Pinstripes and swirls. Nine-foot flames lifting from custom hoods. The percussive revving of engines. Custom upholstery, gleaming chrome and candyflake paint. It must be spring, and time for one of the best parts of being a Southern Californian -- car shows!
As a native whose first car was a 1965 Mustang -- not the beautiful restored version, but a rescue job my dad found in a barn somewhere, unrestored, a hay bale in the back seat and no top for the convertible -- I grew up loving classic cars, hot rods, and cruising. It's something we do like no one else in the world -- in countless movies and songs from "Grease" to "American Graffiti" to War's "Low Rider" and the classic anthem "Cruising on Whittier Boulevard."
Last summer, during a huge multi-year reunion for John W. North High, The Old Farts Racing Team had a car show at Riverside's Fairmount Park, and I got to see restored beauties everywhere -- the cars, I mean. '57 Chevy sedans, a '40s Hudson sleek and black as something out of John Dillinger's time, '64 Impalas, Chevelle and Super Sport and Galaxies and the famous Kenny Asche Camaro with the nine-foot flames. My ears rang, my heart was full of love for cars and chrome and camaraderie -- the best of who we are.
People might not realize how much charity is done by car clubs like The Old Farts and the hundreds of other car clubs around Southern California, but this weekend Old Farts and Riverside East Rotary sponsor one of the premier events: The Show and Go, in downtown Riverside, which has sold out for the past four years. One thousand entries had already registered by last week, and every kind of classic car and hot rod you can imagine will be cruising the streets this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Riverside East Rotary and The Old Farts expect to raise $40,000 for charity, which will all go to local groups such as elementary schools and Thanksgiving meals and gift baskets. But as Finn Comer, co-chair with Mark Godfrey, points out, he loves this weekend "because it takes me back to high school." Comer's first car? A 1966 Mustang, canary yellow which was as he points out, a Ford factory color, and he loves "turning around at Show and Go and seeing someone I haven't seen for twenty years, and remembering how we used to cruise down Market Street."
I remember that, too -- in fact, we're the same age, so we probably passed each other -- I was in my friend Penguin's Dodge Dart back then, eight of us bouncing up and down so hard we made the car look like it had hydraulics. It didn't. But at car shows around California, you can see low-riders dancing on custom hydraulics, and hot rods revving until those flames burst toward the sky.
The Old Farts started in April of 1993, when Ron Speer and Dave Barnekow, whose daughters went to high school with me back in 1978, formed a club for "Hot Rods and Drag Racing." But the racing team really became, as the club puts it, a chance for car lovers to hang out, including monthly cruises and lots of charity events. The club now numbers in the thousands. In the fall, a car show raises money to restore Evergreen Cemetery, a historic burial place in downtown Riverside, and in the spring, they Show and Go.
Friday night is BBQ and Cruise down Market Street, for all entries. Saturday is the Open Header Cruise -- that means no mufflers required, so you can imagine the sounds. Sunday is Trophy Presentation in all categories, and one of the most popular events -- a raffle drawing for a "383 Stroker Engine," as Comer said, something he told me was hotly contested -- "one year, a guy was buying so many tickets his wife said, 'Don't buy any more of those! We need diapers!'"
Larry Wikert, North High class of '74, is this year's Grand Marshal. His favorite car? Same thing -- the one he drove in high school. But Larry still has his -- the '57 Chevy he bought in 1972 and restored while he was a teenager. He'll be riding in someone else's '57, and his own car will follow right behind him. Wikert, who remarried five years ago, had a Hot Rod Wedding, with he and his bride arriving in classic cars.
Our Earth Science teacher back then at North, Ron Crandall, and Gary Echito started the Show and Go, where the first year they had 300 entries. Crandall passed away suddenly a few years ago, and his former students, including Wikert and Danny Hensley, take immaculate care of his cars. A T-Bucket with flames, a red 1934 Ford with flames. His daughter will be driving that one in Friday's cruise. Wikert says, "Back when we were in the parking lot at lunch, doing burnouts, and Mr. Mosier (our vice-principal) would come and bust us, I used to think, Man, it's a good day when you got a bitchin' car. And I still feel like that about this weekend. When we used to cruise down Market Street, we'd get thrown out by the cops, and now they love us and we're the goofy old guys in charge."
Those old guys, and a lot of younger guys, love the engines purring and roaring, cars gleaming with sparkle and flame, and people peering inside the windows of lowriders and hot rods all over. Have you ever thought about how many car clubs there are? There's the Southern California Chevelle Camino Club -- they do an annual show in Long Beach for El Caminos and Chevelles. Impalas have their own car clubs -- 28 chapters, with clubs all over California, and chapters in New Mexico and other states, according to Lowrider Magazine.
In my neighborhood, men are restoring Hudsons, a Chevy Super Sport, Apache trucks, and yes, Impalas. I love to watch a car taken from a barn or vacant lot, a vehicle scaly with rust and eyeless with no windows, evolve over years to the level of art. Car culture in Southern California on a spring weekend gets in your blood, and even though my daughters roll their eyes, when those flames shoot out of the hood and the engine makes spectator eyeballs tremble, well -- that lets us remember some of what we are.
This is the first of a three-part series on Car Culture. Next up -- Apache Trucks.
Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.