The Duke's Car Club is the world's oldest lowrider club in continuous existence. The birth of the club has its roots back to the Los Angeles gang culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the mid 1950s, Josefina Ruelas, a single mother of five boys moved her family from Tijuana, Mexico to the rough streets of South Central Los Angeles. Her boys, out of a need for protection, affiliated themselves with the notorious "38th Street Gang" that was prominent in the neighborhood. Concerned about the young boys' welfare, their uncle "Tinker" decided he would try to involve them in auto mechanics. In the late 1950s. He took them to junkyards in the weekends to buy engines, bicycles, old cars, anything that would keep the boys off the street. Tinker's plan worked, and soon the Ruelas boys were busy building and modifying anything with a gasoline engine. Tinker eventually provided the boys with their own shop space, and soon motorized skateboards, scooters and customs were rolling out of the shop. As the boys reached driving age in the late 1950s and early 1960s they began devoting their time to building boulevard cruisers. This was before the term lowrider had been coined, and most lowriders at the time were considered custom cars. In 1962, Julio, Fernando, Oscar and Ernesto Ruelas formed their own club named the "Duke's" with a group of neighborhood friends. The oldest brother, Julio, became the Duke's first President. Oscar became the Vice President.
In the early days, the Duke’s could be found in their favorite cruising spots, some of which were Whittier Boulevard and Elysian Park. And for a night out, the Old Dixie Dance Hall and The Big Union Hall in the city of Vernon was the place to be. Many great 1960s acts performed at these venues, including the “Midnighters” and “Cannibal and the Head-hunters”. Another old favorite cruising spot that was still visited by the Duke’s in 2012 was the famous “Johnny’s Broiler” in Downey, California.
In the early days, the club divided their South Central neighborhood. Being car club members devoting their time to cars, it became difficult to remain an active part of the 38th Street Gang. Many neighborhood boys had to choose between the Duke's and the 38th Street Gang. Bad blood arise between the groups, but this disappeared when the 38th Street Gang realized how much honor and respect the club was bringing the neighborhood.
In 1963, Richard "Chivo" Ceniceros was introduced to to the Duke's by a member known as Batman. In the mid 1960s several members of the Duke's were drafted into the U.S. Army, including three of the founding members, Oscar, Ernesto and Fernando Ruelas. Oscar was the first of the brothers that was drafted. Julio, Fernando and Ernesto continued to build cars in their uncle's shop. In 1967, Ernesto cruised a 1956 Chevrolet known as "Mr. Know it All". Fernando was the owner of a 1937 Buick, known as "The Black Crow" during the 1960s. The car is still around, and it has been passed on to Jason Ruelas, Fernando's first born son. Julio was cruising a 1937 Chevrolet and a 1963 Chevrolet Impala SS that had been painted by Joe Andersen. Sometime in the 1970s, Ernesto acquired a 1936 Packard that he still owns. When Oscar returned from his tour of duty he purchased a 1939 Chevrolet from Ernesto. This car was known as the "Fabulous 39". This period became the era of the original cars. Between 1966 and 1973 the Ruelas family was featured at the Tridents car show, CSH Productions and ISCH Association, which later became RG Canning Productions.
The turbulent Vietnam era saw the demise of many older car clubs, including the Duke's. Altough the Duke's name was kept alive in the automotive community due to the family's efforts, the club was put on ice for some years as all of the Ruelas' brother were drafted into the army. Julio Ruelas had been the president all these years. Fernando Ruelas refused to let the club die, and in 1975, while restoring a car for Joe Alvarado, he began talking about reviving the club. Fernando wanted to breathe life in the old club and, and not just start another club with the same name. With the help of Joe and newcomer Jesse Gonzales, invitations to a new Duke's car club was soon underway. Julio, Oscar and Ernesto were the first to be invited back. The second generation Duke's car club had its first metering at Fernando's house on 43rd street. As it turned out, many people had been thinking about the Duke's, and the meeting had to be moved to a new location at the home of Alfonso Cuellar. Fernando wanted to build the new club up the right way, so he wanted to make certain legal separations from the old club. Fernando became the new President, and he had various members submit drawings and designs for a new club plaque. One was decided on and it was modified to be unspecific to Los Angeles. Oscar Ruelas became Vice President, Julio Ruelas became Sponsor and Ernesto Ruelas became a Social Director. Officers were also voted in in addition. Due to the reorganization and separation from the old ways, many members left within the first year. Immediately following this, expansion found place. The first chapter expansion began with San Jose in 1977 as Steve Caudillo of San Jose, California started the Northern California chapter of the Duke's.
Throughout this time, the Duke's worked to create by-laws to regulate the club and chapters. Fernando believed that rules were the only way a club can maintain its existence, keep its integrity, grow successfully and create a legacy. In 1980, the Ventura chapter was established. The Ventura chapter was the first chapter formed with by-laws. Throughout the years these by-laws have been restructured to become the current club regulations in use today. During the late 1970s and 1980s, many of the original Duke's members got married and began families. This included Richard "Chivo" Ceniceros, who showed that it was possible to be a devoted family man and still find time to be a club member and a lowrider. Following Chico's example, many club members began altering their activities to include their families. Centered on the family, the Duke's have advanced and outlived many other car clubs. As part of this, Fernando pioneered the lowrider bicycle movement. Returning to the junk yard days of Uncle Tinker, Fernando began working with his oldest son, Jay, in designing and building lowrider bicycles. Ernesto’s son, Ernie Jr., was soon involved and then the first Duke’s bike club was organized. Other pioneer efforts soon followed.
In 1979, the Duke's helped produce the first Super Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center along with Sonny Madrid, the founder and editor of Lowrider Magazine. They participated in the very first L.A. Street Scene with entertainers such as Tower of Power, War, and Tierra. The Duke’s have always been supporters of Chicano cultural events and were featured as the first Cinco de Mayo car show in Los Angeles as well as the first Mecha Car Show. The Duke's have provided cars for many holiday events including the Huntington Park, Southgate, East L.A. and Hollywood Christmas Parade. As the Duke’s reputation spread throughout the country, they were sought for appearances at car shows and cultural events around the American Southwest.
Before dedicated lowrider magazines hit the newsstands, the Duke's broke through cultural barriers to be accepted by mainstream magazines car magazines. In the early 1970s, Oscar Ruelas' 1939 Chevrolet was featured in Car Craft magazine. This was the first time a Duke’s car was featured in a magazine. Since that time, the Duke’s have made countless appearances in car magazines, such as Lowrider Magazine and the now defunct Life Magazine. The Duke's exposure has not been limited to just car shows and magazines, the club was also given the honor of chauffeuring the cast of "Zoo Suit" to the the theatrical and motion picture premiere. The Duk's have also appeared in films and televisions, such as the music video a Family Affair for the rapper "Kid Frost". During the 1980s, Duke's were also featured on ABC's "Eye on L.A.", and in 1994 the Duke's were the focus of a motion picture documentary called "Low and Slow".
Never forgetting their roots, the Duke’s often used their talents and influence for the community activism. In 1978 they worked with Cesar Chavez and Untied Farm Workers to host a show during an event at the Los Angeles Union Station. That same year Fernando, along with the Imperials and Groupe car club formed the West Coast Association. Together, these clubs put on a “Christmas Toys for Kids” car show, with all proceeds going to purchase toys and Christmas stockings for underprivileged children. 
By the 1980s the Duke’s had the distinction of being the oldest lowrider club in continuous existence. A title the club will not easily yield. In fact the Club has only continued to grow. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, club chapters began springing up all over the United States.To protect the legacy, President Fernando Ruelas registered the Duke’s name and design (hat and cane with cars) with United States trademark office.
In addition to growth in the United States, the Ruelas brothers gave their consent for the forming of a chapter in Japan. The club is quickly becoming cosmopolitan, with members of all ages, races and social classes.
Fernando was president of the Duke's until he passed away battling cancer October 22, 2010. After Fernando passed away, his son Jason Ruelas took over as president of the So. Cal. chapter. The chapter that is known as "The Mother Chapter".
Past and Present Dukes Members
Ernie Ruelas Sr.
Gerald E. Urias Sr.
Little Willie G
Richard "Chivo" Ceniceros
Steve De la Vega
Ernesto Ruelas' 1936 Packard
Fernando Ruelas' 1937 Buick - The Black Crow
Tommy Brizuela's 1951 Buick Four Door Convertible Roadmaster
Julio Ruelas' 1937 Chevrolet
Tommy Brizuela's 1938 Buick Four Door Century
Joe Guitierrez' 1939 Chevrolet
Julio Ruelas' 1939 Chevrolet
Oscar Ruelas' 1939 Chevrolet - The Fabulous 39
Tommy Brizuela's 1939 Chevrolet Four Door
Roger Squires' 1947 Chevrolet Fleetline - Pastime
Steve Caudillo's 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline
Steve Gonzales' 1950 Mercury
Tommy Brizuela's 1951 Mercury
Oscar Ruelas' 1952 Chevrolet
Fernando Ruelas' 1953 Chevrolet Pick Up Truck
Oscar and Ernie Ruelas' 1956 Chevrolet - Mr. Know it All
Tommy Brizuela's 1960 Ford Thunderbird
Julio Ruelas' 1963 Chevrolet Impala SS
Alexander Ruelas' 1965 Chevrolet Impala
Did you enjoy this article?
Kustomrama is an encyclopedia dedicated to preserve, share and protect traditional hot rod and custom car history from all over the world.
- Help us keep history alive. For as little as 2.99 USD a month you can become a monthly supporter. Click here to learn more.
- Subscribe to our free newsletter and receive regular updates and stories from Kustomrama.
- Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Click here to forward it.
Can you help us make this article better?
Please get in touch with us at email@example.com if you have additional information or photos to share about Duke's.
This article was made possible by:
SunTec Auto Glass - Auto Glass Services on Vintage and Classic Cars
Finding a replacement windshield, back or side glass can be a difficult task when restoring your vintage or custom classic car. It doesn't have to be though now with auto glass specialist companies like www.suntecautoglass.com. They can source OEM or OEM-equivalent glass for older makes/models; which will ensure a proper fit every time. Check them out for more details!
Do you want to see your company here? Click here for more info about how you can advertise your business on Kustomrama.