As I write this, Transformers 2 has just finished taking in over $200 million in five days. One of the main characters in that film is a robot who disguises himself as a 2009 Chevy Camaro — a car designed to rouse fond memories of the Muscle Car era, when Detroit was the automotive world’s equivalent of ancient Rome. Another robot goes about as a Corvette concept car. Yay for American cars!
As I write this, Chrysler — makers of the throwback-style Dodge Magnum, Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger, and Chrysler 300 (along with the less recent PT Cruiser) — is settling into its new status as a property of Fiat. General Motors is lurching through bankruptcy. And Ford is inexplicably tinkering with the front and rear ends of its own entry into the Remember When Muscle Car Dreamscape: the briefly awesome new Mustang. Boo for American cars!
And yet…and yet. On May 13, 2009, the city of El Cajon closed a fair chunk of Main Street to traffic, so as to better celebrate the beginning of the ninth annual Cajon Classic Cruise — a Wednesday-night car show running from 5:00–8:00 p.m. through the end of September. And according to the Cruise’s website, the event drew its “biggest crowd ever — over 10,000 attendees!” Ten thousand people, gathered to amble the sidewalks of downtown El Cajon, gawking at, talking about, and forming an ad hoc community around cars, almost exclusively of the American variety. (Though a brand-new Dodge Challenger, cheekily parked right alongside its ’70s forbear, does raise the question of whether Dodge is still an American car.) Yes, most of them are over 30 years old, but this is Southern California, an automotive paradise where moths and rust may not enter in. It’s almost enough to make a body quote Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead — it isn’t even past.”
Around 7:30 p.m., as the summer light begins to fade, people begin to gather at the back of the Prescott Promenade. They are here to see Charger Steve and the Cajon Cruise girls present this week’s gold-cup trophies to the beautiful machines selected as winners under this week’s theme of “Too Cool.” (Other weeks’ themes include “NASCAR Up Close,” “Cajon Speed Week,” and “Hall of Flames.”) “It’s purely what we like, the People’s Choice awards,” explains one judge. There are no hard and fast criteria, “though Steve will tell us certain sorts of cars to go and find.” Tonight, for example, “We were told to find something classic and unmodified for one of our winners. And we were told to find a motorcycle.”
The winners, notified by a placard placed on the windshields or handlebars during the show, line up their cars in the alley that passes in front of the modest stage — risers leading up to a black curtain surrounded by speakers. Two gentlemen in black suits and fedoras warm up the audience by performing “Soul Man” as rendered by the Blues Brothers. The Cajon Cruise girls — white sashes draped over their black tops, high-heeled black boots rising up over their denim-clad calves — gather to one side; they will present the trophies and pose alongside the lucky cars (and their owners) for photos that will run in an upcoming issue of the East County Californian. Charger Steve bursts from between the curtains, accompanied by a blare of rock ’n’ roll. White skulls cover his button-down shirt, matching the white of his cowboy hat. He hollers to the crowd, loping across the staging area, boostering for all he’s worth. There is music (Steve Miller Band) and a raffle (SeaWorld tickets), and then Charger Steve begins to summon the winners, one by one, for their moments of glory before the people gathered ’round, when all the time and effort and expense are made worthwhile.
Well, not really. The applause and the trophy and the photo op are more of a tip of the cap — “It’s nice to be noticed.” It’s not the reason why these people do what they do. It couldn’t be — what they do is way too much for that. What is the reason? Read on.
Mark Salter, 56
’51 Chevy Deluxe
Mark Salter found his car on eBay. “Some guy in Shelby, North Carolina, had taken it as collateral from some guy that owed him money and was trying to get rid of it. I called him, found out what was going on with it, and bought it. I loved the lines — the flats, the curves. I love the fat-fender cars. From ’49 to ’51 was a transition period, where they were still using some of those fat fenders.”
When Salter got it, the Chevy hadn’t run in 18 months. “It had some drive-train issues. Over the course of the last four years, I’ve done body work, suspension work…this year was motor work and a little bit on the interior.” It’s not so much restoration as tinkering and tweaking — Salter is a hot-rodder, not a purist. “All my drag-racing influences are under the hood. I like a car to look one way but sound another. Most ’50s cars wouldn’t have side exhaust, which is why I painted it black. It’s there, but it doesn’t draw your eye.”
He’s not nearly finished working on it — but then, he’s not in any hurry. “Most guys who are true hot-rodders, their cars are never done. A friend of mine saw the car and said, ‘Give me a call when you’re finished.’ I just laughed and said, ‘It’s never finished.’ You’re always changing something. If you think it’s finished, you sell it, buy something else, and start the whole thing over again.”
Dan Sutton, 30
1937 R35 BMW motorcycle
“I’m not actually what you might call a connoisseur of cars,” explains Sutton. Rather, “I teach sophomore world history at West Hills High School in Santee. I’m the weird teacher who comes dressed in vintage suits with wide ties, or in uniform. I do really hands-on, interactive kinds of history things. I’ve got one room in my house that looks like a quartermaster’s — more World War II memorabilia than I can shake a fist at. I’ve got another room that’s set up so that it looks like it’s from 1935. Even the light switch is pushbutton instead of toggle. My wife is into vintage clothes as well, so it’s a shared addiction. That helps.”