California Car Buffs : Appreciation of Fine Horsepower Develops a Social Dimension as Club Membership Gathers Speed

Frey is a free-lance writer who specializes in automotive reporting.

Eyes and hearts full of the glamour and camaraderie of it all, the nattily clad owners of 185 Bentleys and Rolls-Royces--most of them classics, all of them gleaming under coats of freshly applied wax--were oblivious to the irony of the situation.

The occasion in April was an annual event called "Picnic With the Ponies," bringing together in the grassy infield of Santa Anita Race Track a substantial number of the 400 Southern California members of the Rolls-Royce Owners and Bentley Drivers' clubs.

Having driven their own automotive thoroughbreds into the lighted stage at the center of Los Angeles' mecca for equestrian steeds, they proceeded to celebrate with grand pageantry the twilight of both. For even as the automobile replaced the horse as man's principal mode of transportation in the early part of this century, so have sleek transportation modules replaced these stately rolling monuments to the sculptural art of automotive design.

"We consider Sir Henry Royce to be the premiere automotive genius of our time," says Newton Deiter, chairman of the Southern California chapter of the Rolls-Royce Owner's Club and third owner of a 1950 Silver Wraith Six Light Torpedo Back Saloon.

"Our club is dedicated to preserving these works of art," he said. "We are not the owners, we are merely custodians for a time, whose purpose it is to inspire the uninitiated and maintain this automotive heritage for generations yet unborn."

For Mutual Moral Support

The first car clubs were formed in the early 1900s, principally for mutual moral support. Early automobiles were prone to mechanical failures, operated on dirt roads that were an axle-busting, tire-flattening mix of potholes and mud, and were by no means popular with horse-and-buggy traditionalists. Banding together into clubs was more a matter of survival than choice.

But as the forces of technology conspired to relegate horses to the realm of wealthy hobbyists and parimutuel betting and cars became the nation's preferred method of getting from A to B and the driving engine of social change, car clubs evolved into something else entirely.

The mechanical motivation remained, but it grew a social dimension that in the last decade has become the gasoline-powered equivalent of a neighborhood block party.

"Belonging to a car club is kind of like being a member of a church choir," says Bobbie'dine Rodda, membership chairman of the Classic Car Club of America and the unofficial Queen Mother of automotive-related activities on the West Coast.

"Many of these clubs have at least one event every week and if you participate regularly, you find yourself socializing with the members," she says. "It tends to become a focal point of your life."

And a rich focus it is, with several thousand car clubs nationwide--many hundreds in California. Every weekend, there are dozens of automotive events, swap meets, technical seminars and club meetings. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people participate, along with thousands of cars of every size, shape and description--from classics to vintage military vehicles, from kit cars to Corvettes, from Porsches to mini-trucks, imported and domestic, fast and slow, expensive and affordable.

Whatever the make and model of vehicle, there's a car club for everyone.

"People tend to associate Woodies with surfers, and that's an image I'd like to change," says Lee Kidwell, member of the National Woody Club, a group of 1,300 enthusiasts nationwide who are dedicated to the preservation of a vanished automotive art form--cars with bodies made, at least in part, of wood.

"These cars, the last of which were built in the early 1950s, are now highly desirable and valuable classics. Although Rolls-Royce also made a 'Shooting Brake' wood-body station wagon before World War II, the 1946 Chrysler Town and Country, especially the convertible, is considered the most desirable Woody of all. Even the less valuable 1946-47 Ford Sportsman is worth $40,000, if it's been nicely restored."

So often today, pride in car ownership and participation in organized car activities is a family affair.

Mary and Wayne Bradley are a typical example of car club members. Theirs is a marriage in which husband and wife are automobile devotees. Wayne is the president of the Mustang Owners Club of California, while Mary publishes the newsletter. The source of their enthusiasm is a pair of Mustangs, a 1967 convertible and a 1965 coupe, of which they are the original owners.

"There is a social aspect to our club, but the technical side is very active," Mary says. "We often have restoration experts and factory-trained technical experts come in and address our monthly meetings. We have our share of car shows and social events, but almost everybody in the club has at least one car in the process of restoration. And that's the beauty of Mustangs, the older ones are becoming quite valuable, yet most of the parts are still readily available. And being a member of the club entitles you to a discount."

Manufacturers frequently go to some effort and expense to encourage the development of interest among auto aficionados.

Of the domestic manufacturers, Ford is the most directly involved with club activities. Witness the more than 1,800 vintage Fords that showed up at Knott's Berry Farm on April 17 to help the company celebrate its 85th birthday. There are more than 155 Ford car clubs in California, representing a membership in excess of 100,000 people.

"It was a conscious corporate decision to take the various Ford car clubs around the country under our wing," said Bob Harner, head of Ford's West Coast public relations office and the moving force behind the company's involvement.

"It fascinated me that a major corporation should have a nationwide fan club, which is what this amounts to, and we decided that providing them some support, in the form of publishing a calendar and putting on events, would be a logical way to reward their loyalty," Harner said.

Another sort of benevolent "Big Brother" involvement is provided by the Assn. of California Car Clubs, a Sacramento-based pro-car club lobbying group formed 16 years ago in response to pending legislation that would have substantially increased the taxes paid by classic car owners.

"The most well-intentioned legislation often contains provisions that are fine for new cars, like stricter emissions regulations, but would be either expensive or impossible for a classic car owner to comply with," says William Burkhardt, past president of the association.

"We get to do some good-guy stuff too, like encouraging laws for special license plates for historical vehicles, making it easier to buy old vehicles that have been abandoned and liberalizing the rules requiring people selling car parts at swap meets to have a sellers permit," Burkhardt said.

"But our basic mission is to make sure they don't legislate our hobby out of existence," he continued. "The clubs are already well-organized, not lacking for members, and most are involved either with the factory or local dealers, so there are financial benefits to belonging. And we round out the picture by dealing with the government on their behalf."

For further club information, including a calendar of club activities in California, Arizona and Nevada, write to Bobbie'dine Rodda, 1232 Highland Ave., Glendale 91202, and request to be put on the mailing list for the monthly newsletter, Miss Information's Calendar of Automotive Events. Include 45 cents for postage for each issue (send only stamps or check--no cash, no self-addressed envelopes). Multiply number of months you want to receive the publication by 45 cents.

Information is also available in other publications, such as Hemmings Motor News, Collector Car Weekly and in the Pit Stops section of The Times' automotive classified section. For facts on Ford car clubs, call John Pepper, (714) 859-6890. The National Woody Club can be contacted by calling Lee Kidwell at (619) 746-6199.

Gene Babow, president of the Assn. of California Car Clubs, can be reached at (415) 756-1837.

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