It's like a trip back in time. Barbara Szaibel perches jauntily on the trunk
of her bone-stock, red and white '57 (it's always a '57, never a 1957) Chevy.
Parked next door is a true hot rod: a deep-blue, chopped '32 Ford coupe with
fat tires and no fenders. It even looks loud.
Top 10 Cruises of Northeast Ohio from Cruisin' Times
Eastlake City Hall
Lakeshore Park, Ashtabula
Southwest Café, Broadview Heights
The Diner, Laurel Square and Brunswick Recreation Center, Brunswick
Triple Crown Restaurant, Munroe Falls
Tony Roma's, Westlake
Pheasant Run, LaGrange
Szaibel wears a clingy pink top, white pearl necklace and light-gray skirt. Her white socks and sneakers peek out at the skirt's hem, not far from the sewn-on white poodle. In her hands are the fuzzy dice that normally hang from her Chevy's rear-view mirror. Nearby, husband Ron sports a black jacket and stiff blue jeans in the best Arthur Fonzarelli of "Happy Days" tradition.
On Monday morning, Ron will once again be Shaker Square's maintenance director
and Barbara will be Slavic Village's storefront coordinator. But this summer
evening, they're cruisers, indulging their love of classic cars.
"We enjoy seeing people smile when they look at the car and reminisce," Barb says.
Barb's got the Cleveland skyline behind her as she scans the Rock Hall, which looks quite different today. More than 1,000 period and special-interest cars and trucks cover the grounds. One Key Plaza has been taken over by an all-consuming subculture as fanatical as Renaissance Faire-goers and Civil War re-enactors. But unlike medieval mavens and Gettysburg generals, Barb and Ron have lived this life before.
"Ron had a car like this when we were dating in high school and, after we got married, had to sell it," says Barb. "It took us 30 years to get one back."
Their daughter saw the ad in a newspaper. When the Szaibels went to Berea to check out the car, they "fell in love with it," Ron says.
He zeroed in on the bumpers first. '57 Chevys have a nasty habit of showing their condition in the bumpers. If they are bad, chances are the rest of the car is, too. But Ron was pleasantly surprised to see healthy '50s American chrome. They struck a deal with the seller for $6,300, well below market value for a prime '57 with only 43,000 original miles on the odometer.
The headliners and front-seat upholstery were showing their age. So Ron found a catalog that offered original Chevy material for sale. The replacements they bought match the car perfectly. The outside isn't flawlwess, but that's OK, Barb says. "The paint job is worn in spots. But we're going to keep it because that's the way we are, too — worn in spots." Now, Ron is building another cruiser, a '49 Chevy truck he bought from a turkey farmer.
John Shapiro leans against his deep dark-red '55 Chevy panel wagon, which sports school-bus-yellow, in-your-face flames and a gold leaf-scripted Cruisin' Times logo on the side. That's the name of the Cleveland-based monthly magazine Shapiro publishes. It lists cruises, shows and swap meets, and it swells to more than 100 pages from May through October, high gear for cruising season.
"These people are reliving their high-school cruising days," Shapiro says. "It's a time of life where there was no responsibility, no deadlines or commitments." Excitement rises in his voice. "It's when you were 16 years old and all you wanted to do is screw off with your best car and your best girl.
"We're still like that today. We were rebels then and we're doing it all over again. We had stuff on the car back then that we weren't supposed to have, and it's still like that today."
He's right. His Chevy wasn't this loud or fast when it left the factory. It's got glasspack mufflers that are noticeably louder than the originals and megaphone tips that make them even more so. The wagon's small, original six-cylinder engine is long gone, replaced with a bigger 350-cubic-inch V-8 that wasn't even around in 1955. And with its red and flamed paint, it's got "pull me over" written all over it — if a teen were driving it past the local police.
Shapiro's come off his car now; he's on a roll. "Your high-school days were the best of your life. And what a cruise does is open that door to your past," he says.
Cruisers worship fuzzy dice, cheeseburgers, flamed paint jobs and, of course, cars. Their cruises are outdoor parties with contests, door prizes, food and music, where you can almost smell the carnauba wax as '50s and '60s music, played by a live band or a DJ, surrounds you. Somehow, the old music takes on a freshness when played among the cars.
It's as if the two are finally reunited.
Wink's Drive-In in Barberton, the "Home of Hamburgers, Horsepower
and Rock and Roll," is one of the white-hot centers of Northeast Ohio's cruising
scene. It's easy to find: the only business along Fifth Street SE with a '55
Chevy police car chasing a hot rod on the roof. Leave your lights on for service
and real live, poodle-skirted carhops will greet you at your car window. On
Fridays and Saturdays, more than 500 cool rides surround the glowing, neon-clad
restaurant at sunset. This year, Wink's is holding a "Wipe Out" competition
to see who can play the best rendition of the drum solo from the Surfaris' classic.
During some cruise nights, an Elvis impersonator with the weekday name of Sonny Rich sings under the drive-in's canopy. He's done up as an early '70s, before-he-got-fat Elvis, in white bell-bottomed Las Vegas jumpsuit with a belt buckle as big as a Buick hubcap. His set is a mix of early and late Elvis; some fast songs, some ballads. He serenades a few elderly ladies in lawn chairs with "Love Me Tender," draping a red scarf around each woman's neck. Their eyes sparkle. Who knows? Maybe they were some of the original screaming fans who fainted at the sight of the King in his, and their, younger days. Wheels or not, every cruiser has a story to tell.
Cruisers check out cars, compare notes, get ideas and ask one another where they got work done or how they did it themselves. It's never about the dollars. For $1,500, one cruiser can build a "Rat Rod": an old, dirty hot rod, a Frankenstein collection of car parts that looks as if it can barely run. Next to it may be a professionally built car that cost $150,000 or more for custom-made everything: paint, sheet metal, chassis and motor with a fit and finish Detroit would die for. Yet, park the two together and there's no worry about a fistfight breaking out. After spending countless hours underneath a car, spinning wrenches, swearing at "easy installation" parts that are anything but, quality seat time with other gearheads is a welcome respite.
Tony Roma's restaurant in Westlake started a Tuesday cruising night in July 2002 and quickly filled up its parking lot with a respectable 100 cars a night. Now, it's added more parking spots for even higher car counts. Once settled, cruisers form groups and "bench race," comparing cars. "Who did your paint?" they'll ask. "Is that for sale?" "My dad" — or uncle, grandfather or brother — "had a car just like that!" They'll watch the parade of rides coming and going, and keep an ear toward I-90, waiting for another throaty exhaust to rumble up the exit ramp.
The man running the show, Frank LaManna, is one of the top cruise masters in Northeast Ohio. He and his wife, Cookie, spin the oldies, register everyone for prizes and make announcements from their flamed cruise truck. A 10-year veteran of cruises, LaManna has backed off a bit recently.
"I used to do it seven days a week," he says while changing the music from The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" to the gods of cruising music, The Beach Boys. As the Boys harmonize the virtues of their "Little Deuce Coupe," LaManna explains cruising's allure.
"A car is an expression of one's personality," he says. "So if you see a car that's painted a certain color, or the interior is done a certain way, that's that person." The high-school football star may still be rolling in a hot car like he drove back then. Maybe it's even flashier today. But the computer nerd who ended up making all the money can have one now, too. Remember the class loudmouth? He's probably that guy in the brightly colored car burning rubber on the way out. Those kids who seemed part of the woodwork most likely are driving the perfectly restored cars.
Cruising cars span decades of Detroit craftsmanship. Cars from the 1920s, '30s and '40s were transformed into the hot rods of the '50s. Likewise, parents bought '50s cars new and later sold them to younger drivers, who souped them up. The owners of 1960s cars were typically a little older, held jobs and could afford to step up for a brand-new $3,000 to $4,000 muscle car.
The younger set, with their bass-thumping minis and imports, fits into the cruising scene just fine. At Wink's, a few of them pull in and ask an old-timer if they can park their imports next to his red '51 Ford truck. He looks over their cars: a couple of Hondas complete with undercarriage neon lights; big, trunk-mounted rear wings; and bold, color-keyed graphics.
"Just another hot rod. Pull it in," he says, thumbing them in.
Respectability is a big part of the cruising scene. Many of the older guys of today were the ones terrorizing the streets years ago with unlawful displays of power. Back then, police quickly broke up the hot spots. Now, many cities close their downtowns to regular traffic on certain summer days and let cruisers take over the streets.
Eastlake Mayor Dan DeLiberto organized a cruise on City Hall grounds that now, in only its fifth year, often attracts upward of 1,000 cruisers on its regular Saturday-night run. Hizzoner is often a participant, debating cars instead of political agendas.
"It's a vehicle for us to bring people into the city — economic development no matter how you put it," DeLiberto says, pointing out the hot dog stand. "But it also gives our residents a chance to have an evening out that they may not have. It doesn't cost anything. It's free. They bring the family, buy a hot dog for a buck, which helps the Little League or one of the other city organizations." Cruising, DeLiberto says, is "family entertainment."
Oh, yeah, and there's that going-back-in-time thing, too.