The young mechanics who build the Lowrider of the future

By | December 19, 2023

Young Techs are building the Lowrider of the futureAndri Tambunan

a group of people working on a cara group of people working on a car

Andri Tambunan

How does a teacher get high school students to show up early and wait by the door, eager for class to start? This is how.

“It all started in this room,” said Galen Hartman, 57, a veteran auto body shop owner turned high school teacher. We’re in his car shop on a campus of the Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy (SAVA) charter school, and Hartman’s nine teenage students have gathered in a semicircle. Behind him is an apple-red 1964 Chevy Impala, with its engine, other parts and most of the interior removed. Hartman explains why this Impala is special.

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Senior Roberto Rivas for an appropriate school mantra: “Your future starts here.”Andri Tambunan

“The vision came from your mother,” he announces, pointing to Nayeli Rodriguez, a 14-year-old freshman from a well-known lowriding family in the city.

A year ago, Rodriguez’s mother, ShaVolla, was in class and had the idea to have students build a lowrider in the shop. And not just any lowrider. Children must learn skills for the workforce of tomorrow. So why not build an electric lowrider? One with all the traditional lowrider features: a car that can jump hydraulically and drive on three wheels, with custom art everywhere. Just no combustion chambers and no gears. A lowrider with a fully electric drivetrain.

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Jaden Pack, another senior, dreams of one day owning a ’67 Cobra.Andri Tambunan

“I was a little skeptical,” Nayeli Rodriguez says with a sigh, “because if you grow up around lowriders” – her parents have six – “you would never think about converting one to electric. Ever! When I heard that we kids were going to work on it, I got excited.”

Hartman also became excited. So did Morri Elliott, executive director of educational programs, and Summer Ash, director of SAVA. Together they went hunting for subsidies. A local dealer, King City Classics, donated a ’64 Impala, a traditional lowriding vehicle. An alphabet soup of Sacramento-area agencies (SMUD, SMAQMD) donated electric vehicles – a Nissan Leaf, a Chevy Volt – that the students could “carcass” for parts.

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Wait, you missed a spot! Junior Alizea Lumbreras touches up the Impala’s paint.Andri Tambunan

“Suddenly it went well kaboom!” says Hartman. “We had the students. We have the car. Now we are moving.”

“It’ll be the first one ever,” said senior Wyatt Showen, standing next to the stripped Impala. “This will be the first real lowrider conversion built by high school students in the world, I’m pretty sure.”

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Freshman Nayeli Rodriguez says her dream car is a 1934 Buick Roadmaster lowrider.Andri Tambunan

From the beginning last year, Hartman, who also teaches auto shop at nearby American River College, believed his students had what it took. What he didn’t expect was that this build would spotlight the historic turning point the entire automotive world is facing as the EV phenomenon comes to life.

On this day, during the shop class, Ash Dalal, a local University of California-trained engineer, teaches the students how to use a state-of-the-art 3D scanner so they can get a footprint for CAD and drafting purposes. Dalal has a shop called Ohm Electric Cars, and he donates his time. He mounted the scanner on a laptop and the students scan the Impala, beaming digital mojo into every crevice.

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“We create a curriculum,” Dalal explains, “where we go through the same technical process as they would do in the real industry. The design, the analysis, the overall execution. Then the students actually do it.”

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Mr. Hartman makes us feel like we are a team,” said senior Scott Williams. “A team working on a car.”Andri Tambunan

They have to figure out where to put the batteries, the motor, the inverter, the software. How to make them all talk to each other, how to make the car move, how to make it stop and make it safe. “We want air conditioning,” says Hartman. “The ’64 Impala had air conditioning, but it ran on the combustion engine. So now we need to convert it. Do you want to have a heater? How are you going to put a heater in there? Where will the heat come from?”

Currently, the car is still a slightly dented and stripped Impala, but most of the components are ready to go, including a high-end stereo donated by a local store called Acme Tops & Tunes. The students have already taken the Impala to car shows to talk about what they do. The first time, last summer, at the Cal Expo in Sacramento, the Impala did not get the response the students expected. California’s capital has a vibrant lowrider scene, and some OG builders turned their noses up at the idea of ​​an electric lowrider.

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“This will be the first real lowrider conversion built by high school students in the world, I’m pretty sure,” said senior Wyatt Showen.Andri Tambunan

“We got a lot of responses from lowrider people,” says Showen. “They were stunned. They stepped back and said, “Okay, that’s stupid. This is not cool.’” That impulse reflects the attitude of many gearhead groups — hot rodders, race car makers — who believe the EV movement is pushing aside their piston-thumping passion. “As soon as we explained to them that we are high school students,” says Wyatt, “and this will be the first one ever, they calmed down.”

Since then, a number of old-school lowrider builders have stepped into the class to help out. Meanwhile, the students and their parents are all for practical skills that could lead to future jobs. “It’s a lesson that really teaches us something,” enthuses Brandt Smedstad, also a senior. “With a course like this, which is practice-oriented, I could get a job almost anywhere that deals with cars or electric cars. Moreover, we get publicity.”

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Lumbreras has earned a well-deserved break.Andri Tambunan

“We’re going to be pretty ‘famous,’” promises another student, senior Scott Williams, making air quotes. “But this class isn’t just for fun. I’m taking this as a career path. Because electric cars will be the future. Especially in California. Hopefully I will go to a good university and find a good job in electric car development.”

At the same time, something else is going on in Hartman’s car workshop. Something that has nothing to do with EVs. “This is my favorite class,” Williams says. ‘Of the whole week. From all the time I was in school.”

Better than chemistry?

“Better.”

Better than reading Shakespeare?

“Better. With other teachers you can feel bad if you do something wrong,” he says. “Mr. Hartman makes us feel like we are a team. A team working on a car.”

“That’s what working on cars is all about,” says Smedstad, who and his family have worked on rock crawlers and hot rods all his life. “We come together. Something breaks, we come together and fix it.”

Brandt SmedstadBrandt Smedstad

“Something breaks, we come together and fix it,” says graduate Brandt Smedstad.Andri Tambunan

Therein lies a truth about the car passion, which is much talked about in this class. Working on cars – whether it’s an EV lowrider, grandpa’s Silverado or a Spec Miata getting ready for race day – is about learning, but it’s also about family, friendship, leadership and community. About making memories.

The electric lowrider will probably be ready in the spring. When completed, it will be on display at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento. SAVA has a trailer with a mural painted by a local lowrider artist, which will be used to move the Impala to lowrider and EV events. There’s even talk of taking the students on a class trip to the SEMA Show in Vegas next year.

a group of people posing for a photoa group of people posing for a photo

Andri Tambunan

“I’m graduating in December,” Smedstad said, “but I’m hoping that after I graduate I can still come in and do this until the car is ready.” So wait, he wants to go to high school even after he graduates?

Well done, Mr. Hartman. Class rejected.

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