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The addiction shows in Sutton’s ability to accessorize his ride. Everything strapped onto the back of the bike is “original German Army, the common gear that an average infantryman would have had: ammo canister, gas-mask canister, knapsack…in World War II, if you had a vehicle, you lived out of it.” The leather saddlebags, he grants, are Polish reproductions (less expensive), and his heavy leather gloves were worn by British dispatch riders during WWII, not Germans — but at least they fit with the purpose of the single-cylinder R35.

His unmodified motorcycle — just what Charger Steve ordered! — is one more part of his collection, more an artifact you can ride than anything else. “I really enjoy talking about it, giving people the history. I mean, it went through the Second World War; it still had the original German nomenclature plate on the front fender. It gives me a chance to enlighten people. The first thing they do is say, ‘Whoa! Is that a Nazi motorcycle?’ They always get the notion that if you were a German soldier, you had to be a Nazi. Something like three percent of the German population were card-carrying members of the Nazi Party. I have fun educating them — it’s the teacher in me.”

Mind you, it’s not that Sutton wouldn’t love to own a car from the ’30s or ’40s. It’s that he just bought a house. The motorcycle, brought over from Lithuania to Oregon and auctioned off to Sutton on eBay, cost him a reasonably sane $3200. Five years later, it’s just about road-ready, “though I’m still working the kinks out. I’m still working on getting the third and fourth gear to go in because there’s one bolt on the shifting tower that controls that, and the threads are just worn. Because it’s a single cylinder, it vibrates to hell, and screws are coming out.”

Getting the thing from a barn in Oregon to Main Street in El Cajon was something of a history lesson in itself, starting with the paint. “When I got it, it was painted black. Somebody had literally applied it with a brush. Typical Eastern European, Soviet Bloc — ‘We don’t have anything, so use bubble gum and make it run.’ I started sanding it down, and below the black paint was Russian Army pea-green. The Russians were notorious for reusing captured German vehicles. Below that was German Army Panzer gray. They used it from the beginning of the war until about 1943, when they realized it didn’t really blend in well with Russia and North Africa and switched to Ordinance Tan. And below that was the factory-applied BMW black paint. Originally, there was a white pinstripe all around the frame and fender — very Art Deco. And half the bike was chrome. But for the army, you want everything painted as flat as possible, so that you don’t glimmer in the sun and draw attention to yourself.”

Sutton eventually found a Chula Vista auto-paint shop that could match the color on his old Mauser cleaning kit. He borrowed a compressor and laid on a new coat of Panzer gray but not before he made a few more discoveries. “It was a rusted-up pile of crap when I got it, and when I sat down with it, I realized it was a classic Eastern European chop-job: a mixture of pre- and postwar BMW parts and a Zündapp rear drive and rear wheel. Joe Schmoe Soviet-guy had literally bent the frame out, cut extra holes, and taken a hacksaw to it to make sure he could fit in a rear drive from this other German motorcycle company. BMW stopped making this model in 1940; they made only about 15,000. The postwar parts were there because at the end of World War II, the Soviets captured one of the BMW factories that made the R35, and they started manufacturing the motorcycle under the BMW name. West Germany ended up suing the Soviet government to make them stop, so the Soviets renamed it the EMW factory and made minor modifications to the parts.” Not that Sutton is complaining — by continuing the model, the Soviets helped ensure that today, eBay Germany would have plenty of what he needed to fulfill the historian’s dream of making history come alive. Or at least getting it up to 45 mph.

Ray Dowd, 66

’40 Ford convertible (among others)

“Ray’s Wherehouse” reads the sign on the steel-sided building with the dilapidated jalopy lolling in the rock lawn out front. Inside, however, nothing is dilapidated. Inside, everything is clean and in fine condition, from the high stacks of model cars still in their boxes to the pool table to the golf cart to the desk to the four cars that take up about half the floor space. “That’s a ’34 Chevy,” says Dowd, settling in behind his desk and pointing to the car nearest me. “I bought it from the DEA — long story, I won’t bore you with it. In the corner is a ’32 Ford. Next to it is a ’40 Ford” — the Viper-blue convertible he brought to the Cruise. “And next to that is a Corvette that I bought new [in 1997].”

The four cars amount to less than half his collection; the rest resides in an identical building behind this one. “I’ve always had an interest in cars,” he says. “As a youngster, myself and a friend would sneak out of church to go lift the hoods on the cars in the lot and try to identify the parts. I enjoy working on them. I enjoy looking at them. To me, some of them are art — form follows function.” He gestures toward the model cars. “I enjoy reflecting on the styles as they evolved over the years; it’s a kind of little mental exercise. And I enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded people.”

The “like-minded” part is key because at the end of the day, this is a hobby, and there’s only so far the gawkers can see into the hobbyist’s world. “The evening you were in El Cajon,” Dowd says, “my neighbor was there. He brought his ’37 Cord — just beautiful. Fresh from a two-and-a-half-year restoration. No one paid much attention to it. They didn’t know what it was, thought it was a foreign car. But if he was in the presence of other, similar people, they would appreciate it. They would be all over the car. So again, it depends on who, when, where, what.”

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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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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

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

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


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.


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

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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