Cleveland's MainStreet Cruise-in takes place every fourth Saturday from April-October from 1-6 p.m. Even after 10 years, the event is free for both exhibitors and participants. For more information, visit mainstreetcruisein.com.
The scent of funnel cake, boiled peanuts and popcorn beckoned me to the intersection of First and Church streets in Cleveland, Tenn. As the smell of the foods wafted toward me temptingly on a sun-filled Saturday afternoon in May, the cacophony of engine rumbles and the acridity of the accompanying exhaust fumes soon followed; an inexplicably alluring combination.
Over a loudspeaker, The Beach Boys greeted the assembled throng.
"The little old lady from Pasadena, she drives real fast and she drives real hard. She's the terror of Colorado Boulevard," they sang.
And I knew I'd arrived at my first car show.
The MainStreet Cruise-in averages more than 500 cars, trucks and motorcycles on the last Saturday of each month April-October, as car aficionados and the simply curious gather to catch a glimpse of rare models and rebuilt classics of the 20th century. At the Memorial Day weekend event, there was even one Ford from the 1930s imported all the way from South Africa. Buying them is the easy part, the owners say. It's maintaining them, fixing them and showing them that is a labor of love.
The owners, who show their cars along the quaint tree-lined streets of the Cleveland town square, are passionate about their vehicles and the stories that accompany them. For some, the fun is in the fixing: taking a rusted '57 Chevy from a barn and completely restoring it to its former glory. Others love the cars they show for their personality, not just in terms of look and color, but how they drive and handle. And for many, the fun is in the nostalgia, reliving memories of their own first cars of a similar make or model.
In the eyes of the car-loving beholder, choices are endless for the masterpieces of old. To add power steering, or not? What about air conditioning or other modern comforts?
"But parked in a rickety old garage, there's a brand-new, shiny, super-stocked Dodge."
For many Cruise-in participants and car restorers, the love of vehicles was instilled early in life. Father-son bonding over cars is a common refrain from many auto enthusiasts. Also, many are self-made mechanics who learned to repair old cars in the mid-20th century, when access to transportation was limited.
"Cars is what we did when we were youths," Cruise-in attendee Jimmy Evans says from the driver's seat of a golf cart outfitted to look like a '57 Chevrolet. "So to see someone with that nice car — or that old, fixed-up car — that was something.
"Today, nearly everybody's got a chance to own a car," Evans says. "Back then, that wasn't the case."
Over the past eight years, the 74-year-old has come to appreciate the vehicles that remind him of his own first car: a '63 Plymouth.
"My dad was a car dealer and he still made me wait until I was 17 to get one," says David Benton, whose first car was a '56 Chevrolet.
Yet it isn't just the cars that are a big part of the appeal.
"It's the old cars that got me here, but it's mainly the people I come back for," Evans says. "You meet so many wonderful people."
Nearby church bells signal that it's 2 p.m. and the last of the cars roll in, puttering through the several blocked-off streets, meandering through the crowds of people until they find a free place to park.
There is no air of urgency in the town center. In fact, with the exception of the modern clothing and technological comforts, the same scene could have occurred 30 years ago.
The only harried person I came across that day was the event's longtime DJ Mark Howard, who had challenged himself to play only oldies that reference specific cars for the entirety of the five- to six-hour holiday car show. After an estimated decade of playing music for the monthly event, Howard has acquired an impressive repertoire of classic songs.
So what is it about cars that elicits this kind of passion in people?
"Endless possibility," Howard says immediately. "Just everything. I've been around them since I was three years old. I've had two '63 Impala station wagons. One was a standard and one was a custom. The custom had three seats, the standard had two. The custom had a padded dash and the standard had metal. You can have the exact same car and have 15 different variations."
"Oh shoot," he says, pausing mid-response to add another song to his queue. "I have to play that song about a convertible."
"You'll see her all the time just gettin her kicks now, with her four-speed stick and a four-two-six now."
As I wander through the Cruise-in, I quickly realize that those in lawn chairs are the true experts. For many of them, the question of "How many cars do you have?" elicits the same chuckle and pause. The response is always the same: Too many.
"By the way, this is a men and women's game," Chad Pickering assures me from his prime folding chair spot in the shade. "We don't discriminate here."
For Pickering's friend Barbara Long, the car "game" meant building an engine for her husband's 1937 Ford, which was imported from South Africa through a friend.
"We didn't set out to do this," she laughs. "We just wanted the car and then it just went further and further and further."
Now, Pickering and Long agree, coming to the event each month is as much about the ritual and the friendly faces as it is about showing off their passion projects. The community becomes a family, bonded by the sweat, tears and, often, enormous amounts of money they've all spent on their project cars.
And the women," Pickering admits with a wink. "We love it all."
The Beatles' song "Come Together" drifts through the speakers as I make my way out of the Cruise-in toward my decidedly less-interesting Subaru Forester to head home, away from the crowd which so readily adopted me despite my novice nature. DJ Howard must have given up on his quest for vehicle-themed songs and settled for vehicle-named bands.
"Come together," the classic song croons, calling out to those who have not yet made their way to the square.
"Come together, right now, over me."
The owner: 3-year-old Cayson Whaley
The history: “It’s in 1,000 pieces right now,” says his mother Kayla Whaley, whose father purchased the truck to fix up with his son-in-law and Cayson as he gets older. Though the complete frame-off restoration will take time, Cayson says he is up to the challenge.
Number of other cars owned: None, yet, but once Cayson and his grandfather paint the frame of this first car from white to the orange the young novice’s heart desires, Cayson says he will start looking for another one.
The owner: Barbara Long
The history: After a long search for something unique, Long and her husband found this car based on a tip from a friend and had it shipped from its original home in South Africa all the way to Tennessee. Since then, she has rebuilt the engine and helped her husband make numerous other changes to the interior and exterior.
“We didn’t start out to do all that,” she laughs. “But when we got started it just kept going further and further and further.”
Favorite feature: The rumble seat, located at the back of the car, an uncovered folding seat perfect for cruising with friends.
Number of other cars owned: “Too many,” Barbara Long says.
The owner: Johnny Arp
The history: Arp is only the second owner of the truck, which he intends to keep without power steering and power brakes. His first car was a slightly older model of the same truck, he says, so when a friend found this one he knew immediately that he had to have it, and purchased it right there.
“I love it,” he says. “I’ve only had it about six or seven weeks and everyone wants to buy it.”
Number of other cars owned: More than he can count.
“I’ve had street rods and muscle cars and classics, but I’m more of a truck man and I’ve been without one for three years. So as soon as I saw that one, I bought it,” he says.
The owner: Paul Torp
The history: Found in a junkyard more than 22 years ago, Torp spent five years restoring this all-custom vehicle, which has gone on to win awards at the annual Bug-a-Palooza at Camp Jordan, among other accolades. The car’s notable bright pink color is a tribute to his son. Torp was inspired by the color the then-teenager wanted to paint his own first car (another Bug) — which Torp originally disapproved of.
“He laughs about it now,” Torp says of his son’s reaction to the colorful car’s success at shows due to its unique color.
Number of other cars owned: Two more Volkswagens, both of which have also won awards at various car shows.
The owner(s): Kevin Gill and his father, Bob Gill
The history: The Gills discovered this sedan in South Carolina in a barn, and have not yet made any modifications to it since purchasing it several months ago.
“It’s all original, just like we found it. … It’s still got the barn dirt on it,” Kevin Gill says.
How they fell in love with cars: “[Kevin] has been with me hot rodding since he was born in 1969,” Bob Gill says. The father/son duo bonded through a lifetime of fixing and racing cars together, though they have since retired from that fast-paced life and shifted their focus to cars that are “50 horsepower instead of 900.”
Number of other cars owned: Just one — for now — Kevin Gill says: a 1930’s Roadster. While Bob Gill has owned hundreds of cars throughout his lifetime, he’s sold them all.