RENO, Nev. (AP) — Richard Lopez was a sophomore in high school when he got his first car. He traded his home stereo system to get it.

“You’ll laugh,” said Lopez. “It was a 1971 Datsun 210.”

That little blue box on wheels was just the beginning. A brief Volkswagen Beetle phase followed, but it wasn’t long before he discovered his true love: 1961 Chevy Impalas.

Some know him as Mr. Lopez, others know him as Mr. Impala, but most everyone in Reno’s lowrider community knows him best as the guy that can make an unlovely jalopy into a sick bomba. Most recently, his work was center stage at the National Automobile Museum’s exhibition, “Low and Slow,” in Reno.

“I’m not an artist, I just have vision,” said Lopez, 46, owner of Auto Color Studio in Reno.

It used to be Lopez’d fix up any old junker. He’d turn rusted beaters into sparkling, bouncing starlets. Velvet seats. Painted hoods. Dimpled engines.

He uses more discretion now. His work has been featured repeatedly in Lowrider Magazine, the ultimate canon of low lows. Today, customers come in with a dream, and he makes it better. For the loftiest of projects, it can take up to five years.

It took a lot longer for Lopez, an entirely self-taught high school dropout, to make his own dream a reality.

Anything Lopez received as a boy, he would tear it apart. By the time he was attending high school, he was mostly chopping up cars.

“I wanted a car. I didn’t care what it was. I knew it was a way to get around, and a symbol of success,” Lopez said.

Lopez read Low Rider Magazine at a young age.

“Religiously, I would never miss a magazine,” he said.

When he was 14, Lopez was living with his father after his parents divorced. His father came home one day and told his son he would have to get another job, and it was time to live on his own. He was already working two jobs, one as a clerk at Albertson’s, the other painting houses. He had little choice but to drop out of as a sophomore at Sparks High.

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“I had to pay rent, the bills, I was already falling behind in school with the other two jobs. I had to survive,” Lopez said.

By 19, he met his first wife. By 21, he was a father. Over the years, he worked odd jobs, including at auto shops, and in the meantime, he fixed up rattletraps in the backyard. On Fridays, he’d go cruising in downtown Reno. It was the one night he got to show off his work.

“I would paint my car with primer because I couldn’t afford a real paint job. I would change it up every week so it looked like I had something fresh,” Lopez said.

Over the years, he continued to save his money up to buy used cars.

“Every car was a guinea pig. I used every car to get better,” he said.

When he started traveling to low rider competitions, he was shocked when immediately he was recognized as someone to keep an eye on. He was winning competitions. Every time.

Yet, while he was starting to gain momentum in the lowrider community, he was still trying to earn respect at home.

In 1997, Lopez tried his hand at running his own business in Reno, but it didn’t go swimmingly. He opened a retail lowrider shop, but “the city wouldn’t give us a garage license at the time because they didn’t want to recognize us as a service,” he said.

Since he was young, he’d go to Hot August Nights, hoping to make a name for himself with his souped-up rides. He would get looks, and comments.

“For a long time, we were called names, we were told we didn’t belong here,” Lopez said.

It was common then for lowrider enthusiasts to be the subjects of racism and fear, he said. While many people, including law enforcement, associated lowriders with gangs, Lopez said the communities are entirely separate.

The misconceptions, however, are starting to slip away. Lopez said it’s because the lowrider community has gone out of its way to teach others about the culture, and also include others in it.

“We are a humble and God fearing people,” Lopez said. “We are educated, we have jobs, we’re articulate, we give back.”

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The lowrider community’s history dates back to post World War II, when Chicano veterans came back from overseas with immense mechanical knowledge, according to a recent article in the Smithsonian.

As Hollywood and mainstream media, and other cultures across the world, started to give more recent credence to lowrider culture, car hounds locally did too.

Lopez still remembers in 2007 when he got an unexpected tap on the shoulder at Hot August Nights.

“It was John Ascuaga and he’s standing there with a big blue ribbon,” said Lopez, who won “Best in Show” that year when the then-Nugget hotel-casino boss handed him the award.

For eight years now, Lopez has owned and operated Auto Color Studio, a 4,200 square-foot garage. He’s had “hundreds of cars” pass through his hands, about 100 of them he’s owned and sold himself in the past 30 years.

A handful of cars sit shimmering in the sun on a hot day in May, the cars’ pearlescent paint jobs catching every ray. There’s “El Uno,” a cherry red 1961 Impala that Lopez gave to one of his sons as a graduation gift.

Next to it, “Egypt,” a 1963 gold and chocolate Impala that Lopez spent four backbreaking months on in preparation for his wedding. Two voluptuous pinups grace the hood.

Inside the shop, he has a handful of cars in different stages. Some are flat paint skeletons whose destinies await. Beside them are works in progress, half gutted and half glory.

“You gotta be patient,” said Gio Carcache, a longtime client and friend.

In his office, Lopez is surrounded by centerfolds and covers of the cars that he’s built, many of them featured in the magazine that he read after school as a boy. One of the cars on the wall is Carcache’s.

“I told him my goal is to get a car on the cover of Lowrider Magazine. He said, ‘Ok, we’ll get it done,’” Carcache said. “It took about 5 years, but we did it.”

Often, Lopez custom mixes the colors. He scavenges for the perfect parts.

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“Richard has a vision that I could never see. Should I do blue? Red?” Tony Daniels said. “I changed the color on my truck probably 10 to 15 times, and I finally walked out and said, ‘You choose.’ “I gave him free rein. The result was better than I ever could have imagined.”

Daniels now owns two cars built by Lopez, a copper 1955 Chevy pickup and a scarlet 1972 Ford Bronco. Daniels is also just one of the members of law enforcement that Lopez does work for, relationships Lopez couldn’t have imagined forming decades ago.

Daniels said he’s not a lowrider enthusiast, but he met Lopez through family about six years ago and realized how talented and generous a person he was.

“He struck me as someone who cared. He’s built two vehicles for me now, and every nut and bolt and grommet is brand new or refabricated,” Daniels said.

His work, however, isn’t the only thing that’s impressive about Lopez, his customers say.

Lopez is a father and family man above all. Besides his four sons, he adopted six stepchildren after marrying his second wife, Leona, four years ago.

His two eldest sons, Ritchie and Carlos Lopez, both have Lopez Brothers tattooed on their forearms alongside lowriders. They remember getting rides to school in their dad’s latest work of art and being proud to bring the cars to school functions, weddings, graduations, funerals, you name it.

Ritchie Lopez, who creates “black and grey” style illustrations of his dad’s work, was a featured artist during the recent exhibition at the National Automobile Museum.

“Hard work. That’s what we learned, hard work,” said Carlos Lopez, who’s fast becoming a talented and recognized fabricator under the tutelage of his father.

The boys and their father stand around one of their latest projects, a turquoise Impala with teal lenses and a silver engine that has the detail of a fine crown or belt buckle. A winged angel and violet pinstripes accent the sides.

“This is how we express ourselves,” Carlos Lopez said. “Our car tells our story.”



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