Studying the Classics on a Summer Evening


The sun is fading from a slate-blue sky and the parking lot of Giovanni’s Pizza on the corner of Imperial Highway and Harbor Boulevard is jammed. Hundreds of glistening, tricked-out Chevys and Fords line the rows like prom queens at a debutante ball.

Greg Winterbottom shows off his metallic blue 1965 Chevelle Malibu, complete with spoke hubcaps, factory air and power seats.

“This is exactly the way it came off the showroom floor,” says Winterbottom, a transportation consultant from Villa Park. “I bought it from a little old lady in Arizona. Really.”


A few rows away, Skip Racke of Anaheim salivates over a tomato-red 1964 Chevrolet El Camino pickup selling for $12,000--complete with 220-horsepower high-performance engine, factory four-speed and 37,000 original miles.

“They stopped making real cars in about 1970 to 1972,” grumbles Racke, decked out in a black ’57 Chevy T-shirt.

It’s a scene right out of “American Graffiti” and it’s repeated nearly every night somewhere in Orange County.

The vintage cars and their owners converge every Tuesday at Katella Avenue and Glassell Street in Orange. On Wednesday, the spot is the corner of Newport Boulevard and 17th Street in Costa Mesa. Thursdays in La Habra is the biggest: This past week’s cruise featured more than 300 cars. And every Friday night, the rumble of engines dominates the corner of Main Street and Garden Grove Boulevard in Garden Grove.

Cruising has been cheap entertainment for five generations of American youth, a romanticized rite of summer open to anyone with a decent set of wheels and gas money. Except the owners of these cars are well into middle age and their activity is more parking than cruising.

“You come here to talk to your friends and eat and watch the cars come and go,” said Wayne Branstetter, 60, an engineer from Yorba Linda who just sold his reconditioned 1957 Chevy Nomad for $50,000 to a couple from Butte, Mont.


“We grew up with these cars, we dreamed about these cars,” he said. “They’re the cars we wanted way back when but now we can afford them.”

Unless, of course, someone is as lucky as Bryan Moreland, 20, of Whittier, who inherited his 1965 Chevelle--the spitting image of Winterbottom’s--from his great-grandfather.

Moreland arrived at Thursday’s cruise with two young friends, who leaped out to mingle with about 500 other spectators roaming through the chrome.

The allure for him is simple: “No smog [devices], no car payments, a $45 registration and it’s one of a kind. I drive this car every day of my life. It’s like my drug. Once you go for it, you keep on going.”

The misnamed nightly “cruises” have become more popular in Orange County in recent years as the economy improves and there’s more money to spend on an admitted addiction. Cars converge from all corners of the county, with some Arizona and Nevada tags mixed in.

Mac McElmurry, vice president of the Orange County Cruising Assn., sees the draw as a “nostalgia thing.” The group sponsors a cruise every second Saturday of the month at rotating locations.


“Everyone has their fantasy,” he said. “Each one of these cars had their own character, their own distinctive style. These are the cars you always wanted to have. It’s a big love affair.”


Winterbottom grew up on Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance, the street that inspired the Beach Boys’ classic, “I Get Around.”

“Those were the days when you could tell the cars apart,” he said. “Every one now is so generic. Something drives by and you have no idea what year or model it is.”

Common debate among the cruisers centers over what others might see as trivial, such as whether the 1970 LS-6 is the ultimate muscle car or whether the T-3 headlights in the 1962 Corvair had little stripes in the middle.

Dan Aungst would know about the headlights. He bought his white Corvair convertible--without headlight stripes--for $2,814.39 in 1962 from Security Chevrolet in Brea. He went to trade it in in 1971 but the dealer offered only $100 for it.

“I figured I’d just keep it for my kid’s first car,” Aungst said. “I brought it home and cleaned it up and, well, the kid never got the car.”