Nowhere on the planet has the automobile been embraced with as much passion as here in Southern California. With its unique network of freeways that criss-cross the landscape, it has allowed the region to flourish. And in so doing, the automobile has not only laid a considerable claim upon our attention but has also asserted an undeniable stake for our affection. So much so that our cars are not just a means of transportation, but are a culture unto themselves.
From the first time a hot rod raised a plume of dust as it raced across a dry desert lake bed to the flamboyant rubber-burning drifters that slide around local racetracks, during the past 50 years it has become a culture of vogue — restoring old cars, vamping up new ones. Fueled by both our dependency and regard, Southern Californians fervently harbor a respect for the automobile that has long since subsided in many other of the world’s metropolitan centers. And nowhere is that more apparent than right here in Ventura.
“Here in Southern California, cars have always been a big part of our lives — it’s a lifestyle,” said local automotive detail specialist Henry ‘Hanko’ Hernandez. “Here in Ventura there are a lot of older guys that still have the passion for cars that they did back when they were young. It doesn’t matter what sort of car it is, whether it’s an oldie or a hotrod or low rider, they’re all the same thing — they’re our stress relief. When you climb on into one of these old things, you’re in your own world, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside.”
Week in and week out, countless enthusiasts across the county painstakingly channel their energy, love and hard-earned capital into their automotive missions. The results of their efforts are then proudly displayed everywhere from glistening car shows staged along the waterfront at the harbor to monthly cruise nights held across the county. But no matter where or when these aficionados tout their automotive wares, what is on display is more than simply a car — it is its owner’s heart and soul.
Cars on parade
Just as the cars themselves hark back to more youthful and exuberant times within our past, so, too, do the gatherings that have become the focal point of the local scene. Be it the Main Street of Santa Paula or the car park of Ventura’s Foster Freeze, on various Friday nights throughout the month, like-minded enthusiasts gather with pride and joy where they listen to golden oldies, down a burger or two, and talk ‘shop.’
“That whole place gets packed pretty early,” Todd Bell — founder of the G.T.M. Classic Car Club — explains of the Foster Freeze gatherings that take place on the third Friday of each month. “It has an old-time car hop feel to it where all different cars show up in the parking lot, so much so that the last time I went to it, I couldn’t even get my car in there and had to park down the street. People go in and get a burger while they play old ’50s’ tunes as they talk about their cars.”
The G.T.M. (Got the Muscle) Classic Car Club is a loose collective of local enthusiasts who all share a love of muscle cars. For its members, the badge on the car is of less importance than its character, with the cars that the club encompasses typically bearing large engines and hailing from the 1960s and ’70s. From a 1960s Dodge A100 van-truck that carried equipment around Dodger Stadium to a 1971 Z28 Camaro that was shipped out from Michigan, these vehicles have just as many stories to tell as their owners.
When club member Bob Young first returned from Vietnam, he bought a 1971 Z28 Camaro with the service money he had saved. But when family demands intruded, he unceremoniously gave up the car for a Vega station wagon. Many years down the road, his retirement yielded both the time and means to indulge his Camaro affinity once more. And in the current economy, it’s ironically proving a shrewd move.
“These things never lose value — unlike my 401K that has been disappearing these past few weeks,” Young laughed.
While the G.T.M. Classic Car Club is a relatively new organization that revolves around informal local gatherings, the Ventura chapter of Dukes Car Club draws upon the long and colorful history of low riding. Formed in Los Angeles during the early ’60s, a local branch of Dukes was established by Tommy Brizela in 1981. While a love of classic automobiles was the obvious driving force behind the club, another motivating factor has been the organization’s strong sense of community, something that is readily apparent in the fundraising efforts typically attached to its gatherings.
“It’s not that we have lots of money,” offered Brizela. “Some of our members come from poor neighborhoods, but they’re some of the first to ask what it is that is needed. Although what we do might be small in the general scheme of things, it is real. And no matter whether if it’s someone within our ‘family’ or a complete stranger, we do what we can. This might be a club about vintage cars, but it is also one about community, which is important to all of us.”
It is that sense of community that has helped Brizela take the skills that he learned in the alley of his neighborhood into the offices of corporate America. It might have been a bad neighborhood in which he was raised, but it was there that he honed his body repair and painting skills with the help of his friends. Now Brizela works for a major automotive company where he is the senior body and paint trainer and teaches others to do body and paint work on some of the premium luxury cars in the world.
“Sure, low riders have been looked at historically in a negative way,” said Brizela. “You got these guys slinging themselves way down low in their gangster type cars and driving around with their stereo way too high. That was true in the ’50s and ’60s. But later, guys like me decided to start fixing up these cars and go cruising down the boulevard, and it became a cool thing. A lot of the guys in the neighborhood who didn’t have skills were quick to learn how to do body work and paint cars, and when the cars finally reached the streets, they attracted attention and respect.”
Another club with a significant local profile is the Tri-County Mustang Club. Along with the club staging its monthly meetings here in town, it also presents the annual Ponies by the Sea Mustang and Ford Show at the Ventura Harbor. With more than 50 entrants, the undertaking not only celebrates the all-American marque, but also generates funds and awareness for the Guide Dogs of America.
“We’re here because we love these cars and want to help somebody else who needs it,” explained Tri-County Mustang Club’s Marcia Lewis. “In the past, we would pick a new charity every year but have recently kept the Guide Dogs as beneficiaries because their hands-on approach has yielded a greater benefit. It’s just like when we go out for a drive — everyone on both sides gets a lot from it.”
Just like the response that greets both the G.T.M. Classic Car Club and Dukes, when members of the Tri-County Mustang Club take to the road, there is no doubting the mission at hand. The club members typically meet at a central location before cruising in unison to a given location for a little socializing.
“There’s a lot of honking and waving and a lot of thumbs up,” offered Lewis. “And when we get to the destination and people see all the Mustangs in the parking lot, they come up and talk about the one they used to have and the one they sold that they wished they hadn’t. These are cars that bring back memories and are associated with fun times. It’s great to see.”
Life after living on the edge
But the local car culture is not all restoration, fundraising and refined enjoyment. Local law enforcement authorities have been turning their attention to some automotive gatherings, with seven arrests recently taking place at a gathering in Camarillo. Some 300 had gathered at Del Taco, where arrests were made for unlicensed driving and elevated blood alcohol levels. Another 25 citations were also issued, mostly pertaining to vehicle infractions.
While the various infringements and unruly behavior that punctuate the gatherings are of obvious concern, a greater worry is the subsequent activities that the meetings typically lead to.
On any given night, hundreds of youth congregate to display their modified cars before numerous participants, then migrate to other locations — including remote county roads — where they road race. It is something that the authorities have had a much harder time obstructing.
“The problem we have with that group is that they use that as a meeting place and they then proceed from there [to] participate in illegal street racing,” explained Senior Deputy Robert Maclean of Camarillo Police. “That’s been the biggest problem we have had. And everybody is so mobile with cell phones. They’re keeping an eye on us as much as we’re keeping an eye on them so it’s a cat and mouse game that we end up playing with them.”
While other cities and counties have successfully curtailed street racing through programs that have taken the youth from the streets to the race tracks, Maclean sites the lack of a suitable venue here as a major hurdle. He feels the catalyst to making inroads in Camarillo will come through enforcement and education.
One local who knows the ins and outs of racing modified road cars is Bill Fry. Having spent much of his youth building and racing hot rods and muscle cars, Fry channels his automotive enthusiasm into show cars — or one show car in particular. Four years ago, he bought a Chevy truck that for two of those years served as his everyday road vehicle. But when the realities of street racing were driven home to him when he saw people getting hurt, the truck soon became his Muse. Some $35,000 later his customized pride and joy has seen Fry’s life turn a significant corner — through turning heads.
“I built a lot of hot rods and muscle cars with my father, and that’s the way I started with this truck,” explained Fry. “I started modifying it performance-wise first because I liked to drive fast. In the past, I got into some races on freeways and saw people being hurt and die and finally realized it’s not safe and not the right thing to do. So I decided that I would rather put my energy toward making this a show truck instead.”
His pursuit has reaped the rewards. Fry enters his dark blue truck in both local and statewide car and truck show,s and the vehicle has now garnished his mantelpiece with more than 15 trophies, including 12 first-place awards, two for second place and one highly prized Best of Show. He was also awarded a first place at the recent California Truck Jamboree where he was voted best mini truck.
“That I did not expect,” beamed Fry. “There were over 20 trucks like this in the competition, but when they looked over mine, they gave it first place. I got that because of the motor. Not many people do this much work on the motor. But with me doing hot rod and muscle cars, that’s one of the first things you do. I just wanted my truck to be different.”
As Fry’s undertaking attests, it is not just car clubs and cruise nights that are drawing enthusiasts to the county in droves, but car shows as well. The recent Roam ’n’ Relics Car Show in Moorpark saw several downtown blocks closed for the day as hundreds of classic cars of all descriptions descended upon the city. It’s a common scene repeated across the county. Newbury Park hosts the annual Westlake Village Auto Show while the Fairgrounds in Ventura sees numerous undertakings, including the Back to the Beach Car Show.
“Southern California is where it all happens,” offered Brizela. “Even the car manufacturers come here to find out what people want in a car. A lot of the design studios and centers of the major Asian and European car companies are based here in Southern California because this is where people have embraced the automobile more than anywhere else in the world. It is a culture. And it is a culture with a great tradition.”