LOS ANGELES – She was a cover girl, had a bit part in a popular 1970s TV show and was an icon of car culture. "Gypsy Rose," an award-winning Chevy Impala admired for its elaborate floral paint job, was known in the world of cruising lowriders as one of the most tricked-out muscle cars of a generation.
On Saturday, the pink, rose-covered car rode atop a flatbed truck, leading a funeral procession of lowriders through East L.A., behind the hearse that carried its owner to his final resting place.
Car clubs from across Southern California and as far away as Las Vegas rolled out to pay their respects to Jesse Valadez, a founding member of the Imperial Car Club. Valadez died of colon cancer Jan. 29 at age 64.
"He loved that car. It was known as the legend of the lowriders," said his brother Armando, 63, who co-founded the Imperial Car Club with Jesse in 1964. "It was his pride and joy. It was his baby."
Mourners, many wearing shirts touting their car clubs, gathered Saturday morning for a service at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, before joining the procession to Rose Hills Memorial Park, ten miles east in Whittier.
The first "Gypsy Rose," a 1963 Impala, was featured in the NBC sitcom "Chico and the Man," which brought customized cars into the national spotlight.
"'Chico and the Man' was the beginning of everything. That car opened the door for everything you see now," said Joe Ray, editor of Lowrider magazine. "I don't know how lowriding would be today without him, his car and that club. He was a pioneer. The name of his car and his car club and East Los Angeles are all synonymous to me."
Valadez's friends in the club bought a casket painted with roses for him to be buried in. At the cemetery, mourners lined up to place freshly cut roses on top of the casket.
"Jesse lived for his club," said his older brother Gil. "Everyone looked up to the Imperials back then because they had the best lowriders."
According to East L.A. legend, "Gypsy Rose" inspired so much envy that one night in the early '70s a rival car club, or maybe a gang, attacked it with bricks, doing so much damage that it could never be a show car again.
"Car clubs were considered gangs on wheels back then," Ray said. "But it was just fists and maybe knives, no guns. There were rivalries, but they wouldn't touch your car."
Valadez started over with a 1964 Impala, decorating it with more elaborate roses this time, upholstering the interior in hot pink, and installing a cocktail bar in the backseat and a chandelier where the rear dome light used to be. The paint job took two and half years, his brother said.
The car's intricate flower patterns, designed by Walt Prey of Walt Studios in Van Nuys, were "heralded as one of the best paint jobs ever," said Ray. "It set the tone for a lot of the custom jobs back then."
The car rode low but not too low — about 5 inches off the ground — because Jesse Valadez "didn't like to play with hydraulics," said his brother Armando. "That came later."
Ray, 55, grew up down the street from Valadez and was president of the Lifestyle Car Club.
"We went head to head in car shows and competitions. I was always looking to my left at him. And I know he was looking at me," Ray said.
The candy colored "Gypsy Rose" got a lot of attention at car shows and cruising on Whittier Boulevard.
"The girls were attracted to those crazy nail-polish colors," Ray said. "I'd only go one block before my ex-wife was pinching my leg and we had to get out of there."
Later as lowriders became more established and law enforcement cracked down on cruising, Valadez became a mentor and role model for a new generation of car fanciers and helped other car clubs, Armando Valadez said.
Meanwhile, the "Gypsy Rose" was featured in advertisements for car shows and soon was touring the country.
"When Jesse's car was invited to Texas, all the way across the country, I knew it was big," Armando said.
The car traveled the country with lowrider tours and was featured at the Peterson Auto Museum's "La Vida Lowrider" exhibit in 2008.
Ray said the funeral caravan would make him and others nostalgic for old times.
"We were serious competitors back in the day. But when you grow older and go back 30 years, you become friends," he said. "You realize things have changed, and you appreciate those memories and sharing them, because some people aren't around anymore."
Valadez is survived by two daughters and a son, Jesse Jr., who is also an Imperial member and will inherit "Gypsy Rose."