By John Grossi
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.