Sergio Maldonado isn't offended when people ask him how low he can go.

He knows that they mean it as a compliment -- and that they're talking about his truck.

Maldonado, 39, is a longtime fan of lowriders, cars that can be adjusted to ride really low to the ground, often just a few inches from the pavement. But these cars, beloved and slaved over by their owners, are about much more than hugging the ground and slow cruising -- they're about chrome and more chrome, wildly luxurious custom interiors, fantastic paint jobs. And for some guys, they're almost a way of life.

Maldonado drives his 1981 Chevy lowrider as much as possible in the summer, including to work (for that, he cranks it up to legal highway height).

"My friends go fishing, hunting and golfing," he said. "They say, 'You spend a lot of money on your car.' But it's something I use every day."

Maldonado will emcee a lowrider show as part of this weekend's Cinco de Mayo festivities in St. Paul.

He has been building "low-lows" for himself and others for 20 years, most recently from the garage attached to his house in St. Paul's Midway area. On this evening, he has called in a few fellow fans to show off their sweet rides.

Carlos Gamboa carefully takes his boots off before stepping into the plush-and-mirrors sanctum of his very own tangerine dream. The "Fast and Furious"-style '95 Honda Civic painted with retro graphics has been featured repeatedly in Lowrider magazine.

Gamboa, 37, of Lakeville, figures he has sunk about $32,000 into the car. He installed the hydraulics and undercarriage himself, but like most lowriders, he jobs out the interior work.

Antonio Garcia tilts the Lamborghini-style door up on his '99 GMC Sierra pickup and steps out. He uses a different rag to clean each of the vehicle's elements -- one for the tire rims, another for the front end and a clean one for the interior.

"My friends drive by, see me working on my car, washing it, buffing it, checking every detail," said Garcia, 27, who lives in Burnsville. "They ask how can I spend five hours on it. At the end of the day, it's just beautiful, and I say, look -- that's why."

Hydraulic vs. air

The lowrider, immortalized in a 1975 song by the rock band War, can be traced back to the Chicano culture of mid-century Los Angeles and other Southwestern locations. After World War II, working-class young men could afford to buy cheap used cars and mess around with them. The lowrider was the opposite of the faster, higher-carriaged hot rod, except that both were expressions of individual artistry and cultural resistance in the conformist 1950s, said Denise Sandoval, a Latino-studies professor at California State University who has researched the lowrider's history.

The first lowriders were created by simply cutting coils from the suspension's springs, and weighting the trunks with sandbags. In 1958, the first hydraulic system was installed on a lowrider, using surplus parts from World War II planes, Sandoval said. The key advantage: being able to raise or lower the car with the flip of a switch to avoid getting ticketed by police.

Lowriders now fall into two basic camps -- hydraulic and air. Old-school purists like Maldonado insist on the traditional hydraulic pump, operated on battery power. Others, like Garcia, opt to install suspension air bags, which work through tanks filled with compressed air and tend to be slightly less expensive.

Whichever the preference, it all adds up to a percussive symphony when a line of lowriders starts crawling down the street. The cars creak, squeak, puff, groan and sigh, chugging along as their drivers make them hop from side to side, dance and three-wheel (tilting the car so far to one side that one wheel goes up into the air) with a flip of a toggle switch.

Kids' version

The littlest lowrider on hand this evening is Karon Macias, 6, tooling around on her Pink Panther bike, tricked out with fancy chrome handlebars and steering wheel, pink-trimmed tires and a hefty set of speakers bringing up the rear. She wears a shirt embossed with the Los Padrinos car-club logo. So does her dad, Steve Macias, who made her award-winning confection.

"She was 5 when she first saw one and said, 'Daddy, I want one, too,'" he said.

Low-rider cycles for children (and sometimes adults), are an offshoot of the car scene, and a way for kids to feel like a part of their parents' or older siblings' hobby. Bikes will also be a part of Friday's Cinco de Mayo show.

Macias, a military veteran who served in Iraq, restores vintage bikes as a sideline and would like to get a custom lowrider bike business going. He's working on one for his wife with an "Iron Man" theme, and one for himself based on "The Incredible Hulk." And he just might add a TV to Karon's bike next.

Carnalisimo (family and fraternal relationships) is a key bonding aspect of lowrider culture, says Sandoval. "Right now, there's a big mix of cultures [who are] into lowriders," Maldonado said, "whites, blacks, Asians -- and a lot of them have their own car clubs. A lot of these clubs start with families -- dads, uncles, brothers -- going back and forth to each other's garages."

While lowriders have been associated with gangs, Maldonado said that most people who build and collect the cars are not thugs. St. Paul police spokesman Paul Schnell agrees.

"Unfortunately, there's a persona around lowriders, but certainly a lot of the people who are into them are the furthest thing from that," he said.

Car obsession is a primarily male pastime, and lowriders are no exception. But that never fazed Erica Suski, who got hooked on lowriders while still in high school because they were a hobby of her then-sweetheart, now-husband Joe Suski, and because, she said, "driving them feels like you're in a fun, giant toy."

Suski, 27, installed the hydraulics on her looong burgundy Buick LeSabre convertible. Women lowrider enthusiasts are so much in the minority that "for the first five years I went to car-club events, guys would come and shake my husband's hand and his brother's hand and walk right by me, assuming I didn't have anything to do with working on the car," she said.

The Cinco de Mayo lowrider show in St. Paul has been growing in recent years, with 70 cars entered in 2007 and 103 in 2009. At least 100 cars have been signed up so far for this year's show.

"Some people get tattoos or piercings or whatever," Maldonado said. "This is how we express who we are."

No matter what individual flourishes differentiate lowriders and their cars, one thing unites them all.

"It's never-ending," Maldonado said. "There's always one more thing you're saving up to add."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046