Born and raised in San Jose, John "John John" Ponce is a living, breathing testament to the dedication found in lowrider culture. Currently the president of Low Conspiracy Car Club, John John has seen many things during his time in lowriding, including the culture's growth, and while that has certainly been a blessing, he's also survived the culture's tougher times as well.
"There was a time when people really thought lowriding was on the brink of death. Like, when the mini-trucks came; I knew they'd have their time, but I knew they weren't gonna be here for as long as lowriding culture. I knew that for a fact," he says. John John's conviction stems from the fact that his roots are so deeply embedded within the culture; he simply knows no other way of life. "Before I ever got my plaque, I got my Low Conspiracy Car Club jacket. It was embroidered by hand by a woman named Mrs. Brown, and I still have that jacket today," he says. "I'll break it out every once in a while, but my kids are like, 'Dad, the sleeves come up to your elbows!' I don't care. I'm still a big kid at heart!" His enthusiasm is genuine, and it probably stems from the fact that the jacket he's referring to was given to him in 1982 — over three decades ago, yet this veteran remembers the proud moment like it was yesterday.
To know the history of Low Conspiracy Car Club is almost to know the history of LOWRIDER Magazine itself. During the magazine's formative years, its ties to San Jose were strong, thanks to the efforts of El Larry and Sonny Madrid who began the publication within the same area, which would ultimately breed the club that would define Ponce's lowrider experience. "Sometimes, I take my kids and drive by the old LOWRIDER office that was here during the days of El Larry and Sonny Madrid. In many ways, the culture is just all part of my DNA and what it was like growing up around here," explains John John.
Industry staple Zenith Wire Wheels is also located in nearby Campbell, and Heller Park in San Jose is not only the site where Low Conspiracy holds its annual picnic, it's also the site where the first ever issue of LOWRIDER Magazine was shot. Mutual history aside, the famed intersection of Story and King Boulevards also holds many a fond memory for this lifelong lowrider. "We'd cruise Story and King every weekend and face the San Jose PD like it was routine. I remember getting tickets every weekend," jokes John John. "I can't even tell you how many times I had to take the Zeniths and 5.20s off my car every week to get the fix-it ticket signed off, only to just put 'em right back on and hit the streets!"
Before he hit the streets as an official cruiser, John John Ponce was raised on a steady diet of lowrider culture. "Going to the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in '78 and '79 to attend the lowrider car shows was crazy," he recalls. "I was in awe seeing all the lowriders that were built in San Jose. These were the early days, and I remember a green Rivi owned by Steve Miller that had a big following for his club called First Impressions. There was also a bomb-centric club called Chicanos Pride. This was maybe '73 or '74, and seeing all of this had me hooked."
To further fan the flames of John John's Lowrider passion, his soon-to-be uncle, Jose Paixao, took him to his first show in a lowrider. "It was around 1980, and we went to Union City Car show in his beautiful '76 Cutlass with Premium Sportways and Zeniths. I knew from that moment on that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," John explains sincerely. "The switches, the culture; all the other cars clubs from the East Bay and San Jose. Zapco stereos with the 18-band keyboard EQ? I remember all of that!"
By 1982, John John had his license and he attended a Low Conspiracy meeting thanks to the same uncle who took him to the Union City show. "I got introduced to a couple of guys, like Jose Martinez, and his brother, and I hung around and kept in the loop with the guys. I finally got my first car, a 1976 Regal that my mom gave me and I took it to a Low Conspiracy meeting and of course I got the red flag real quick! I was only 16 and going to high school, working at a body shop for like $150 bucks a week, but I was determined to meet the club's guidelines.
"By '83, my Regal had Zeniths and it was lifted in the back, but I had to get the front lifted before I could fly a plaque. I had it striped by Bob Heinrichs at Heinrichs Auto Body and about nine months later, I got the front lifted, and I was plaqued-down by about mid 1983," explains John John. "I was so proud to have my car plaqued-out in my high school yearbook."
While the Regal was his stepping-stone, it would be a '79 Bonneville that became John John Ponce's claim to lowrider fame. "I remember driving Jose Martinez' Bonneville to the Carnales Unidos show in 1985. We took around 20 cars that day, but I was driving Jose's as he had been dealing with a divorce that was a tough situation. I matured a lot during that time watching him deal with that and also growing myself, being 18 at the time. It was a tough year, but I think Jose knew who I was as a person and saw that I was in it for the long haul. When it came time to pass the keys to me, he didn't hesitate." The car would later go on to become known as "The Madd Engraver," Ponce's signature ride, which took home many a lowrider title at shows — leaving the competition in its wake.
John's early maturity propelled him to the forefront of the club before long, a far cry from the times when he and Carlos Lima were nearly a generation behind the founding members. "As long as we kept up with the rules and regulations they were cool with us," recalls John John. "It was such a helpful atmosphere, guys helping other guys to build and get what they needed for each other's cars. We wanted to do it all."
A trip to the Lifestyle CC show at the L.A. Sports Arena only furthered John's desire to place his club among the culture's elite. "There was like 20,000 people there, and we decided to make the trip down to the Coliseum show in '88," he explains. "We took five cars, trailered four, and drove one, and it was a last hurrah for one of our guys, Rene Montez. He said, 'I'm gonna drive my car to the show on stocks, I'll put my Zeniths on when I get there, and after this I'm closing the book on competing and showing with the club.' He ended up placing, and I remember Mando from Klique really admiring Rene's 1970 Impala called 'Obsession.' He drove it all the way there and drove it all the way home, and you'd swear it was a trailer queen given the shape it was in."