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One Perfect Day: The Classic Auto Show

Published in blog.hemmings.com

All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.

Here at Hemmings, it’s not lost on anyone that car shows are the lifeblood of car culture. It’s where we all meet up, where we debut our old cars, where we make wild promises and take crazy dares…it’s what we use as an incentive when making unrealistic commitments to spend stupid amounts of time and money in the interest of making wildly outdated technology function properly, just long enough to get from Point A to Point B and park our collective carcass among like-minded souls, only to do the same thing all over again for the next car show.

But we’d have it no other way, would we? No. We wouldn’t.

Now, one area of the country that we wouldn’t be too terribly out of line to claim as the car show capitol of The Americas might be Los Angeles. Car for car, show for show, goodie bag for goodie bag, LA owns the annual car show industry. There’s more goings-on on any given weekend, all year long in the greater LA area than just about anywhere else. And it’s with this in mind that we bring you another one: The Classic Auto Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of this show yet, since it’s fairly new. But, from the get, they’ve got the right gearhead appearances and the right cross-section of cars (classics, customs, hot rods, trucks, lowriders, Eurosport, Japanese Domestic Market (JDM), bikes). In an industry that’s fairly fractured into specific genres and make/model, the Classic makes sure that it’s all equally represented and that’s something to honor the promoters for.

But hey, this is One Perfect Day, so let’s get to it: LA is an absolutely massive stretch of car culture, so we turned this one into a whole weekend. You’ll thank us for that.

We decided to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles and once you’ve made that decision, you’re faced with the next one: 101 or I-5? These are the only two practical route choices, running north and south in California, unless you want to spend a month driving Route 1 along the coast (or Pacific Coast Highway, as it’s also known). We typically say that if you need to get there in a hurry, take I-5, since it’s the fast, one-shot ribbon of tar running through a mostly empty stretch of the state’s Central Valley. But we took U.S. Route 101, which is more scenic (running along the coast in parts), albeit a little slower, since it runs right through major towns like Santa Barbara and little ones like Oceano – plus, there are some at-grade crossings in towns like King City and it can be a bit of a surprise to be clipping along at 70 mph and come face-to-face with the broad side of a tomato truck crossing your path.

Roughly halfway between San Francisco and LA, on 101, is the burg of Paso Robles. For gearheads, this is hallowed ground: Site of the long-gone and hands-down best car show ever put on in the history of the world, “Paso,” as it was simply known, ran for 35+ years and was hosted by Penny and Rich Pichette of West Coast Kustoms car club. An entire generation of hot-rodders and gearheads, much less popular culture, owe its existence to that show in Paso, so we’d be lying if we didn’t admit we get a little nostalgic for the town. Four hours into the drive, it’s still a great place to stop, stretch, gas up, sit down, and eat. And Paso has really stepped up its eatery game in the past few years: we found Habaneros—a fairly new Mexican place as cool as it is small—and pretty quickly realized this place would fit just as easily in the Mission District in SF or off the PCH in Santa Monica. The atmosphere is simple, yet super-hip and the menu matches that vibe. Try the Puerco al Habanero (juicy, braised pork baptized in an habanero chili salsa) or the Taquitos de Pollo (chicken breast tacos rolled tightly and fried) and share it all, including the fresh tortilla chips y salsa. Whether the owners know it or not, Habaneros’ menu is perfect for road-trippers: the plates aren’t giant, but more than enough—which is exactly what you want when you’re spending most of the day firmly planted in a car and not doing a whole lot of calisthenics to work off the party-size bag of Combos and the Red Vines you no doubt polished off before you even got as far as Paso. Whatever. You know what we mean. From either the north or south, get off 101 in Paso at the Spring Street exit (which basically parallels the highway), turn west on 12th Street, go a block in and you’ll find Habaneros on the right at 555 12th. Blink and you’ll miss it. But don’t miss it.

Since the Classic Auto Show is at the LA Convention Center, which is in the southwest corner of what’s now referred to as “DTLA” (Down Town Los Angeles), we decided to stay in that ’hood. LA is so spread out that it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ll “just stay in El Segundo—it’s cheaper and only 17 miles from the show,” but you’d be wrong. That means you’re actually between 35 minutes and 17 hours from the show. Trust us: buck up for a room in DTLA and have fun. It ain’t that much more expensive and your mental health is worth a few bucks, right? The other great thing about DTLA is the Grand Central Market on South Broadway. This place is the closest thing to the downtown farmers markets in East Coast towns and there are just a ton of great little booths to find an amazing breakfast at, crammed into half of a city block. Around the corner (in LA terms) from the Classic Auto Show, we decided to get breakfast at Wexler’s Deli (“Hey, Heyyyy…smoke fish every day”) at the Grand Central and if there’s anything better than an everything bagel stuffed with pastrami, eggs, and cheddar, as a foundation for a day of car-showin’, we don’t know it. Get the Big Poppa bagel and a cup of coffee, and you’re set. Till lunch. Wexler’s: 317 S. Broadway, LA.

When you get to the Classic Auto Show, be prepared to pay $20 to park. But, as an indoor show, you’ll be treated to indoor parking that’s also very convenient, so there’s that. And it’s LA—you can’t leave your room without spending a $20 bill, so this ain’t the worst way to part with one. There are two levels of the Classic: the upstairs Grand Boulevard and The Garage on the lower level. Upstairs, you’ll find the celebrity stage and the feature cars, while downstairs is where you’ll find restoration demonstrations, car clubs, and vendor booths. This place is cavernous and made out of polished cement—bring sensible shoes, but you don’t have to worry about blazing sunstroke or turning an ankle on uneven gravel.

The Gypsy Rose! Look, whether or not you dig on lowriders is irrelevant in a conversation about the Gypsy Rose. This lowrider, first built by Imperials car club member Jesse Valadez in 1960, has become the ambassador for all of lowrider culture. It was featured in the opening credits of the show Chico And The Man in the early Seventies, on the National Mall in Washington, DC, last year, and in countless magazines and car shows in between. This custom is in its third iteration, but the Gypsy Rose has been an icon of American car culture for generations now. It’s an important car, man. And it was so cool to see it in-person at the Classic.

Go to enough car shows and you’ll start nerding out on all the little details. Here, we found these bitchin’ Hellings air cleaners on the side of this sano little circle track racer. Try to find an original Hellings of North Hollywood or Stelling & Hellings of Burbank air cleaner with original decals on it and not trade your soul to the devil for it. Are these original cleaners or repop? Couldn’t find the owner to ask, but these sure are a neat little feature of a great car.

You can’t swing a dead cat in LA and not hit something that’s been influenced by Hollywood—restaurants, billboards, stores, streets, theaters, sidewalks, bars…you get the idea. And the Classic filled up its celebrity stage with the usual suspects, if you’ve been paying attention to automotive-based cable TV programming: Wayne Carini, Chip Foose, Steve Moal, Dave Kindig…hell, Goldberg…you get the idea. We made sure we were there on the first day of the show when Carini and Moal hit the stage because they’re both two of our favorites. Wayne’s into the second decade of his Chasing Classic Cars and Steve Moal has, refreshingly, stayed out of the reality show circus, but both are genuine gearheads and have dedicated their careers to this stuff while maintaining their integrity. That’s hard to find. Really hard to find.

The vintage Japanese thing has really come on strong in the last few years. We’re particularly fond of Seventies-and-earlier JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) cars and we’re not just talking about unobtanium like Fairladies and Skylines and 2000GTs and Mach 5s (although the Mach 5 was across the room). No, we’re talking stuff we can actually find, buy, restore, and run the wheels off: like a Datsun 510 or a Honda Z or maybe even a 1st-gen Mazda 929. Why not even add a Ford Courier or a Chevy LUV to the list? Have fun, people. Have. Fun.

Patina isn’t always reserved for hot rods, folks. Here’s a 1951 VW 11A Standard Sedan (let’s just call it a Type 1 Beetle). These split-windows are early and rare, and this one is a great example of preservation > restoration. It’s got those neat semiphores in the B-pillars, too! And with an advertised 25 hp out of its air-cooled 1.1-liter motor, we don’t get the feeling those turn signals would risk breaking off in the wind.

Let’s stay on the VW thing for another minute: Here’s a neat and complete camper bus setup. These camper people, if you’ve ever run across them, are all about the accessories: the more era-correct and/or original manufacturer option accessories, the better. This guy had more original gee-gaws and camping equipment than we’ve ever seen stuffed into one Type 2. EVER. And he drove it to the show. Nomads, that his type are.

Usually, when we see Japanese hot rods, we see them in pics and videos from the Mooneyes Show that takes place every December in Yokohama, Japan. So, it was as real treat to see the 1930 Model A Tudor show car built by one of our favorite Japanese customizers, Junichi Shimodaira. Junichi’s Nagoya-based shop, Paradise Road, is responsible for some of the best customs on the West Coast of the Pacific and we were stoked to see that Chuck and Jeanne Schauwecker brought it out.

Speaking of customs, David N.’s ’37 Lincoln Zephyr just about killed us with coolness. We’re so accustomed to seeing these things on airbags or hydraulics that when we see a stocker, it looks like its sitting on Skyjackers. But when these things lay frame like David’s does, it seems to us that Edsel Ford might’ve had customizers in mind when he went into production with these things. Find one of these and they’re worth their weight in chrome. And you’ll never lose value by bagging it!

Remember when we mentioned preservation versus restoration above? Here’s another great exercise in preservation: a 1924 Ford Model T Martin Parry Full Top Express. The body is basically untouched, with its original paint and pinstriping still visible. The radiator, motor, and frame are mixtures of different years of Model T, but the sliding pocket-door body is just so neat to see. These Martin Parry bodies were shipped in pieces from York, PA, so that a Model T chassis owner could have a truck made out of it. This one was found up near gold rush country in Placerville, CA, and it still has that “look.”

What could make a Corvair cooler? Why, a set of Redlines and Cragars, of course! The Chevy Greenbrier was built on a Corvair platform, stretched to a 95-inch wheelbase and could be had in either a six- or eight-door version. You see even fewer of these on the road than the Corvair, itself, so to find one in fairly original condition, with restored brightwork, lowered a skosh, and riding on Cragars-n-Redlines, well, you hand your corn dog to the guy standing next to you and take a picture. Which is exactly what we did, here. You’re welcome.

To quote Tom and Ray Magliozzi, “The #1 rule of cars: The French copy nobody and nobody copies the French.” Whether that’s good or bad, it’s true when you gaze upon just about anything built by Citroen. And there was an amazing display of these things at the Classic. This particular DS and that SM were pretty cool.

This is Los Angeles, so the lowrider game is strong with the Classic. Lots of great cars brought out by historic clubs like Lifestyle and the Imperials, but something to take note of is the everpresent “Felix The Cat.” Felix Chevrolet has been using the vintage cartoon cat for decades and, since the dealership was right in the middle of the Southern California lowriding scene, Felix became an unofficial ambassador and symbol of authentic lowriding. Go to show where there are more than two lo-los gathered and you’ll most likely see Felix on a shirt, plate topper or decal. Neat anthropological stuff.

Okay, so we just explained the importance of Felix The Cat as lowrider culture symbology, right? Well, the good news is that you can leave the Classic Auto Show and go right around the corner (in LA terms, that’s less than 20 minutes in the car) to 3330 South Figueroa and check out the original Felix Chevrolet neon sign, still atop the dealership! An unofficial sport in Los Angeles is taking phone pics of vintage signage and there’s tons of it to find. Felix doesn’t disappoint in that department, either. Which is more than we can say for the Felix t-shirts they have for sale, but get yourself one, anyway. They’re a little goofy, but we only say that because we’d rather have just a big Felix on the back and not the Back-To-The-Fifties design they only had in stock.

LA is an exercise in contrasts: on one hand, the traffic is as bad as you’ve heard—especially on the rare occasion of rain (like we experienced when we left our first day of the Classic), on the other hand, you get to see daily drivers like this ’72 VW Type III in that traffic! In just about every other part of the country, this thing would either be rusted up to its gills, or it’d only be brought out for a car show. Here, we could tell the woman driving it probably made the great choice on the EMPIs and the paint—she was just as stylish as her car…and her personalized plate.

We snapped that shot of the ’72 VW fastback on our way up to North Hollywood from DTLA to our own Bobby Green’s Idle Hour. This is the perfect place for happy hour after a day at the Convention Center, just for the unique history of the place, if not also for its connection to LA car culture. Bobby is a friend, a hotrodder and a partner in the 1933 Group, which specializes in specialty theme drinkeries in the greater L.A. area. When the dilapidated Idle Hour came up for sale, he jumped on it and restored this great example of “programmatic architecture” to its former glory: the old wine barrel (or is it a whiskey barrel?) is the focal point of the place and it’s undergone a loving, careful restoration.

There are three features of the Idle Hour that make it a must-see during your weekend at the Classic: the second is the dog in the backyard. The Bulldog Café is actually a replica of the original that served tamales and ice cream (according to its front legs) near where the car show takes place now. Destroyed long ago, the replica was made for the Petersen Automotive Museum across town and Bobby rescued it from the museum when he heard it had to go. Now, you can reserve it for private parties and it’s just cool on top of cool. Get to Idle Hour for their Happy Hour and you’ll love the third great feature: the drinks and food. Get the warm pretzel, the house-smoked brisket sliders and buffalo cauliflower. Also get the mules. Never go wrong with a Moscow Mule, especially made with love by the barkeeps at Idle Hour: 4824 Vineland.

The morning of Day Two at the Classic Auto Show, we headed west from DTLA toward the beach. Venice Beach, to put a finer point on it and Deus Ex Machina for breakfast. Can’t start in on a full day of car-showin’ without something substantial in your belly and there are no shortage of great little places to supply such things. “Deus,” as it’s referred to, is one of those great ideas that just works: surfboards, custom sport bikes, clothing, books, magazines, great coffee, good café menu and an atmosphere you won’t soon forget. While there are a few Deus shops all over the world, the Venice location is the only one in the States, so make sure you go see it. Get a bagel sando and a large coffee, then have great conversations with some of the local dogs who hang out there with their humans and figure out what kind of surfboard fits your needs.

“Hey, are you with Hemmings?” We hear the voice behind us as we walk out of the Deus café. Not only is it a great cross-section of the local color that is Venice Beach, but you can also drop in on the honest-to-pete custom motorcycle shop across the floor. Michael “Woolie” Woolaway had stepped out from the shop and seen our staff shirts, so he gave us a tour of the shop and showed us the skunkworks he’s currently working on. Like we said: well worth the trip out to Venice Beach to spend an hour with Woolie, the dogs and the locals at Deus.

Back at the Classic, we made a beeline to our buddy Don Lindfors’ killer little Deuce roadster pickup: the “Boss 32.” Don is the face of Pertronix Ignition and Patriot Exhaust and just one of our favorite people in the business. He also builds some great cars and we spent some time, putting in a bid for a ride in this thing between car shows.

It’s OK to love this. Really, it is. Just let the love in.

 

On the lower level of the convention center, there’s more of an obviously laid back party atmosphere, and here the Classic hosts more car clubs and things like restoration demonstrations. And it did not go unnoticed that mid-century GM trucks have become insanely popular right now. We’ve seen Carlos Escoto’s ’65 GMC custom at a few shows now and it never gets old: that combination of big wheel/lowered suspension and patina will no doubt come to symbolize the Aughts and that’s perfectly fine with us—we’ll enjoy it while it lasts, knowing this style of custom gets the kids’ attention focused on old cars.

Now, this thing was cool: Joe Tantardini brought out his dad’s ’67 Camaro ‘Day 2’ car from Garden Grove, CA, and he even fired it for us, right there on the show floor! His dad bought the car in 1970 and raced it for years before Joe got his hands on it. It’s a real So-Cal drag-racing time capsule, with all those vintage OCIR dragstrip timing slips and snapshots. We love discovering gems like this and we’re glad Joe brought it out. Very cool.

Ah, the “Cal Bug” diorama: when you think of the Southern California car scene, thoughts will, sooner or later, turn to the Cal Bug. Lowered VWs with hot little air-cooled motors, EMPI or early Porsche or Cal Custom wheels and some sort of board on the roof. Doesn’t get much better than that, under 100 hp! This setup was complete with a beach that seemed to be a magnet for every kid who got loose from his parents long enough to run through it.

The only thing that could’ve made this period-perfect ’65 Dodge Coronet 440 drag car any better was two free shots of Johnnie Walker and a couple wedges of lime, while gawking at it. BOOM!

A few hot rods showed up downstairs, too: this bitchin’ ’29 Ford full-fendered truck and ’28/’29 Ford roadster were done really well and it was easy to see that every element was well thought-out. These ain’t rat rods, just in case anyone asks.

When you find a pristine example of your daily driver at a classic car show, you start questioning your own limits of practicality. And this beautiful ’77 Ford F250 Lariat XLT Camper Special makes us do exactly that. But, that’s OK: we offset those pangs of guilt by concentrating on the ’68 Mercury Park Lane woody convertible next to it. Works every time.

Just when we thought we’d seen everything, saw every celebrity, took all the phone pics, and said goodbye to the Classic Auto Show, we were stopped dead in our tracks by this thing in the parking garage of the Convention Center as we left the building: Frazer Williams’ replica Fred Lorenzen ’63 Ford Galaxie 500 stock car! If Fred dailies this thing, he’s our official new hero. And we’ll need him to build us a replica David Pearson ’69 Torino race car, too. Just sayin’…

So, we turned the car for parts North and jumped on U.S. 101N toward Ventura, CA. One of the staples of any 101 trip between So-Cal and Nor-Cal is Pea Soup Andersen’s: located just off the highway at either of the north-bound or south-bound Buellton exits, Andersen’s is a vestige of the glory days of Route 101 roadtrips and the Dutch community that settled that part of the Santa Ynez Valley in the early part of the 20th century. Yes, Andersen’s is known for its split pea soup—whether or not you even like split-pea soup is really not the point, but you have to stop and immerse yourself in all things Dutch, pea soup and mid-century California tourist trap. There’s not much else in Buellton, so at least grab a photo in the Hap-Pea and Pea-Wee portrait board and call it a day.

OK, we lied: there actually is one more thing to see in Buellton: just up the street from Andersen’s on the Avenue Of The Flags is “Kars With A K:” a used car dealership with more ’64 Impalas in one place at one time since the last lowrider show we’d been to. The owner clearly favors late-’50s and ’60s Chevy models, so if you’re looking for something like that, give yourself an extra 20 minutes or so to do some browsing.

This is Adam Castillo. He lives in Santa Maria, but we ran across him cruising around Pismo Beach in his mild custom ’85 Regal. Pismo is one of the many great little coastal towns strung together by 101 and each of them has its own charm. Pismo is known for the big, wide beaches that cars can be driven on, but there’s also quite a scene on the narrow streets of downtown: barbecue joints, surf shops, bars and junk shops are all crammed into a fairly small area, but it makes for a great place to stop and stretch, if you didn’t stop at Andersen’s. If you see Adam, tell him we’ll come down and get a burger with him next time we’re in Santa Maria. Or you go meet him and tell us if he was right about those burgers.

You can easily make the drive between LA and San Francisco in a day—that’s no secret. But it’s not really any fun, either. And the concept of California, if nothing else, was invented for fun, right? As we made our way up the coast, we decided to stop for the night in San Luis Obispo at the legendary Madonna Inn. This place is known for its camp, its pies, steaks, and its theme hotel rooms, so we considered ourselves lucky when we scored the “Old Mill” room. And the Old Mill did not disappoint: green glitter walls, floral-upholstered everything, a working miniature mill water wheel, and a baseball team’s worth of wooden Dutch kids chasing each other around on turntables a la your grandpa’s cuckoo clock. Individually, none of the parts of this room make any sense. But under one glitter-popcorn ceiling, they all work together. Can’t imagine what REM sleep must be like in the Caveman room.

The scale and volume at which the Madonna Inn has been built is a little crazy. But crazy like a fox you’d want to hang out with at a party. Legend has it that Mr. Madonna was the architect for all the buildings (and there are many) and Mrs. Madonna decorated all of them. The giant rocks that seem to be structurally necessary are everywhere and it’s said that they were all dug up on the 1,000 acres the hotel sits on. The men’s room in one of the lobbies even has a, uh, “motion-activated” rock waterfall. We’ll just leave that there. Go for the camp and the experience and think of everything you eat and drink there as just part of the fun, but do yourself a favor and don’t go all Zagat on the Gold Rush Steakhouse, the Copper Café, the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge, the Madonna Inn Bakery or the Terrace Pool Bar. Just have fun, take lots of phone pics, engage your wait staff, tip your bartender well, and love every bit of one of the most unique hotels on the West Coast.

Woke up the next morning, well-rested, from little Dutch kids made out of glitter and talking flowers dancing through our dreams, got a substantial poached-egg-and-corned-beef-hash breakfast at the Copper Café, bought a few postcards of our room to send Back East, and headed north.

The Classic Auto Show just might have to be added to your West Coast gearhead calendar. It’s a young show, but the diversity of genres, subcultures and, well, cars is what makes it unique. And it’s not some remote show that’ll trap you in a parking lot for a few days—it’s right in the heart of Los Angeles, so do what we did and make an epic weekend out of it. Man cannot live on bread, alone, after all.