AS THE END OF THE CENTURY NEARS, THE AMERICAN LOVE with the automobile shows no signs of waning. We spend a large portion of our income on the care and feeding of our cars and trucks. We pave over much of our cities to accomodate them. We even sort ourselves into socio-economic strata based on our choice of vehicle. There is a difference between the driver of a VW bus, a 4x4 pickup, a Volvo or a BMW.
Then there are the car lovers who go beyond making a statement about who they are and how much money they make by what they drive. They are owners of classic cars.
"Old cars have their own character," says Raleigh McKeon, an automotive craftsman with a shop in the hills above Fortuna. "It's in their shape and design. The new ones all look alike. I don't know whether they're Fords, Chevys or Toyotas. The old ones each have a face on the front due to the style of the headlights, the grill, the bumper."
It's difficult to immediately recognize McKeon's workplace as an auto body shop. From the road all you see is the back of the tall cedar barn and entering the driveway is like driving into a park. Redwoods surround a small meadow that slopes into a still pond. A young boy sits on a bench casting a fishing line into the water.
But in front of the barn is the front section of a Chevy truck its purple hood painted with red and gold flames. Nearby sits a shocking red Ford Model A roadster, one of McKeon's finished pieces. The truck's bed is inside the shop along with a half dozen cars in various stages, all stripped down to gray metal and primer.
McKeon has been customizing the bed, changing the shape subtly and sealing up the tailgate. Next to it is a '32 Plymouth coupe that is part way through the process of being chopped. He has removed a section below the roof line to lower the top by three inches. Since the metal curves, he has taken in the top and expanded the bottom to make the line seamless. Maintaining the oval shape of the back window has been another challenge. Essentially he is sculpting the metal into a new form, creating a work of art known as a custom hot rod.
"I've been interested in cars ever since I was a kid," said McKeon. "I got into the body and paint field when I was young. When I got my first car I painted it myself. Ever since then my friends wanted me to paint their cars and that led me to where I am today."
McKeon grew up in Southern California where custom cars are part of the landscape. The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" and Jan and Dean's "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" were no longer hits when he was born, but along with the hot rod, they had become a permanent part of the culture.
"I landed a job working for an older guy doing metal fabrication," he recalled, "basically we were building hot rods for people, classic cars, race cars. I already knew paint and the body business, but what he did was different.
"He'd take a flat sheet of metal and make something out of it, like a side-car body for a '28 Harley-Davidson out of a flat 4-by-8 sheet of 19-gauge sheet metal. He taught me how to make the metal curve, and I've been hooked on it ever since."
McKeon moved to Fortuna 12 years ago. His mentor had died and McKeon inherited the older man's tool collection. With a partner, Larry Parker, he started Northcoast Restoration and Hot Rod, a high-end auto body business. When Parker moved on to the real estate business, they built the shop on Loop Road for McKeon.
"I don't advertise. I've reached the point where my business is all word-of-mouth. I work on maybe four cars a month and I've got about a two-year waiting list.
"Right now I'm working on a few. I've got a '52 Mercedes Caberlet in here, there's that '52 Chevy pickup that I'm trying to get done for the Autorama. I've got a '47 Chrysler New Yorker and a Pierce Arrow in here.
"I use tools and machines that aren't used much today. Most body shops today just replace parts with new parts. With the older cars, there's often no parts available, so I make them. I'd say now, instead of calling me a body man, you'd call me a craftsman.
"With the street rods I chop the top and put a modern drive train in them. I might make a rolled rear panel or a new dash, whatever they need or want. When you build a hot rod or a custom, each one is pretty much a reflection of the personality of the owner."
The vehicles in McKeon's driveway prove his point. There's the red Model A two-door sedan he customized and painted. The hot rod is equipped with hand-controlled throttle and brakes on the column for wheelchair-bound Ray Elliot from Rio Dell. The slanted body makes it look fast even when it's standing still.
Then there's the car he painted for Fred DePucci, a '41 Chevy in two-tone gray and mauve with a subtle set of pearlescent flames. (DePucci admits that the flames are subtle because that's all his wife, Carol, would approve.)
Peter Perdew's "bug-eye" 1959 Austin-Healy Sprite has a real face on the front. The bold flames on all sides are matched with even more he had McKeon paint on his helmet. Perdew runs an auto detailing business in Fortuna and is one of the coordinators of the Fortuna Autorama.
A sleek 1946 Chevy Sedan delivery truck pulls in the driveway and three more Autorama organizers spill out. Jim Goodale owns the truck; he uses it for his business, Valley Automotive. The passengers are Frank Hizer, owner of Fortuna Wheel and Brake Service and Ellis Cleaver whose pride and joy is a prize-winning '63 Volvo.
This weekend in Fortuna you can see their cars, some of McKeon's handiwork and vehicles you never knew existed. The Autorama runs Friday and Saturday and will attract hundreds of custom hot rods, classic cars, trucks and antique tractors.
"Last year we had in excess of 500 cars," said Hizer. "It's gotten so big we have to break it up into three shows now. We have a judged car show on Main Street; last year we had around 380 cars in competition. Then we have antiques, vintage and exotics cars that are not customized original stock vehicles like maybe a 1914 Caddie or a Mazerati. These are really bitchin' cars, but they're not judged against the hot rods.
"And we have what we call our `Show and Shine.' They're just pretty nice cars like my '68 Chevelle. It's a driver. I don't show it, I drive it every day. It's the same kind of car as the custom rods, only the frame isn't polished and everything isn't spiffy under the hood. They're just there for people to look at. It's just, `I like my car, you want to look at it? There it is. I like it and I hope you like it, too.'"
Along with the cars there will be antique tractors and farm equipment and custom trucks like Harry Anthony Harden's 1985 359 long-hood Peterbuilt.
Harden lives on Riverwalk Drive in Fortuna right across the street from his business, Eel River Disposal. In the driveway next to his house a few child's toys including a small radio controlled "Monster" truck are scattered near the shiny black-and-chrome semi.
"I bought the truck for my son," said Harden, who is holding his 3-year-old grandson. "He and I were going to build it together."
Harden had moved to Fortuna 12 years ago to start a disposal and recycling business. A few years later he convinced his son, Darren, to join him.
"My son was kind of distant from the family," said Harden. "When he came home to work for me, he was getting ready to raise a child and he wanted his own truck. I figured he was in the family business so I'd get him one.
"I bought the truck and we were working on it together, customizing it. Then his lady was in a car wreck," Harnden said. The woman was in the hospital for a month, then two days after the boy was born, she died. And six months later Darren was shot and killed in Santa Rosa.
The truck project was abandoned while Harry dealt with his grief and took over the job of raising his grandson, Darren Jr.
"After awhile I thought, `You know what, my son is gone, but I don't want to forget him.' What I did was my way of working out the pain. I finished the truck and put a mural of him and his son on it as a memorial.
"It's finished now. It's souped up with twin turbos and drag plugs on the side. It's got eight-inch stacks 13' 6" high. It's been lowered. It has custom paint. It goes fast; I've even got a parachute for it. I'm just playing around with it now. I'm raising the baby. I take him and we go to car and truck shows and just have fun."
Earlier this month he took the truck to the Napa Auto and Truck Show where he won first prize in its class. He enjoys showing it, but the truck is still a working vehicle used to haul loads of recycled materials to the Bay Area.
On the other side of town, Dave Christman's black Corvette sits in a garage attached to a tract home. On a bench nearby next to some tools, there's a cardboard box that holds parts for a radio-controlled Leggo car. Christman speaks of his car with pride, but in a car lingo that may be incomprehensible to the untrained ear.
"It's a '62 Corvette with a B&M supercharger sitting on a late model engine, a 350 blower, prepared for competition and show," he says.
When asked to translate into layman's terms he said, "It's basically forced-air induction which increases the horsepower dramatically. It's what you call a pro-street set-up for drag racing and it's also a show car.
"We've been working on it for a year, but it's ready. We're going to run it in a 'Vette-only competition up in Idaho and see how it does."
He has been working on restoring the vehicle with his wife, Siri. Dave says there are actually reasons for the project more romantic than burning rubber on a drag race track.
"It's our time machine," he said. "We dated in a '62 Corvette for three years before we got married from 1962-65. It took me 33 years to get another one. It's got her garter hanging around the mirror and our prom picture from 1964 on the dash."
The classic-car part of the American dream does not come cheap.
"It's to the point now that most of the guys who own these cars are in their mid-50s or older because it costs so dang much money to procure one to start with," he said. "When you buy parts and all the rest it can get kind of expensive."
Christman estimates he has $37,000 invested in his, and while winning a drag race may bring him a $20 trophy, he feels it's worth the investment when he takes his wife for a drive.
"We've got a hidden CD player, so it doesn't take away from the vintage appearance. When we get in we turn on Jack Scott singing `My True Love,' and suddenly we are back in 1962."
"She's got her daddy's car and she's cruisin' to the hamburger stand now...
and she'll have fun, fun, fun, til her daddy takes the T-bird away."
lyric by Brian Wilson
The central event of California car culture is the cruise, a parade of cars showing off their form and style in motion. The 9th Annual Fortuna Redwood Autorama begins with a cruise down Main St. to the new fire hall Friday from 6-7:30 p.m. But the cruise is for show participants only. It will be followed by a concert from 8-11 p.m. featuring classic rock by Raised on Radio, "The Tribute."
Autorama registration starts Friday at 9 a.m. at Fortuna High School and runs until 6:30 p.m. or you can sign up 7-10 a.m. at 11th and Main streets in Fortuna.
You can view the vast assortment of cars and trucks from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at three locations in downtown Fortuna. Trophies are awarded on Sunday at 10 a.m. There will also be an antique tractor and farm equipment display and the hit and miss antique engine gas up, both starting at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Other highlights include the antique tractor pull Saturday 1-3 p.m. and Sunday noon-2 p.m.; the poker run on Saturday at 5 p.m. and a burn out contest Sunday at 2 p.m. Admission to everything but the concert is free. There will be free buses circulating around town to get you from place to place.
If you're busy this weekend and still want to catch a glimpse of car culture Humboldt style, check out the hamburger stands, not the fast food joints, the real old fashioned drive-ins like the V&N Burger Bar in Arcata at 4th and I streets. Every other Friday I Street is closed from 6-9 p.m. for a mini-car show. The next one is July 30.
Owner Linda Mills recently started putting the shows on with the help of her friend Greg Howell who works for Mac's Towing and drives a '52 Ford tow truck.
"We're still making old fashioned burgers and milk shakes," she said. "The cars kind of go with that," she said. "But mostly it's just fun, big people's fun. Cars come from all over, we get 30 or 40 every time. People come by and look at the cars, maybe they have dinner. We play music and have raffles, give away prizes. Last time we had the D.A.R.E. cars here and they led a cruise around Arcata."
The Fresh Freeze Drive-in in Eureka's Henderson Center is another hot bed of hot rods. There's a classic car mural out front, another wall has a painted juke box. The windows are filled with model cars and pictures of cars. The windows sport posters for the Samoa Drag Races and Redwood acres stock car events. On the third Wednesday of each month, an impromptu car club gathers according to manager Gina Long.
"It's just a bunch of guys who bring their cars and get together to shoot the breeze, they've been doing it for three years or more. A lot of them are the same ones who participate in the cruise in Eureka."
Cruisin' Eureka is a non-profit event that raises money for youth activities. This year's cruise and car show is on F St.in Henderson Center, Sept. 10 and 11. Proceeds go to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Big Brothers Big Sisters. For more information talk to Kim Marsh at the Trophy Store in Eureka.
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