From rare and vintage vehicles to muscle cars and more, classic automobiles are the prime attraction at summertime shows throughout the western suburbs
It took a war in a distant land to separate Chuck Derer of Downers Grove from the object of his teenage infatuation. As a student at Hinsdale Central in the early 1960s, he knew what made his heart flutter. “I would sit in study hall and watch the cars drive down 55th Street,” he recalls, drolly adding, “It’s a boy thing.”
So after he graduated, though still of modest means, Derer pounced on a 1961 yellow Ford convertible with a striking black top. Alas, his parents sold it after he was drafted and sent to Vietnam.
One of the ways he coped with the stresses and boredom of war was to daydream about the Pontiac convertible he’d purchase once he returned to the States. The savvy outreach of the car behemoths in Detroit extended to foxholes halfway around the world. “I was in the jungle looking at new car brochures,” he chuckles. He even had money taken out of his soldier’s pay as a down payment for a car.
Today, Derer, 71, has put a lot of things in his rear view mirror. But the toll of time has not dimmed his love for the cars of yesterday. This summer, as he has for decades, Derer is showing off his latest classic car at the Summer Nights Classic Car Show in downtown Downers Grove. He is one of 230 or so classic car devotees proudly displaying their much loved autos every Friday before huge crowds. The event became so popular — and participants began showing up too early, clogging up space — that new rules were instituted last year.
“The sidewalks are so crowded you can barely walk,” says Linda Kunze of Downers Grove Downtown Management, which coordinates the extravaganza.
Not everyone has the time, money or inclination to purchase and maintain a classic car. But a whole lot of folks — men and women alike — enjoy ogling the cars. It’s not nice to stare, unless it’s at a classic car driven to a show precisely to be admired.
More and more suburbs are now holding car shows, an inexpensive night out for families that bond parents with their children and grandparents with their grandkids. Often the events also offer music and local food favorites. A first car is a rite of passage, and for families today attending a hometown car show is becoming a tradition all its own.
Each show has its own vibe, its own ways of doing things, but there is something achingly iconic about all of them. Summer springs to life — the mobs of people in shorts, T-shirts and sandals, the omnipresent cotton candy, hot dogs and Cokes, the radio hits of the 60s and 70s played at the accompanying concerts, the carefree, relaxed, let-it-all-hang-out air of contentment among attendees.
The shows tend to be drenched in red, white and blue. The cars are primarily American. They hail from an era of U.S. prosperity, when America was more dominant, less conflicted. People can’t articulate it, but deep down they know they are enacting an American ritual. It’s much more than a narrow slice of America — it’s a knowing, full-blown celebration of Americana. It’s the freedom of the open road, the golden opportunities promised by a gallon of gas, the exalted sense of belonging to a nation that hums like the engine of a Cadillac.
If you ever happen to spot someone in line at a car show buying a Coke who looks exactly like Richie Cunningham or Potsie, John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, or Mickey Mantle or Jackie Robinson, you’d just shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, yeah, of course.”
Car shows occur locally nearly every day of the week during the warmer months. Most are sponsored by towns, but drive-in restaurants and other businesses also host regular gatherings of classic cars. Trophies are sometimes awarded to the car judged to be the best, but cash prizes are rare. Owning a classic car is an expensive hobby, not a way to make money.
Typically, certain types of cars are featured at shows from one week to the next — from Model Ts and Model As to Pontiac GTOs and Mustangs, from Thunderbirds to Corvettes, and from Chevys to Fords and Chryslers. Generally, cars must be 25 years or older to be considered “classic.”
If you’re looking to eyeball a certain car from a certain year and willing to travel to a particular show on a particular date, you’re probably in luck. Google brings the world to one’s fingertips. Car shows put a historical showroom of autos at your footsteps.
For some shows, the cars are the main attraction while for others, at least on certain nights, a concert brings in droves. Summer’s here, and the time is right for dancing in the streets. The closing day of Cruise Night in Lombard on Aug. 25 features American English, the popular Beatles tribute band. The 60s will come alive in conjunction with the car show at the Hillside Summer Nights: American English on July 24, the New Colony Six on Aug. 6 and The Buckinghams on Aug. 28.
Held downtown on Friday nights, the robust car show in Wheaton has run for 21 years. Normally accommodating 100 cars, the show is displaying 50 cars this year because of construction. Musical acts featuring songs by the likes of Billy Joel, Elton John and Kenny Rogers provide another reason to amble downtown. Ambling, as well as seeing old friends and soaking in the vibes of a summer night, is reason enough to go to Vintage Rides. “I’m not so much a classic car guy. But this gets people out on a Friday night,” says Jim Matheson, 69, a CPA and bank director who is glad to see packs of grandchildren with grandparents. “This is better than them playing video games.”
Yet even a guy who is not a classic car guy gets a little nostalgic when he spies an older Corvair convertible, which he drove when he was younger. “I run in to one of those once in a while. It’s nice to see,” admits Matheson.
Cars are meant to be driven. But classic cars are so stylish that they command one’s attention while parked. Paula Barrington, executive director of the Downtown Wheaton Association, which organizes the show, raves, “Lots of older cars were a piece of sculpture — the way they were trimmed, the polish of the chrome. The steering wheel was a piece of art. The interior was beautifully done — the plush carpeting. There was
a lot of attention to detail.
“The technology of the new cars is where today’s flash is at,” adds Barrington. “They don’t have the attention to detail of the cars of the 30s, 40s and 50s.”
Those much older cars are still displayed, but increasing in numbers are the muscle cars of the 60s and 70s. You see more Chargers, Camaros and Firebirds as men now in their 60s and 70s have retrieved them. “They collect the cars they could not afford when they were in their teens or early 20s,” says Barrington. “They want to talk about their cars, want to show them off. They love reminiscing with people.”
The feelings of attachment to the four-wheeled transportation machines are mutual. “You hear a lot of comments like, ‘My dad had a car like that,’” says Barrington. “In American culture cars play a big role. They’re part of our lifestyle and memories. They occupy part of our imagination. They really do get an emotional response from people.”
Barrington drives a Mercedes station wagon. But she once owned a ‘62 Cadillac convertible. “It had big, rounded fenders. It was turquoise, almost Tiffany-blue. When I would drive it down the streets, it would turn heads. I called it my Hollywood car,” she says. “Once in the city I saw the blue lights flashing behind me. ‘Boy, what did I do wrong?’ So I pulled over. The cop said he just wanted to take a good look at my car.”
Mere age sometimes can transform a car once dismissed as ordinary to one worthy of attention. “It’s hard to imagine, but the cars we drive today may get the same response from us 30 or 40 years from now. ‘Yeah, I used to drive that minivan when I had kids,’” says Barrington wryly.
Garage-Kept — For 42 Years
A car featured for years at the Wheaton car show is an elongated, boat-like, midnight-blue 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88 convertible. Owner Ken Klein stores it inside in a spacious work area of a well-kept office park in Wheaton. Klein bought it new from the dealer, put on 24,000 miles in its first year and, basically, except for shows, parades and special occasions, parks it inside. For Klein, it’s a car too special to use as an ordinary car.
One week after Klein took delivery of the car, he met his wife, Alicia. But for their first date he did not pick her up in the Oldsmobile — they traveled separately to the Oak Brook Saddle Club. So the mystique of the car for him is not exactly enfolded into his life. There’s just something about older cars that are endearing in a way nothing else is.
“I drive my family crazy,” says Klein. “I can tell a ’57 Chevy from a ’56 Chevy. It might be different sheet metal, different tail lights. Today everything looks like everything else. Cars are made so much better. But they all look the same.”
His Oldsmobile is a looker, but it’s not pristine. “I haven’t washed it in eight or nine years. I dust it off,” he says. “Some guys (with classic cars) have so much money they don’t know what to do with it. Or they’re gearheads. I don’t fit those categories. I’m just a regular Joe.”
For someone who has never been to one, a car show may seem exotic and out-there, drawing people overly fascinated by older vehicles. But classic cars and the shows draw not only rare cars in mint condition owned by single-minded men, but also lots of people like Klein who simply like cars. Classic cars are not a subculture, a strata of society distinctly apart from everyone else, but instead a popular branch of our culture.
“Some guys dust even their engines. They turn the bolts in the engine the same way so the slots line up. Their cars are shining — spotless. I’m not that guy,” says Klein, who once sold direct mail advertising and then ran a sign business.
“My son’s friends go gaga over the car,” he adds. It’s the kind of car that summons memories as well as admiration. “The comment I get most often (at the show) is, ‘My Uncle Bob used to have a car like that.’”
End of the Road?
Last Chance Auto Repair in Plainfield helps owners restore their cars. Restoration is not for the faint of heart — or those of limited means. Restoration typically starts at $30,000. The business has had its share of customers who struggle to pay for a complete restoration. They typically come to the business after they’ve hit a wall and can’t find a part or don’t know how to proceed. “We don’t do ground-up restorations. We’re fixing other people’s issues,” says Corry Leracey of Last Chance.
It’s OK to love older cars and dream about having one. But restoration is often problematic. “Unless you absolutely love the car you should by no means undertake restoring the car. Everything about it (restoration]) is an act of love,” says Leracey.
So, no, classic car owners, with some exceptions, are not in it for the money. The shows are not occasions for selling (though it does happen). Commerce is not at the root of the car shows. You can’t really put a dollar amount on what makes a heart tick faster. “They made cars so much stronger and better back then,” says Leracey. “With older cars people put their souls into the design and engineering.”
The great danger, like an oil slick up ahead on the road, is that the cars are not the only ones aging. The generations that worshipped cars are fading. Who will tenderly preserve our aging cars? Where are today’s grease monkeys, crouched under the hood in their father’s driveway? Perhaps old cars one day soon will be relics, parked forlornly at museums, not lovingly in garages. Car shows themselves eventually could become part of the past. The fixation today among young people is not with horse power or what’s under the hood or has shiny curves, big bumpers and mounds of chrome. The world has gone miniature, hand-held and inward.
“Kids today are all about the ring tones of their phones or the processing speed of their computers. They tinker with their computers,” observes Klein sadly.
The Granddaddy of Them All
No, money is not being handed out. But mobs of people crowd the sidewalks of downtown Downers Grove on Friday nights in the summer. The car show is to Downers Grove as Mardi Gras is to New Orleans and the Kentucky Derby is to Louisville. OK, that’s an exaggeration, of course, but the show does consistently draw thousands. It also provides the town with cachet, a trademark event to set it apart and earn accolades.
“Car magazines have rated it in their top 10 (car shows),” says Bob Markert, the show’s chairman. “When Forbes listed it (Downers Grove) as one of the top 10 friendliest places to live, they really liked the car show.”
Merchants like it, too. “Restaurants absolutely love it,” says Kunze. They do a brisk business selling portions of food such as pizza slices. The kernels are flying at Wells Street Popcorn, which also plops its cotton candy machine and ice cream fridge on the sidewalk. “It’s our busiest night of the week. The lines are usually pretty long,” says aptly named Catherine Smiles of Wells Street Popcorn.
The show is a happening, a place to see and be seen. “If you grew up in the city you know people sat on the front stoop watching the world go by. The car show is like that. You pull up a lawn chair and talk to people,” says Derer. “It’s a social gathering. You usually don’t get that in the suburbs. The houses are too far apart. If you had people looking too interested in what’s going on at a house someone would probably call the police.”
Derer shows a rare ’91 two-door Cadillac roadster, made in Italy. For 25 years, until he recently sold it, he displayed a 1948 yellow Willys Overland Jeepster. “I can remember when I first saw it. It was 1990 at nine in the morning. It was coming down Saratoga turning left eastbound on Ogden (in Downers Grove). The sun hit it just right. I said, ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that car.’” So Derer joined a Jeepster club and eventually located one for sale.
Derer’s Jeepster was eye-catching but far from perfect. “It was a 20-footer — it looked pretty good from 20 feet,” he says. That’s part of the democratic, here-comes-everybody feel of the Downers Grove show. There may be multimillion dollar Italian sports cars alongside perfectly restored cars, and yet Tom and Harry can also show up with their older cars, defiantly displaying the ravages of their age. “You don’t see a whole lot of 100-point cars (cars that meet an extensive checklist),” says Derer, who posts videos of classic cars driving on roads on his YouTube channel. “You see some rusted-out beaters.”
The Downers Grove show is the granddaddy of local car shows, the first of its kind locally. It was begun by Duane Baker, former owner of the closed Herbert’s Men’s Shop, when he headed the Downtown Retail Council. A realtor-friend had taken a trip to Somerville, New Jersey, and seen its successful cruise night. “We ought to try that here,” he advised Baker. But town officials nixed the idea. “They felt cars would break the law, burn rubber, drive erratically,” recalls Baker.
Baker proposed that the cars not cruise but instead park in one spot. Fine, said officials, let’s go ahead and hit the gas pedal on this. The first show had seven cars, six of them belonging to the realtor and his pals. On the show’s tenth anniversary, Baker added bands to broaden the show’s appeal, a feature that indeed propelled the event into a higher gear.
Cars from bygone days are hypnotic, stirring up the past. “I think they bring back memories of your first date, prom night or when your child was born. Maybe you had that kind of car when you met your wife,” says Baker. The show brings the community together like no other event. “You can enjoy a night out near your home. You experience a downtown that’s more of a hometown than Chicago,” he says.
A definite bonus of the Downers Grove show is that cruising is an unofficial part of it. Some car owners subtly detour around the original prohibition of driving the streets. “Cars are always passing by. There is lots of showing off, driving around,” says Derer with a smile. “Some people don’t really want to park.”
Summer Car Show Calendar
Batavia | Fast Eddie’s Lunchtime Cruise-In | 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. 500 N. Raddant Rd.
Berwyn | Cruise Nights | June 5 & 19, July 17, Aug. 7 & 21, 6 – 9 p.m. Windsor Ave. and Grove Ave.
Hillside | Cruise Nights | July 24 – Aug. 28, begins 5 p.m. (part of Summer Nights). Hillside Commons, 4950 Washington St.
Plainfield | Cruise Nights | June 5 to Aug, 21, 5 – 9 p.m. Downtown Plainfield.
West Chicago | Cruise Night at Augustino’s Rock and Roll Deli | Through Sept 26, 5 – 9 p.m. North Ave. at Rt. 59.
Bloomingdale | Daily Herald Cruise Nights | Third Wednesday of month, June 20 – Sept 19, 5-8 p.m. Stratford Square Mall.
Carol Stream | Cruise Night at Augustino’s Rock and Roll Deli | Through Sept 27, 5 – 9 p.m. Schmale Rd. at E. St. Charles Rd.
Naperville | Braconi’s Restaurant | Through Sept 14, 5 – 9 p.m. 796 Royal Saint George Dr.
Barrington | Cruise Night | June 7– Aug 30, 6:30 - 9 p.m. Downtown Barrington.
Geneva | Classic Car Show | July 5 - Aug 30, 6 – 8 p.m. Kane County Courthouse parking lot, 100 S. Third St.
Downers Grove | Summer Nights Classic Car Show | May 25 – Aug 31, 6– 9 p.m. Downtown Downers Grove.
Wheaton | Vintage Rides | May 18 – Aug 31, 6 – 9 p.m. Downtown Wheaton.
Lombard | Cruise Nights | June 9 – Aug 25, 6 - 10 p.m., Downtown Lombard.
Morris | Cruise Nights | Second Saturday of month, June 9 – Oct. 13, 6 – 9 p.m., Downtown Morris
North Aurora | A&W Restaurant | First Saturday of month through Sept 1, 6– 9 p.m. 113 S. Lincolnway St.
Elgin | Double K Cruise Night | Through Sept 30, 5 – 9 p.m. Rookies, 2486 Bushwood Dr.
Glen Ellyn | Vintage Auto Fest of the Glen Ellyn Historical Society | Sat, June 2, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., 800 N. Main St.
Lockport | Tuffy Car Show | Sat, June 16, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. (part of Old Canal Days). Downtown Lockport.
Naperville | Downtown Naperville Classic Car Show | Sat, June 16, 9 a.m. – noon. Jackson Ave. at the Riverwalk.
Oak Brook | Father’s Day Classic Car Show | Sun, June 17, 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., Oakbrook Center, 22nd St. and Rt. 83
South Barrington | Supercar Saturday | July 7 & Sept 1, 4 – 9 p.m. (more shows to be announced.) The Arboretum, 100 W. Higgins Rd.
Aurora | Historic LaSalle Street Auto Show | Sun, Aug. 19, noon onwards. Downtown.
Geneva | Concours d’Elegance | Sun, Aug 26, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Third St., Geneva.
West Dundee | Cool Car Show | Fri – Sat, Sept 15 – 16, 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. (part of Heritage Fest). South Second St.