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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.”

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Comments

granpaguy Aug. 27, 2009 @ 8:24 a.m.

When I read this article it reminded me last Sunday I was sitting at the Star Bucks on Felton and a parade of gorgeous low rider cars went by. Long shiney, bouncy beauties. So, I followed them to the St. Didacus Church on down Felton. It was a wedding. The cars parked in the lot next to the church. I stood by with my half of a venti coffee and watched young men get out of the cars and put on tuxedos. Regular cars parked in the lot across the street and regular looking people got out of these cars and went into the church, dressed in regular clothes.

I asked the young me, big guys, if I could look at the cars, because one of them looked like a buick my dad owned back in 1945. His parents bought it for him. I wished I had the picture to how these guys. A few months after my grandparents bought this Buick for him, he crashed it.

As I turned towards the cars, two police cars pulled up and parked on either side of the church parking lot. Two young cops got out. The wedding members didn't look at the cops. I said,"I wonder why the police are here?" One young man murmered "Don't know." I said, as I walked towards the Blue Buick, "It's the cars." I heard one of the young men say, sarcastically, "Yeah, the cars."

The police stayed long enough to deduce that this was indeed a wedding and then drove away. I walked admired the steering wheels and shiney hoods and walked back to the men. They were all tuxed and ready for the ceremony.

As I left I tried to remember when the police had ever showed up at a wedding I went to. I don't think they showed up at my dad's wedding, even when he drove the Buick. Maybe cause the neighbors wouldn't get as nervous if old white people drove up in dozens of Toyotas and SUV's.

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Josh Board Aug. 27, 2009 @ 9:23 a.m.

Well...instead of wondering about cops showing up at a "white wedding", if you truely are perplexed by this "car profiling" or whatever you're implying, why not ask a police officer how often they see a bunch of lowriders, and then they see crime. I'm not saying lowriders committ crimes. But I'm guessing the cops have reasons. The same way they do when Japanese cars with tinted windows and big tail pipes show up in parking lots to go to local streets for drag racing.

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jerome Aug. 27, 2009 @ 10:26 a.m.

josh you expose yourself, if only we could profile bigots...i wonder what the markers are?any thing else to share? FEAR IS A CRACK THAT WILL FLOOD YOUR BRAIN WITH LIGHT

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Josh Board Aug. 27, 2009 @ 10:56 a.m.

jerome...I guess my point is this. I think it's horrible that if cops show up somewhere, everyone has to question it.

If there is a group of teenagers loittering outside a business, a cop might show up and ask questions. If these teenagers are minorities, their parents get all upset and question it, wondering if they were "white teenagers" would they have been "harassed." And that argument just gets old.

Who knows why the cops were there. Maybe when people have "car shows" without permits, they show up. But nooooooo! Everyone has to think that because it's lowriders, they were "bothered" by the police.

Yet, from the story, it doesn't sound like anyone was bugged by the cops. They checked out a scene and left. No problems.

My point was....do you think more crimes occur when men in their 50s and 60s bring their old hot rods to Fuddrucker's or Cruisin' Grand? Or more crimes when lowriders are hanging out in a parking lot?

Answer that question honestly, and then maybe we can continue this dialogue.

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Josh Board Aug. 27, 2009 @ 10:59 a.m.

One more thing...I've been to at least three lowrider shows (and at least three lowrider parties). Never saw a single problem, fight, or argument occur. But there's a big difference between a lowrider show, and a bunch of cars that just show up, or have people "hanging out" at a parking lot.

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Joe Poutous Aug. 27, 2009 @ 11:32 a.m.

My and my friends hand out in parking lots all the time. Sometimes it's only 3 old cars and 5 guys, sometimes 23 cars and 35 people. Never had any trouble, and we have a pretty food ethnic mix...

When there are cops, they usually just ask questions like "Ever run that out at Barona?" or "When you gonna paint that thing?"

I'll probably spend some quality time in a parking lot tonight. It will be a perfect summer night for hanging out & telling lies.

  • Joe
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Duhbya Aug. 27, 2009 @ 11:32 a.m.

Have the comments sections gone coo-coo? Or is everybody a little "testy" lately?

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Matthew Lickona Aug. 27, 2009 @ 12:33 p.m.

And if folks are really interested, I can also post photos of various other aspects of the shows mentioned here.

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Joe Poutous Aug. 27, 2009 @ 1:36 p.m.

Great story MJH - and thanks for the picture link. It's nice to see someone besides car guys notice us..

  • Joe
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Visduh Aug. 30, 2009 @ 1:59 p.m.

This is not a huge point, but I keep doing double-takes when I see the description of the "Plymouth DeSoto Firesweep." DeSoto was a make that Chrysler Corporation offered from, I recall, 1937 until 1960 or 1961. It was positioned in their lineup between Dodge and Chrysler, intended to be on par with GM's Oldsmobile and Buick and with Ford's Mercury.

For many years, DeSoto had a very stodgy image, offering not much more than a fancied up Dodge, and in the shadow of Chrysler. DeSoto never developed its own niche, and until the mid-50's sold very few cars. Over the twenty-plus years they were sold, the total production was, I recall, not much more than a million cars total!

But in the mid-50's, when the stylists were running the show, DeSoto took on a flashy, sporty image. The Firesweep was a perfect example of the new image of DeSoto, tail fins and all. That make even became the sponsor of Groucho Marx' network TV show "You Bet Your Life". Alas, all that effort was for naught, and Chrysler dropped DeSoto just a few months after Ford abandoned the Edsel, during an economic downturn (sound familiar?.)

DeSoto wasn't part of the Plymouth make, it was its own make. To call that car a "Plymouth DeSoto" would be equivalent to referring to a sporty 60's GM product as a "Chevrolet Oldsmobile 442".

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