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.
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 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.