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Trompers of Eagle Rock car club members keep on cruising

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The back room at Coco's in Highland Park gets crowded Wednesday mornings.

So does the parking lot, which can get embarrassing too.

Slip your Accord or Corolla into a spot and fight the urge to back out: It's as if you showed up at New York Fashion Week in a rumpled T-shirt and sweat pants.

Your generic sedan may be resigned to its dents and its dings. That's not the case with the lot's more distinguished occupants, so pristine they could be fresh off the assembly line.

Coupes, pickups and sedans from the 1920s and '30s. Roadsters shining as if dipped in nail polish. Hot rods so clean their engines gleam.

But don't get the wrong idea.

Although members of Trompers of Eagle Rock car club baby their vintage cars, they also drive them — and have been known to race them. Their prized possessions, they say, are no "trailer queens" hauled from show to show just to be shown off.

The Trompers logo is a thick boot on a throttle. To tromp the throttle is to put the pedal to the metal.

When the club was founded in 1945, it was all about speed. Young guys were buying old Fords and Chevys and souping up their engines. Teenagers raced on the streets, and on the tracks and on dry desert lake beds speed records got smashed week after week.

The first Trompers set their sights on the time trials held at El Mirage in the Mojave Desert. They were "a bunch of hot rodders, just a few guys in a driveway up the other end of Eagle Rock," said Don Zabel of Tujunga, an original member who at 86 still comes to meetings.

Together they raced, tinkered and took off on jaunts along the rough two-lane roads to Palm Springs. Sometimes they all wore peacoats and black derby hats.

It was fun for a bunch of years, until life intervened and the club faded away.

Then in 2003, a modern-day Eagle Rock car nut was flipping through an old hot-rod book and came across a reference to the Trompers. He asked around. Original members were found. They gave their blessing to the club's revival.

Those who were Trompers from the beginning are, of course, older now. And the newer members are no spring chickens either — though there are plenty of advantages to that.

Quite a few are retirees. They have time on their hands and money in their pockets to indulge their whims. Most own more than one old car — which keeps the Wednesday morning show-and-tell interesting.

Rich Carter, 66, a retired high school principal from Michigan, drives west with his wife each winter so they can be near their daughter. He's loved cars since he was a boy, and has a hot-rodded 1939 Ford he bought when he was 14. Finding the Trompers and experiencing Southern California car culture firsthand, he says, was the fulfillment of a lifelong fantasy — as was refurbishing a second classic car, a forest-green 1939 Ford Deluxe convertible with a seductively curvaceous front end.

"I'm one of those guys from the Midwest who read hot-rod books and just dreamed. And when I retired, the dream became a reality," he says. "Wednesday mornings, you get up out of bed. You put your Trompers shirt on, your Trompers hat and go have breakfast and have a great time."

The club president — 65-year-old Al Reyes of Duarte — often drives his 1933 Divco Helms Bakery truck to meetings, although he has three other old vehicles, including a 1936 Ford two-door slant-back with a tricked-out engine.

Vasken Hagopian, 68, who says he's owned 100 cars over the years, converted a terrace in his Silver Lake backyard into a covered parking spot for six. Two more are at his mom's house in Hollywood. One's living with a friend of his in Lancaster.

Ask Kevin Preciado how many he has and, before he says 30, he grins and asks: "Why? You got a vacant spot?"

It's loud inside Coco's, with all the reminiscing about drag racing and cars that got away and great times "going to the salt" for Bonneville Speed Week. Forks clank on plates of pancakes, bacon and eggs.

Reyes blows his two-tone Helms whistle to start the meeting. He welcomes "the girls" — a booth full of wives — and asks everyone to support the group by buying tickets for the weekly 50-50 raffle (in which they could win one of his wife Sandy's pineapple upside-down cakes).

Model A coupes, motorcycle races, upcoming shows, Rex Jaramillo's wife's knee surgery — members take turns talking. They swap stories of their early days just as, later on in the parking lot, they'll swap hard-to-find spare parts.

Mike Rickman, 70, talks about his late father, a legendary photographer for Hot Rod magazine. For years, Rickman went with him to all sorts of car races and gatherings. When Eric Rickman died in 2009, Mike Rickman says, he felt so lonely.

"I was looking for camaraderie and I found you guys. And it's been heaven ever since. No glum days, no bad days. It's just a breakfast party every Wednesday."

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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