I suppose the longstanding American love affair with automobiles can be attributed to the freedom and stylistic beauty they represent --- or used to represent anyway. With the majority of cars rolling off the assembly line today looking like enameled suppositories, you find yourself looking back to a simpler time (I don't know, maybe pre-1970) when cars and the culture surrounding them were cool and the romance was still alive.
It was a time of seemingly endless destinations and possibilities, when a full tank of gas was a blank check, and when cruising not only got you somewhere, but created an adventure along the way. You didn't have to drive as fast. You did, but you didn't have to. And customizations (bumper stickers excluded), whether out of necessity or quirkiness, were a statement about the individual behind the wheel.
Drivers excelled at making cars their own. Using primer instead of the pedestrian sheen of factory paint added to a car's ominous stance. Shaved door handles, stripped-off chrome, chopped roofs, louvered hoods, and lowered chassis gave cars a predatory look. Swapping out features --- like headlights, taillights, fins, fenders, grills, or trim --- from one make of vehicle to another assured a custom ride.
Cruising in cars back then was also an integral part of the mating ritual. A fella could give his recently acquired romantic skills a test drive. But today? Just try getting it on in a Neon.
Hot rod culture, though diminished over time, has never gone away entirely. Pockets of grease monkeys and car buffs have always gravitated to the classic American car and everything it stands for.
Today, whether it's because of nostalgia, an excuse to get the family out of the house, a reason to polish up the old jalopy, or just a love of classic cars, cruise nights are flourishing in and around Rochester.
So I spent a few weeks checking out the scene.
I cruised out in my '50 Merc (OK, so it was a'91 Taurus) to The Log Cabin Family Restaurant in Macedon for their Wednesday cruise night. It wasn't set to officially start until after Memorial Day, but mid-May folks were already chomping at the bit. In this cruise night's summertime prime, rows of cars stretch as far as the eye can see into the adjacent fields.
Car owners mingled, chatted, or lounged in lawn chairs in front of their rides, swapping stories and giving advice; families milled around to eyeball and admire. Smoke from the grill outside The Log Cabin wafted into the late afternoon sun. Motors roared. Little kids ran around pointing excitedly. I heard one father eagerly point out details to his son, who was barely old enough to walk, much less drive.
"That's a '52," he said.
An older couple was overheard chuckling and reminiscing about their teenage romantic exploits, while standing in front of an old coupe similar to the original scene of the crime.
Ron Richardson drives a 1962 Chevy Nova Convertible. It's blindingly white with red interior and it's beautiful. But beyond showing off his car, Richardson loves the networking aspect of the cruise nights.
"I get tons of ideas and can share ideas and get feedback," he says. This works particularly well for people like Hi-Riser drummer Jay Smay, customizers who mix and match parts to personalize a classic car's appearance and performance. Smay's been wrenching on cars since he was a kid with his dad. Smay's dad drives a 1932 Ford Five-Window Coupe.
"It's always been a family thing," he says.
Smay, his wife, and their little boy roll into the lot in a blue '54 Chevy. He strategically poses for pictures to hide the holes from where he's removed the trim. And he still plans on dropping it "a little lower in the weeds." It's a work in progress. Hanging at cruise nights helps.
"[It's] just a chance to see other people's cars," he says, "and get other people's ideas for stuff I want to do to my car."
Craig Wirth of Rochester Street Rods started his love affair with cars as a kid in the soapbox derby. He has a '53 Buick full custom that you'd hardly even recognize as a Buick.
Other guys, like R.C. Peterson, just cruise stock. Peterson drives a 1948 Oldsmobile Model 66 Deluxe Coupe. He's had the car for 45 years and other than pounding out his grandmother's dents, undoing her paint job, and hitting the pavement with radial tires, he's kept the car in its original condition.
"My grandma had it for about four years," he says. "She tried practicing driving with it, put some dings and dents in it, and when the paint started to fade, she got a brush and a bucket and painted the whole thing gray."
And when need be, Peterson will wrench a little.
"I do anything I can do that doesn't have to be redone by a professional," he says with a laugh.
Cruise nights aren't exclusive. The romantic appeal reaches beyond the aficionados.
"I think it gives a lot of people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s an opportunity --- if they're outside the car thing, if you will --- to look at these cars and enjoy them," Richardson says.
The curious walk by poking their heads in windows to dig the dash, or under hoods to admire the might. Lots of cars are parked with the hoods agape like hungry alligators. And some of the paint jobs are so lustrous and lush, you can practically taste them.
The majority of car clubs, car shows, and even cruise nights used to have year restrictions (pre-'64 or pre-'48 only), but lately the requirements to park your ride have been loosened.
"Now it's just kind of open to anybody with a car and the interest," says Wirth.
Most late-model customizing is more about performance than appearance --- hence the open hoods flashing the horsepower inside. Though some of these drivers, driving new factory-made high-powered cars, are considered just showroom showoffs without the classic car passion or savvy.
"They got something they think other people don't have," says Peterson, as a brand-new candy-apple red Corvette roars by. "And they wanna bring it out and show it off. These are all production cars, you know? You can go to a dealer and buy 'em."
Regardless, all cars are welcome. And Wednesdays at The Log Cabin are car heaven. Muscle cars, hot rods, roadsters, Caddies, even Toyotas --- all kinds of four-wheeled beauties --- line up next to each other in row after row after row of gloss, glass, primer, and chrome.
Fairport has its own cruise nights on Tuesdays, along the Canal. Kids tear around clutching ice cream cones and couples stroll between the cars and along the Canal clutching one another. And despite the 100 or so vehicular displays of chromed muscle, the whole scene is like one big picnic.
Monday nights at Schaller's Drive-In in Greece are a little more intimate, but all the choice rides, the joint's old-style neon, and the burger-scented lake breeze make it worth the trip north.
At car shows, "there's room for everything," says Richardson. "You'll notice there's a 'cars are cars are cars' kind of thing. There's everything here from young people with 'tuner' vehicles... to a guy who's 24 years old, he's a college student at the University of Rochester, and he's got a '51 Chevy Custom."
Still, the pioneer spirit flows. Richardson is building a land speed car out of a wing tank from a WWII P-38 fighter plane to race on the four major dry lakes in the Southwest.
"My goal is to do 200 mph in each of the four lakes," he says. "You can't do that on 31F or my driveway --- even though I've been accused of trying."
Meet Richardson and the cast of characters along with some gorgeous rides at these various events throughout the summer. Call ahead for start times wherever they aren't indicated. And it might be a good idea to arrive early if you want a good spot.
Charlie Riedel's, 1843 Empire Boulevard, Webster, 671-4320
DiRosato's Pizza, 3869 Lyell Road, Gates, 426-0270
Schaller's Drive-In, 965 Edgemere Drive, Greece, 865-3319
Sullivan's Charbroil, 4712 Ridge Road West, Spencerport, 352-5860
Fairport Village, East Lift Bridge Lane, North of Canal on Route 250, Fairport, 872-4915
Magoos, 3208 Latta Road, 720-5332
Mike's Drive-In, 1808 State Route 104, Ontario, 315-524-3360
Pineapple Jack's, 485 Spencerport Road, Gates, 247-5225
Log Cabin Family Restaurant, 2445 West Walworth Road, Macedon, 315-986-9224, 5 p.m.
Stoney's Family Restaurant, 2005 Lyell Avenue, 254-5200
Carey Lake, 959 Penfield Road (Rt. 441), Walworth, 315-986-1936
Silver Lake Drive-In, Route 39 (between Perry and Castille), Perry, 237-3372
Troyer's Speed And Custom, 4555 Lyell Road, Gates, 349-0088, 6 p.m.
Wegmans, 345 Eastern Boulevard, Canandaigua, 394-4820
Gus and Nancy's Diner, Routes 14 and 318, Phelps, 315-781-2979, 5 p.m.
Colossal Cheese Store and Ice Cream Shop, Corner of Routes 11 and 13, Pulaski, 315-298-2141
Medina Canal Basin Off Main Street, Medina, 798-0445
Penfield Hots, 1794 Penfield Road, Penfield, 586-4979, 5 p.m.
Sweet Inspirations Drive-In, Route 3, Fulton, 315-593-1522, 5 p.m.