Cruisin'...


1964 Buick Riviera | Owner: Eric Chandler

From the 1930’s up until somewhere in the early 1980’s, summertime meant one thing for a large population of Long Beach youth. Car cruising.

Well, technically, there was time all year long for car cruising back in the day. But summertime meant more days out of the week to be out later into the night.

The night would always start at a drive-in. That’s where you met up with friends and ran into people you knew.

There was Hody’s at the corner of PCH and Anaheim, the Clock Drive-in by the Traffic Circle, The Lakewood Drive-in on Carson Street, the Los Altos Drive-In on Bellflower and Spring, and Grisinger’s Coffee Shop at Atlantic and San Antonio, among others.

Guys and gals, 16 years and up, would spend the day making sure their car looked as good as their outfit. Then it was time to hop in, turn your key in the ignition (sometimes more than once), and motor off…away from mom and dad’s house and toward friends beckoning at the drive-in. That would just be the start of the night.

From there they’d cruise.

Jack Petitt (Millikan class of ’68) and Don Chambers (Lakewood ’71) reminisce with 908 about the routes they used to cruise – in much the same way they do each Sunday morning when they meet with their “Mercifuls” Car Club at Glory Days Grill for breakfast.

Jack Petitt’s 1957 Pontiac Chieftain, 1969 Nova, & Don Chamber’s 1955 Chevy Nomad. The two are members of the “Mercifuls” Car Club in Long Beach and can be found cruising all around Long Beach these days just like the 60’s and 70’s.

“Major streets, neighborhoods, friend’s houses, other drive-ins…anywhere there were good-looking girls who appreciated good-looking cars,” says Jack.

But the real spot to cruise - if you had a bitchin’ car to show - was Bellflower Blvd in the City of Bellflower. The night would start at Harvey’s Broiler on Firestone Blvd. in Downey, the famous drive-in/diner. Then they’d cruise Bellflower.

Everyone would be there. The top hot rods, “kustoms,” mild kustoms, street machines, low riders, you name it—from Long Beach, Lakewood, Bellflower, Wilmington, Downey, Compton, Norwalk. If you had something to show, Bellflower was your stage.

“Nothing was organized,” says Don Chambers. “You would just go down there and run into people with similar interests, some you knew and some you didn’t. We were all just looking for a good time and it was a lot of fun.”

Bellflower cruising was a scene straight out of a movie. Packed. Cars cruising up and down all night long. The Lakewood Sheriff would go up there and try to impose a two-lap limit on crowded nights. Anything to keep the high school car culture coeds from having too much fun, too long into summer nights.

But you couldn’t stop the fun in those days. Besides the Long Beach teens, other local legends would cruise Bellflower. Guys with really cool cars. Guys like Ed Roth, the creator of Rat Fink, or Larry Watson, the pinstripe painting legend.

Larry Watson

A regular on the strip, Larry Watson was outgoing and personable, but that’s not why people recognized him. Watson’s pinstriping detail in lowrider paint designs, and signature candy apple paint jobs with the real flashy scallops and flames, made Watson stand out among Bellflower cruisers.

“Larry Watson was the king of Bellflower Blvd,” says Andy Heintzelman, a current 908 resident and member of the prominent Long Beach Car Club “Sultans.”

Andy got to know Watson over the years because he was a friend of the Sultans Car Club. Car enthusiasts around the world worship Watson for the impact he’s made on paint style. Pretty cool that the Long Beach Sultans got to hang out with him on a regular basis before Larry passed away in 2010. It’s a perk of growing up in the heartland of the car scene.

Andy’s current car, a 1955 Ford pickup truck painted bright orange with white scallops would never exist without the inventive and creative paint style of Larry Watson. In fact, Watson saw it at a car show once and complimented Andy for having one of the few front end scallops painted true to the time period. A blessing from a true deity in the car world.

Watson may have been the King of Bellflower Boulevard cruising, but he wasn’t the only guy who influenced the world of kustom cars from a So Cal garage.

Richard Graves

Richard Graves has lived and worked on cars in Long Beach since 1956, when he was 12 years old helping out at his dad’s shop on 10th and Ohio.

By the time Richard attended Wilson High School, he ran his own business out of Pop’s garage. Richard would buy a rundown ’46 -’52 Chevy from around town for $25 - $35, tune it up, lower it, and install new wheels and tires (that would eventually become a Graves signature). Then he’d turn around and sell them for $125.

“I was making land office money as a high schooler,” Graves recalled with a chuckle and a smile.

Richard Graves at his shop in West Long Beach with a portion of his "fleet".

Richard is genuine, extremely nice and intensely humble. He sits at his shop in West Long Beach, Richard’s Wheels and Chassis, in an office above a garage with more classic cars than some car shows. It ain’t easy getting him to tell you about the impact he’s had on car culture in America. Yet others who know cars can fill in the blanks.

Kevin O’Flaherty is one of them, a guy with a bug for classic cars and a knack for filling in the blanks. Kevin didn’t grow up cruising in Long Beach, Bellflower, or anywhere else in the US. Born in England, he grew up reading hot rod magazines about cruising Bellflower Boulevard and the innovations of car gurus like Larry Watson and Richard Graves.

They were a big reason he moved to Long Beach. Although, the kicker was weather.

“I was in England watching the Long Beach Grand Prix on TV back when it was a Formula 1 race. And I’m seeing that they’ve got these boats floating in the water. They’ve got palm trees, gorgeous weather, and I opened my back door and it’s just pissing down with rain sideways. And it’s so frickin’ freezing and I’m thinking, why am I here? So I moved.”

Kevin is a sheet metal fabrication expert these days who works on some of the finest cars in the industry. But back then he was just a car enthusiast who wanted to be where the scene was. So Cal. Long Beach.

Kevin first read about Richard Graves in Rod and Custom magazine, which ran an article about the “Early Times” car club to which Richard still belongs. Richard was building cars in the Southern California style that combined the earlier hot-rod look from drag racing and post-WWII races along SoCal’s dry river beds, with the best new technologies available and affordable in the 1960’s.

Everything was extremely well detailed, painted with metal flake and candy, and upholstered inside. All that plus the signature Graves’ lowered body and decked-out spokes — 1953 Buick Skylark spokes, to be exact — placed on custom Richard Graves’ wider rims.

If it seems impressive, it is. And that’s why the man has been in so many magazines, developing an influence that spans the country and the globe for kustom cars. That’s why a guy like Kevin O’Flaherty from all the way over in England knew of Richard Graves and Long Beach, California. That’s what made car culture in Long Beach so cool.

1979 Gumball Rally

Cruising always was, and still is, a major part of car culture. But it was never the only factor. There’s a reason these gearheads like talking about their engines. SPEED.

High School friends Mike Bryant and Dick Donahue meet with 908 Magazine at Pan Am Park — the starting spot of their 1979 Gumball Rally

There’s nothing like going fast. Especially if you’re going faster than everyone else. Street races were common in the 60’s and 70’s. Usually nothing organized, but if you pulled up next to a car that looked like it wanted to race, you raced. If only stoplight to stoplight.

East Long Beach resident Dick Donahue was one of the guys who liked to race in the 70’s. An attendee of Lakewood High School, Dick’s Duster was a perennial contender as one of the fastest cars in Lakewood.

Out of many fond memories speeding around the empty Boeing lots, cruising Bellflower and the local parks, and street racing on Santa Fe in North Long Beach, there is one that stands out for Dick and high school buddy Mike Bryant. The Gumball Rally.

It started out as a “what-if,” idea after the movie Gumball Rally was released nationally. Never seen it? The movie is about a no-limits car race from New York to Long Beach’s Queen Mary.

Donahue, Bryant, and the guys sat around one Saturday night with not much to do, trying to stir up fun.

“What if we did our own gumball rally?” said someone.

A plan began to form. They would leave from Pan American Park, drive to Disneyland Hotel, then the Queen Mary (just like in the movie), and finally head back to Pan Am. A set of ground rules were laid out, prohibiting driving on freeways and various other no-no’s.

By the time the friends figured out a feasible plan, the night was too late. They vowed to complete their Gumball Rally on the following weekend. But something they didn’t expect happened. Word about the rally had gotten out, then proceeded to grow and grow over the school week.

Other kids from Lakewood High, older kids, even some guys unknown to Dick and Mike entered. What had started as a race between six friends turned into a 30-40 car big money excursion at $30 a driver.

Even the Lakewood High administration heard about the event in advance! They put out strict warnings over the PA system during school. A lot of good that did.

At Pan Am Park on Saturday night, the cars were lined up in parking spaces near the baseball field. With a crowd of onlookers gathered on the grass, the contestants started on the far side of the park and had to run to their cars to start the race. For the hosting duo, Dick did the running while Mike started the engine back in the parking lot.

The Lakewood Sheriff’s had been tipped off to the rally, which they intended to stop before it started. But they didn’t have jurisdiction at Pan Am Park in Long Beach. So they set a trap at the intersection of Carson St. and Bellflower Blvd, and caught a few, but most of the contestants found a route to get past the sheriff.

The Lakewood Sheriff’s tipped off the Anaheim Police Department. Yet the race went on. What ensued was one of the craziest, fastest, most thrilling nights of their lives for the 60-80 kids involved.

“It was crazy,” says Dick, “We were all taking different routes, flying as fast as we could, and trying to stay away from the sheriff. Some people were even timing red lights so they could run them. People were really trying to win.”

A volunteer waited at each pit stop and gave riders a special token to confirm they had passed the check point.

So how’d Mike and Dick do in their own race?

“We got 2nd place but we didn’t cheat,” smiles Dick.

Mike Bryant marvels at the craziness of the night. “It could never happen now. There were a lot less people on the roads back then. It was less of a hazard and more fun.”

Lion’s Drag Strip

Anyone in Long Beach who enjoyed cars and racing between 1955 and 1972 made their way down to the Lions Drag Strip on a regular basis, especially during the summertime.

Lions Drags Strip was a world renowned AHRA (American Hot Rod Association) track located in Wilmington, just west of Long Beach. Take Wardlow all the way west to just past the 710 Freeway where it intersects with Alameda Street, and there you are. A 15-minute drive from East Long Beach to see the fastest cars in the world race. It was a no-brainer for the car enthusiasts of Long Beach in those years.

Lions was largely considered the fastest quarter-mile drag strip in the world because of its proximity to sea level. Racers loved Lions because of the predictable and beautiful SoCal weather. Anyone with a fast car and confidence wanted to race Lion’s because they knew it was the top field they could enter. If you won at Lions, you were beating the best of the best.

The Lions Drag Strip drew crowds over 10,000 on a regular basis. Saturday “Date Night” races were very popular as were Friday and Sunday. During the week fans could go watch amateur races for free. There was always something going on at Lions.

The gear heads of East Long Beach especially loved Lions because it allowed intimacy with real racers…the best in the world.

“The guys from back East would come with maybe one crew guy so if you were hanging around you would end up helping them and becoming a part of their crew,” recalls Andy Heintzelman.

Lions was a great place for friends to gather and have fun back in those summers. Five bucks got you admission, and all the hot dogs and soda you could want. It was yet another landmark that made Long Beach world famous.

***

From cruising old cars to racing high speed at the drags, Long Beach car culture was expansive, diverse and lots of fun for the young and free gearheads of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

There was one event that combined a lot of the car culture—looks, cruising, and racing—into a single unique East Long Beach event. That was the Long Beach Model T Club’s Annual Signal Hill Climb.

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Long Beach Model T Club’s Signal Hill Climb

Every summer from 1956 to 1979 thousands of residents gathered to watch the souped-up Model T’s test their fate at the steepest hill around.

It started as just an impromptu challenge during a club cruise that first year. The Model T Club was cruising nearby, and a couple of guys decided to go up the hill.

“In those days, when you bought a new car - no matter what it was, the first thing you did was take it to a big hill to see if it would go over the hill. Signal Hill was the steepest we had in Long Beach so it was a pretty big thing back then,” explains Jeff Hood, current member and past president of the Long Beach Model T Club.

However, most people testing their kustom motors and rods up the hill weren’t driving 1914 Model T’s. That was a sight to behold. After the first disorganized climb in 1956, during which five cars made it up the hill (a sixth realizing the importance of a full tank of gas), the club started putting a little more effort into the event.

By 1958, the Long Beach Model T Club made it official, inviting other clubs from neighboring cities, and even publicizing the event in the Press Telegram.

Jeff Hood was a boy then, not a member of the club, but just like many other locals, he remembers riding his bike each year to the base of the hill to watch the cars go up, one at a time.

The early century Model T’s always looked cool, just as they do now, so appeal was wide. But don’t mistake this event for just another cruise. These were timed races up the hill. Car owners would tinker on their engines all year long just to make a good showing in this one race. And for their chance to be crowned “King of the Hill.” At the height of the event, hundreds of cars would attempt the feat, with Miss Signal Hill handing out the winning prizes.

The fastest time came in 1977 when a gentleman named LaRue Thomas climbed the track in 7.18 seconds. There were prizes for all different classes, and even prizes for most troubled vehicles. Each year there would be someone who didn’t make it up the hill, yet no one ever got hurt. The event was well planned and lots of fun. Something car lovers, history lovers and residents in general looked forward to each year.

So why did it stop? Chalk it up to that age-old archenemy of fun, liability. After the success of the annual Model T Climb, a local skateboard group decided to join the fun with their own annual event. Long story short, souping up old cars to go faster uphill is a little safer than souping up new skateboards to go faster downhill. After a few accidents came to the attention of “official hill events,” the decision was made to cut them across the board.

It didn’t help that land around the hill was owned by four different entities.

“The bottom of the hill was in Long Beach, the top was Signal Hill property, Shell Oil owned the land on one side, and Atlantic Richfield owned land on the other. The four of them couldn’t agree on one type of liability coverage,” laughs Hood.

So the event came to an end eventually, but not before two decades of very memorable summertime events.

Something tells me that a lot of the Model T guys still take their cars up the hill these days. Even though it’s no longer blessed by the city.

Just like Richard Graves’ Early Times Car Club, Jack Pettit’s and Don Chamber’s Mercifuls, and Andy Heintzelman’s Sultans, the Model T Club of Long Beach lives on.

The members aren’t as young and crazy as they once were, and the culture isn’t as prevalent, but the tinkering, cruising and desire to be recognized because of your car remains.

If you’d like to meet them, check out the Long Beach Model T Club Vintage and Classic Arts exchange on Saturday, July 22nd at Veterans Stadium. Got to lbmtc.com for more info about the swap meet.

The Early Times Car Club puts on their Mid-Winter Rod Run every February and all are welcome. The Poker Run and Garage Tour leaves out of Richard’s Wheel’s and Chassi’s on Caspian Ave.

The Mercifuls meet every Sunday morning at Glory Days Lakewood to talk old cars, share stories and plan upcoming cruises. The West Coast Nationals in Santa Maria is the big one coming up, May 26 - 28.

The Sultans put on a number of events, the headline being their car show in Signal Hill this August 6th to raise money for Signal Hill youth programs.

***

Car culture may no longer be what it was in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s; but if you drive around Long Beach it’s not hard to find the clues from cruises past. Lots of 908 residents, whether in a car club or not, are still fixing, painting and driving their favorite automobiles from those decades, holding on to the golden summer memories of the past.

Classic Cars are an extension of the people that own them. If you see a car driving down Bellflower, it’s okay to look at it. If it’s one you really like, you may even want to talk to the owner about it and share stories.

Because just like people, every car has a different story. And these stories are out there, waiting to be heard. Many of them are cooler, funnier and more in-depth than we’re able to print in this magazine. So just ask.

Don’t worry about catching up to your favorite car. It may have a fast engine, but believe me, classic cars in Long Beach are all about cruisin’.

#cruisin #longbeach #classiccars #oldtimes #summer #summerstoremember

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