If you've been in the classic Lowrider scene for the past few years, then there's a good chance that the name John Kennedy rings a bell. Of course it might sound familiar because John Kennedy is the name of one of our greatest U.S. Presidents, however, the John Kennedy that we are referring to happens to also be a great leader, albeit in the Lowrider culture. He is best known for his amazing work at Bowtie Connection, one of the industry leaders in car restoration, which has survived through the ups and downs of our currently tough economic times.
John's a true Lowrider original, as his roots in our industry go back almost 25 years, dating back to the Orlie's days. He's one of those guys who always kept his finger on the pulse of the Lowrider scene, participating in all the latest trends and building techniques, while still keeping true to the traditional ideals of the culture. His vehicle repertoire has been as diverse as anyone's, ranging from the mini-truck that he drove in High School, to the '64 Impala SS convertible that he restored after he graduated.
John's humble beginnings can be traced back to his parents' house in San Pedro, where John grew up. Of course in those days there was no Bowtie, it was just simply "White Boy John's." The sixty-four that he purchased right out of High School served as John's introductory education into the custom car world. As a teenager, John would often see a local Lowrider driving his convertible around town. One day after admiring the convertible during his high school commute, he promised himself that he would one day purchase the car and make it his own. Once John had finally saved up enough money, he approached the owner of the car to inquire about it. The owner was an easy sell, as he had almost abandoned the car himself, after it was involved in a minor accident. John happily picked up the '64 and took it home, stripping it down before sending it to the paint shop. Once the car was painted and ready to be assembled, John was left with no choice but to learn to assemble the car himself. Apparently, the old man who had fixed the damage was able to convince John that today would be as good a day as any, for him to learn how to install moldings.
This served as John's introduction into the car restoration world, and John never looked back, building his sixty-four into a daily driver that would last him for the next several years. This car also educated John about the business side of the car world, as it opened his eyes to the fact that he could get paid for doing what he loves to do by turning it into a business. After he sold the car, it was exported to Japan, giving him the confidence that his restoration work could continue to earn him top dollar. During this time, John split time between Orlie's Hydraulics and Homies Hydraulics, where he honed his suspension expertise to perfection on his Candy T-bird, "Tears of Clown." After a few years of working out of his parents' driveway and garage, he outgrew the house, and his parents were quick to recognize their son's predicament. They supported him by offering him a loan to help him establish his own legitimate business.
John took the money and formed John's Exports, a business that enjoyed a great run while the Japanese market was strong. Business was good for John back in '93 and '94, as this niche market flourished in Southern California's stable economy. John's exports built some of the industry's top cars, including his "South Side Player," and "South Side Sesenta," amongst other cars. As John witnessed the decline of the Japanese market, he realized that he would have to change with the times in order to survive. He did so by creating Bowtie Connection, the industry leading shop that we all know of today.
We sat down with John and picked his brain on the virtues of staying hungry, teaching others, and being the best builder you can be.
So who were the people that you looked up to when you got started?
Well, when I was growing up, I always saw local guys in San Pedro with Lowriders, and I wanted to have a car like theirs someday. I would have to say that I was inspired a lot by Rock Deleon from Groupe back in the day. He had an '80 ragtop Monte Carlo. The car was all candied and chromed out, and it was called "Fine as Wine." That [car] would be the standard that I would try to reach, when I used to build cars.
I know some people will always remember you for your "South Side Player." Do you think the timing was right to break that car out?
It was the right time, but I wish I would have brought it out a few months earlier. Simply because some of the heavy hitters that I wanted to compete with were already gone. When we built that car, we thought of the future. You can say it was ten years ahead of its time. I think that if that car was fresh off the assembly line, it could give some of the cars out there today a run for their money.
Even though you were known for the '64, only a few people know about the stable of Cabriolets and Paris Convertibles that you have owned and built.
There were already some out there from the Individuals, we just took it to the next level. We started doing full conversions. I probably owned about seven that were fully done and never made the magazine, since I was prone to building them and selling them. Now those cars are harder to find, and they have become relics. If you've got one, you should hold on to it.
Do you think this industry is going to pick up?
I hope so, for everybody's sake, not only work wise, but as a culture. It's sad to see this culture dying, as the new generation doesn't have the same passion or pride that we did when we got involved with it.
These kids nowadays are more negative. [It seems that] the first thing out of their mouths is "I will never be able to afford it, It's too much money, I don't want that." They'd rather buy a set of cheap China $250 wire wheels versus us; we had to struggle to buy a set of Dayton wire wheels for $1,350, and now those wheels are about $2,200. Their mentality is set very differently than what we had when we were growing up.
Why do you think that is?
There are a couple of reasons. For instance, the older guys in our industry don't help the situation. They might still have their cars, but they're not helping the next generation. They've moved on, and their priority has become their family. The other reason is that there are not a lot of shows or events to go to, and if there are, they've been condensed. You can't go cruising, you can't just go hang out, you can't even go to some parks because the park rangers will run you right out. A good example [of this] that I personally experienced was with my club. We went to El Dorado Park, and within 10 minutes of us parking, we had the Park Rangers asking us if we had permits and [questioning us] about what we were doing. The Park Rangers told us, "It would be best if you guys left."
How do you think you'll be known in our industry?
The industry has evolved and changed from when I got started. I'm known for building Lowriders, but recently I've been involved with several Originals, Low Rods and semi-Hot Rods, that's what my clientele is coming too. As a business, I have a family to feed. I wish I could just concentrate on only building Lowriders, but the fact is, that some people don't realize how much Lowriders cost to build.
What did you think about the Japanese market?
For us it was great, as it was a source of income that fueled the Lowrider economy. The market was good until Japan nearly wiped the California cars out. Now they can maintain their own economy with all of the cars that were purchased from the states. I think China really hurt our culture, from the bikes to the hydraulics and wheels.
Do you think the exporting might come back?
I think there will be a second coming, but we just need to be patient. I think the next wave will be Sweden, Germany, and Australia. They love all the aspects of American cars, [like] Impalas, '61-'64 Cadillacs, '64 Lincoln Convertibles. They have the same passion that the Japanese used to show when they first got started.
So what's next for you?
Lunch. Let's go!