Crullers and Carburetors

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Darriel Stoewsand manages construction projects for a major supermarket chain during the week. But on Saturday mornings, he becomes a derelict.

The same thing happens to Richard Gillespie, a retired Los Angeles police officer, and to more than 100 other Southern California car enthusiasts who start each weekend over coffee and carburetors, doughnuts and differentials in the parking lot of a strip mall in Huntington Beach.

They call themselves the Donut Derelicts and they've been gathering every weekend for 15 years in what has become the largest informal car show in the nation. The gathering has become so well known, and so important a gauge of automotive tastes and trends, that major auto manufacturers have taken notice.

It's now common to see executives from Toyota, Lexus, Nissan and Mitsubishi checking out the scene and looking for new ideas and trends. Word has even spread to Detroit.

In May, a group of DaimlerChrysler designers, including the vice president of advanced product design strategy, Freeman Thomas, became Donut Derelicts.

Named for the Adam's Donuts shop in the mall at the corner of Adams Street and Magnolia Avenue, the Donut Derelicts began in 1986 as a handful of motorcyclists getting together for coffee and crullers before setting out for a day's ride.

Now the gathering regularly attracts 150 to 200 car owners who arrive at 6 a.m. each Saturday in everything from vintage sports cars and woodie wagons to street rods and '60s muscle cars. They come to show their wares and talk about car stuff.

Rick Finn, a regular since the beginning, says he and another founding member of the group, Jim McCaine, came up with the unusual name back in 1989.

"There were only 15 or so cars here at the beginning," Finn recalls. "Jim thought we should give the group a name. He said doughnuts and I said derelicts. The name just stuck."

Finn, an artist, sells Donut Derelict hats, shirts and jackets from the tailgate of his pickup truck every week. Although he won't say how much he takes in, the popularity of his products is apparent. At least half the crowd is wearing Finn originals.

But decked out or dressed down, slurping coffee or munching doughnuts, everyone walks around looking at cars, talking about cars and thinking about cars.

That's what drew three top Chrysler designers the other day.

They drove up in two of the company's most recent concept vehicles, the Super 8 Hemi and Jeep Willys show cars that debuted in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Thomas, who designed the audaciously arching Audi TT roadster before joining Chrysler, was behind the wheel of the Super 8--a silver four-door with center-opening doors, red leather interior, the next generation of Chrysler's legendary Hemi engine and a load of nostalgic touches, including a bench seat in front, panoramic windshield and reverse-slanting A-pillars that accommodate the wraparound front glass. Thomas called the car's look uniquely American.

"We're here to get a reaction, good or bad, from the hard-core guys, the guys who live and breathe cars," said Thomas, a graduate of Huntington Beach High School and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

"I'm from here, I like the people here, and I value their opinions," he said.

Jordan Meadows designed the Jeep Willys concept, drove it to the Derelicts gathering and spent the morning showing off the inventive features of his creation, such as gray and green tires that won't leave unsightly black marks on the ground when the truck goes off road.

"The Donut Derelicts is one of the pure vestiges of automobile culture," he said. "So we wanted to come out and show some respect. To see, be seen and have some fun."

Collecting comments also was part of Meadows' brief, and few of the Derelicts are reticent about offering them up.

"I really like the Jeep," said Stoewsand--who drove his 1947 Chevrolet coupe to the gathering. "But the seat looks uncomfortable."

The 52-year-old construction manager for Albertson's supermarkets said he appreciates the designers looking for feedback from dedicated car buffs.

The Brian Setzer PT Cruiser, a two-door model of the popular truck-styled wagon that DaimlerChrysler built especially for the rock star, also drew admirers.

Its designer, Micheal Castiglione, who worked side-by-side with Setzer on the vehicle, showed off the car's flame paint job and custom guitar mount.

Then he showed off his black 1970 Chevrolet Camaro, which he drove up from Carlsbad. "I bought it 16 years ago when I was 17," he said proudly. "I just put a new engine in it two weeks ago."

Before heading home, Castiglione pledged to visit the Donut Derelicts gathering again in month or two--after his Camaro gets a new interior.

But like most Derelicts, retired LAPD officer Gillespie said he'd be back the very next week.

"I've been coming here every Saturday for 15 years," said Gillespie, owner of a 1930 Ford. "If you're into cars, you've got to come here."

Just be sure to get there early. By 9 a.m., the place is a ghost town.

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Scott Oldham is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular at Donut Derelicts gatherings, where he likes to show off his 1976 Pontiac Trans Am. He can be reached at scottoldham@aol.com.

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