Streets car show on Saturday at the Embarcadero, hosted by San Francisco’s Lowrider Council.

Lowrider culture has long been as woven into the fabric of the city as sourdough bread bowls, Mission-style burritos and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Samuel Reveles, member of City Classics Bomb Club and owner of a 1949 Chevy Fleetline Deluxe, said he wants to dispel the notion that all lowriders are created equal.

A vanity plate reads "90S RAP" at King of the Streets in San Francisco on Saturday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“A lowrider consists of a car that has airbags and hydraulics. We, on the other hand, are classic cars. Some of us have airbags, but not all,” he said, adding that bombas, or bombs, are typically classified as classic cars and are usually General Motors cars from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

“You go to any other show outside of San Francisco; people will say, ‘Oh, you guys are lowriders,’” Reveles said. “We are not a lowrider club, but we are a bomb club. There’s a distinction.”

City Classics Bomb Club, which is based in San Francisco and the Peninsula, was one of many groups that came from all over the West Coast for Saturday’s event and the after-party cruise in the Mission.

Reveles said hosting the event in San Francisco shows how important the city’s car culture is to the lowrider scene.

Sam Reveles Sr. with his 1949 Chevy Fleetline Deluxe "La Morena" at King of the Streets in San Francisco on Saturday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“Our car culture has never gone away. As you see, there’s a lot of cars here, and a lot of them are San Francisco-based,” he said. “It hasn’t gone away. We keep it strong. As long as we have somewhere to go, somewhere to drive to like this—I mean look at this, it’s beautiful.”

Hundreds of lowriders lined up between Pier 30 and Pier 32, where spectators were buzzing for the car-hopping event in which contestants try to outdo each other to see which vehicle could bounce the highest.

The bottom portion of the vehicle’s front tires are measured with a tall ruler that goes up to 120 inches.

Mike “Cracker” Thiessen—president of Streetwise Car Club from Las Vegas, former car-hopping champion at King of the Streets and self-proclaimed “die-hard lowrider”—said he’s lost count of how many competitions he’s participated in. But still gets the pre-hop jitters.

“I’m not going to lie; I have to get a couple shots in to calm my nerves,” he said, chuckling. “Once I get that liquid courage in and I get in that pit, then it’s like I’m on tunnel vision mode, ready to do me and talk some shit.”

As he finished his hopping run, Thiessen had to readjust the batteries of his hydraulic system and had a brief scare where he thought the batteries were going to ignite—they fortunately didn’t—but he said those losses were “part of the game.”

Thiessen’s recent ride—a green Chevy Bel Air that he named “Natural High”—is on the market for an asking price of $250,000. He’s worked on cars since he was 16 and is now 41, working as a trucker and asphalt paver.

“I started off as a kid with a little four-door Chevy for a couple thousand that I fixed up and worked my way up to this,” he said. “That’s how I worked my way up—building it and then selling it to get a bit of a profit and going on to the next car to build it above and beyond the last car.”

Mike Thiessen and his wife, Ulani Thiessen, both of Las Vegas, enter the jumping competition in their 1957 Chevy Bel Air at King of the Streets in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Although he’s an avid hopper, Thiessen said he was most excited about the after-event cruise in the Mission.

“No. 1 is the Mission,” he said. “The hopping is a plus. But the cruise is definitely part of the experience that makes it worth coming back to.”

As the sun shone on the car-hopping pit, John Garcia of San Jose served ice cream out of a lowrider cart that boasted a custom paint job and rims. He got the idea while at a car show trying to sell the custom skateboards he makes.

“I was sitting there at the pop-up and saw the paleteros cleaning up,” he said. “They get in free at the car show and don’t have to pay the vendor fees or anything. I’m sitting there and realized I can do that, too.”

He wanted to stand out—making his ice cream cart on theme with the lowrider cars.

John Garcia poses next to his lowrider truck and cart he uses to sell Mexican-style ice cream at Bay Area car shows. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

“I’ve been doing it for about one year,” he said, adding car show attendees don’t often think he is actually selling Mexican-style ice cream until they see a transaction. “Now people are starting to recognize.”

He’s now selling ice cream at Bay Area car shows and has seen his business grow due to the same faces frequenting the shows.

“From city to city, it’s pretty steady because I’ve seen the lowrider culture from San Jose to San Francisco [and it's] consistent,” Garcia said. "When I’m in San Jose, I see a lot of Frisco cats and vice versa. It’s a really tight-knit group.”