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The homemade creations and the self-made people that make car shows great

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Car shows are about the people. I spend more time gabbing with car nuts than inspecting the rolling stock. Their stories are always good. All photos by author.

Car shows are in my blood…and always on my mind. I’ve been doing them for 63 of my 75 years. Maybe I’ll spend my final day at a car show.

I’ve enjoyed every car, truck and motorcycle I’ve seen…and most of all, the wonderful people I’ve met.

Looking back, the people were more memorable than the vehicles. They did and said things that made me think, laugh and restored my faith in humanity.

If you’ve read my blog stories, it all started at the 1956 GM “Motorama” in New York City. What a show! Dazzling my eyes were “dream cars,” fashion models, technology exhibits, movies, stage acts, and the most beautiful cars I had ever seen.

Today, however, I prefer free shows in parking lots or on city streets where people show off their rides, chew on BBQ, and tell stories. In Texas, dozens of shows run every weekend, weather permitting, from Easter through Thanksgiving.

Cars and peanut butter sandwiches
I don’t know about your state, but Texas car shows are bigger and better than any place I’ve lived. They’re different, mainly because they’re usually part of interesting festivals or community celebrations for which their host cities are best known.

Take the “National Peanut Butter Festival” in Grand Saline. I drove there for the car show but ended up watching men devour stacks of sandwiches.

The best peanut butter sandwich eaters in Texas competed for top honors at Grand Saline. The winner (blue shirt) downed 12 sandwiches in 10 minutes. Good, but well off the world record pace.

Bet you never heard of Grand Saline, which has caverns under Main Street that keep the Morton Company supplied with salt. The festival gained worldwide notoriety when the town’s 1,342-pound peanut butter sandwich was included in the Guinness Book of World Records.

About 6,000 folks, double the town’s population, flock there to sample peanut butter edibles. There are peanut butter candy apples, cookies, cupcakes, sandwiches (banana and bacon), brownies, fudge…in hot, mild, smooth, chunky…you name it.

The festival attracts the best peanut butter sandwich eaters in Texas, who compete to see who can inhale the most sandwiches in 10 minutes. Contestants had reputations to uphold and a world record to beat (42 sandwiches). One man had gained notoriety for eating a 72-ounce steak in less than an hour at an Amarillo roadhouse.

Stacks of sandwiches were placed in front of the men, who were surrounded by hundreds of spectators, by women called “Peanut Butter Beauties.” The contestants dipped sandwiches into water and poured them down gullets. Sandwich bits, as well as drool, inundated clothing. The winner consumed 12 sandwiches, 30 less than the world record. But he was now the Texas champion and won $250 for his gluttony.

I drove to the East Texas town of Sulphur Springs for a car show and ended up enjoying the “World Champion Hopkins County Stew Contest.”

Another car show took me to Sulphur Springs for the “World Champion Hopkins County Stew Contest” held each October. Dozens of classics, hot rods and motorcycles showed up, but thousands of folks had come to watch 150 teams cook beef and chicken stew. Some contestants wore outfits copied from the styles of 19th century farmers who settled the town known for the healing power of its sulfur water.

A Cushman motor scooter club showed up at the “World Champion Hopkins County Stew Contest” in Sulphur Springs. Classics and motorcycles took a back seat to award-winning stews.

On the way to a show on the Texas-Louisiana border, I stopped at Gladewater, “The Daffodil Capital of the World.” A line of cars left a trail of dust as I followed the road and parked under a daffodil-covered hillside. Families cavorted among the flowers, cameras and cellphones capturing images of color and youth.

An unusual vehicle caught my eye. There was a three-wheeled 1993 Chevy S-10 pickup truck, its owner, a gray-bearded man, sitting at the wheel with one foot on the pavement. Someone had removed the vehicle’s front wheels and grafted in their place a motorcycle’s front end.

“I’m Professional Hugger Dave,” the man bellowed. Thrusting my hand forward, he shook his head and said, “I don’t do that. I’d rather give you a big hug.” With that, he pulled himself up using the open truck door. He had only one leg. “Lost the leg in a motorcycle accident that almost killed me,” he said. “But it saved my life.”

He explained how he had been “the baddest of the bad” motorcyclists. But religion came into his life, he was ordained a minister and he started his own church, “The Gospel Riders,” in 2000. Since then, he has driven his vehicle to hundreds of motorcycle and car shows each year.

“Professional Hugger Dave” travels to hundreds of motorcycle and car shows in his custom pickup. He started a church called “The Gospel Riders.”

Cars and knives, cotton and sorghum
Another East Texas car show brought me to Ben Wheeler, “The Wild Hog Capital of Texas.” I took a short walk to Main Street, which is lined with early 20th century stores. Nestled among trees was the workshop of Dan Harrison, who has been crafting custom knives for 70 years.

He’s built knives for the Queen of England, the Royal Family of Malaysia, former President Lyndon B. Johnson and customers around the nation and world. His knives last, too. “I expect customers will pass down my knives for 300 years or more,” he said. It’s hard to recollect the cars, but I sure remember 90-year-old Dan Harrison and his knives.

Country roads take me each year to shows such as those sponsored by the Kerens Cotton Festival and Henderson Sorghum Festival. Mixed in with the classics and hot rods are farm equipment and tractors of all descriptions and ages. Diesel engines roar as they strain in smoky pulling contests pitting John Deeres, International Harvesters, and other brands.

Down the street from the Ben Wheeler car show is the “office” of Dan Harrison, a master craftsman who makes custom knives for clients across the world. The Kerens Cotton Festival is known for its tractor pulls.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than chatting with car nuts, our voices drowned out by loud exhausts, while inhaling fumes and the aroma of ribs cooking. Standing under enormous trucks to shield the sun, or inspecting long lines of antique tractors, we while away the hours analyzing mechanical features and equipment.

Henderson’s Sorghum Festival featured old tractors that ran like new. There’s nothing like enjoying classic cars while chewing on ribs cooked to perfection at the Kerens Cotton Festival.

“Little Old Lady from Pasadena” (TX)
Wish I could remember her name. She was a sweetheart as we talked in the hot sun at the Mineola show. Her ride, a white ‘40s-era Lincoln Continental, was spectacular. Despite its pristine condition, it hadn’t been restored.

“It’s been in the family since new,” she said, “and it’s original. My husband and I drove it more than 200 miles to show it off.”

Texas classics last longer than cars from most states, especially those from out west where they don’t use salt on highways. Looking under the hood, the flathead V-12 purred. Despite heavy doses of Texas sunshine, the leather upholstery was devoid of cracks and tears.

The “Little Old Lady from Pasadena (TX)” proudly displayed her original ‘40s-era Lincoln Continental. She and her husband drove it 200 miles to the Mineola show.

Then I met the “little young lady” at a Farmer’s Branch show who showed off her flawless 1962 VW convertible. “I’m driving it to the Austin VW show next week,” she told me, while proudly setting up a sign proclaiming the car’s restoration details. I had never seen a better example.

I met a “little young lady” at Farmer’s Branch who proudly showed off her restored VW convertible, which she planned to drive to Austin for a VW show.

I wondered if there was a category for “oddball” vehicles when a restored milk truck parked among other show cars. It sure looked real, but it had a big-block V-8 sound that didn’t fit. “What’s under the hood?” I asked.

“Got a 427 in there,” the driver yelled, pointing to a carpeted hump in the floor. “She’ll keep up with most hot rods and stops good, too, now that I’ve added disc brakes.”

At a Mesquite car show I spotted this restored milk truck. The owner updated the suspension, wheels and brakes, and installed a 427-cubic-inch Ford V-8. “It will keep up with most hot rods,” he claimed.

The only shade at Texas shows often is provided by monster trucks. This one at Decatur had wheels so large kids could sit inside the rims.

Many Texas car shows are held in the shadow of enormous county courthouses built of limestone and granite. Heading north towards Oklahoma, I stop each fall in Denton, a county seat that proudly displays hundreds of hot rods and classics on red brick streets. I’ve taken lots of photos there, but one I like best is the image of a ’51 Mercury convertible, “Forever Again,” the beloved ride of country singer Buck Owens.

Its owner bought the car from Owens years ago and it was for sale. When I asked how much he wanted, he said “more than you can afford.” He was right.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t drive a hot rod or classic. My ride is a 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis with 120K miles. As much as I love show cars, I prefer not to own one. I enjoy them simply by talking with owners and vicariously experiencing their rides.

But there was a Plano show where I met a young man who drove a Grand Marquis like mine. It sat high, had attitude and looked great thanks to custom rims. High-powered speakers made it a jukebox on wheels.

Country singer Buck Owens’s custom ’51 Mercury convertible was for sale at a Denton show. I asked its owner, who bought it from Owens, how much he wanted. I couldn’t afford it.

“How did you fit those enormous wheels?” I asked.

“It was easy, man, you could do it to your car,” he responded. He showed me all the bells and whistles while flipping switches that raised/lowered the car and turned on/off lights and speakers. It was amazing and the kid was cool. Imagine what Grace, my wife, would have said had I bought it.

Today’s car nuts do amazing things to their rides. This man, who owned a Mercury Grand Marquis like mine, tried to convince me that I, too, could install enormous wheels.

Today’s car shows have expanded to include exotics, ranging from Ferraris to Lamborghinis, rat rods and every-day drivers such as newer Mustangs, hemi-Chargers and Camaros. Their owners spare no expense showing them off by parking on velvet carpets, lining up trophies and setting up photo displays. Sometimes they bring along cheeky mates. I enjoy them, too.

Since I started attending car shows in 1956, they’ve expanded to include everything from rat rods to exotics such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Owners often display more than just their rides.

Thank you, Hemmings blog readers
I’ve written lots of Hemmings blog posts but my car memories are running low. This is my last post and I thank Editor Dan Strohl as well as readers. I’ve learned a lot from you and made many new friends.

Fortunately, I have grandchildren and great grandchildren who enjoy classic cars, hot rods and rat rods. We go to car shows and I pass along what I know and enjoy. Write me if you have time at jvanorden@tx.rr.com, and check out my Hemmings stories. Best, Jim

Great Grandson Sage and I enjoyed a Dallas car show last year. I never dreamed 63 years ago that I’d bring grandchildren and great grandchildren to car shows.