Cruise into summer
Classic car enthusiasts invite anyone to join in the fun
They grunt and roar. They glisten and glimmer. And on occasion, they hang out.
At cruise nights and car shows, classic Fords and Chevrolets mingle hoods-up as nearby grills sizzle, Beach Boys tunes blare and wide-eyed owners circle decades-old testaments to (predominantly) American manufacturing. In Berkshire County, there's no shortage of automobile enthusiasts who want to ride these regular waves of nostalgia all summer long.
"There's more interest than there ever was," Richard Astle, of Pittsfield, said Thursday night at Ozzie's Steak and Eggs.
Astle was standing next to his 1957 Chevy Bel Air at the Hinsdale restaurant's latest cruise night. The former Pittsfield Piston Poppers treasurer had just scurried into the club's trailer, turning down the music blasting on a nearby speaker so that he could talk about the Berkshires' classic car scene. The county's auto culture recently received a boost when monthly cruise nights began in June at the Pittsfield Municipal Airport. They will be held on the first Wednesday of the month through October, the next one falling on Wednesday, July 3, beginning at 5 p.m.
"The competition for cars is just incredible. There are so many people doing this now," Astle had said earlier.
Founded in 1950 and chartered in 1956 by the National Hot Rod Association, the Poppers continue to be a reliable spark for auto events in the region. In addition to hosting cruise nights at Ozzie's on July 25 and Aug. 22 (a separate Ozzie's-run cruise is set for Aug. 8), the club will sponsor Cars on the Common on Saturday, July 6, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m at the Pittsfield Common. The show is free to spectators and $15 for entrants. Judges will award 50 trophies to top vehicles, assessing their paint jobs, engine compartments and interiors, among other areas.
"Basically, the whole car gets looked at," Astle said.
Astle's "two-door post" '57 Chevy was shining on this sunny Thursday night. As Astle spoke about the vehicle he purchased roughly 20 years ago, some of the evening's 125 cars were rolling into the field behind Ozzie's that abuts a train track. Meanwhile, an Ozzie's food truck was serving up burgers, pulled pork and fried dough, among other treats.
"This is one of the nicer places to go for a car cruise," Astle said.
More casual than competitive car shows, cruise nights are typically free to enter. Basically, those who know how to drive into a parking lot can participate in one. Cruise nights at the Pittsfield Airport, which debuted on June 5, welcome any type of vehicle. Got a Subaru Impreza with no discernibly interesting features? Sign a "hold harmless" form and drive right in.
"We tell people, 'Bring whatever you want!'" organizer Wendy Hoosick said.
Run by a group of volunteers who aren't associated with car clubs, the airport gatherings include food from local vendors, music and games for families. But the classic cars still win the most eyes. Each month, the event will showcase one vehicle near the lot's entrance. At the June cruise, which drew 125 cars (the magic number, seemingly), Justin Fruchterman's 1940 Ford Deluxe Business Coupe was on display. In July, it will be Boyd Coddington's "Alumatub."
Attendees don't tend to inspect engines and wheels quietly. Many relish the excuse to catch up with old friends.
"It's definitely a social thing," Becky Flood of Lanesborough said at the June cruise.
While cars vary in shape and size at these gatherings, their owners' dedication to their upkeep is a constant. Astle sprays his vehicle down before each cruise or show, but the key to making his exterior look pristine is a deep cleaning every spring that involves removing the car's wax, applying a light compound, adding new wax and then buffing it. Like many at these events, Astle is retired, allowing him to attend car events throughout the region. He cited Mark's Classic Cruise nights on Mondays in East Granby, Conn., as a frequent destination.
"That is probably the best place to go to a car show in New England," Astle said, noting that those cruises often draw about 1,000 vehicles.
The Berkshires' largest annual car attraction, the North Adams Motorama show, draws roughly half that amount. The Night Cruzers help Joe Dean of Dean's Quality Auto & Truck Repair and other organizers run the annual event, which will be held Aug. 25 this year on Main Street. The Cruzers also facilitate cruise nights, the next one happening Friday, July 5, at the Bedard Brothers in Cheshire.
The Cruzers formed in 1990, spawning from the popular but now defunct Hillcrest car shows in Pittsfield, club president Glenn Roy said. Like the Poppers, Cruzers members pay $25 annually. The Cruzers club, however, is "primarily for owners of autos and trucks manufactured in the U.S.A., and at least 25 years old," according to its website.
The Berkshires' classic car scene isn't beset by turf wars; if anything, the different clubs and organizations are essentially part of one larger collective, their members attending as many of the area's events as possible. On Thursday night, Roy and the Cruzers' vice president, Ed Menard, were both at Ozzie's. Roy rode in his '57 Chevy. Menard opted for his 1937 Ford.
"I can't afford one of those new cars," Menard quipped.
Of course, even though many of the cars are technically decades-old, they have often been modified with new parts.
"You modernize them," Menard said.
Astle's Chevy, for instance, was restored about 19 years ago.
"This was taken right off the frame," he said.
Paul Menin has done plenty of restoration work on his collection of 13 Pontiacs, which he houses on his Sheffield property.
"If you're in Berkshire County, and you mention GTO, my name will come up within three names," Menin said by phone.
Menin has been featured several times in Hemmings Motor News magazine and on the "Cruisin' New England" TV program. He founded Olde Yankee Street Rods in 1968. The club has been a hub for Southern Berkshire gear heads ever since. Its annual car show will be held at the Great Barrington VFW on Sept. 1. Menin hopes to attract more young people than in past years.
"I put them inside the car," he said of how he increases casual car fans' interest.
At home, Menin keeps his Pontiacs covered and on rugs, taking them out to attend 30 to 40 shows per year, he estimated.
"I put them to bed every night. It's a full-time job," Menin said of the maintenance required.
One of his Pontiacs has never been restored. He bought a 1967 GTO at the Haddad Pontiac dealership during his Pittsfield youth.
"It's all original," he said.
Menin has the type of exhaustive auto knowledge that might intimidate novices who want to check out cruise nights and shows. But he stressed that those aiming to learn more about cars should simply approach the owners sitting or standing nearby their prized possessions.
"I've never met a friendlier crew than the people at these car shows," Menin said, "and they love to talk about their vehicles."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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