Scoping classic cars at Bob's Big Boy in Burbank

Remember when engines were measured in cubic inches? Remember when cars had chrome kissers that looked like psycho sharks? And when you flashed your headlights, the gum-popping carhop would come take your order — grudgingly, as if she had better things to do?

I do. Or did I just dream all that?

Well, this dream sequence lives on at Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, near Warner Bros. How to describe this buzzy, retro scene? It goes back forever, or a few years before.

On a recent Friday night, Beach Boy Brian Wilson shows up to take in the weekly car show, full of the little deuce coupes he used to write about.

The stuff of song, this place. Even the Beatles hung out here back in the day, in the big booth in the corner (look for the plaque).

Yep, stars come and stars go at Bob's Big Boy, a living tribute to a SoCal lifestyle of fries and flirting.

"People tell me this is 'American Graffiti' come to life," one of the regulars says. "I tell them I lived 'American Graffiti' right here."

More than half a century ago, high school kids used to swarm this Toluca Lake landmark, arrange street races and take home $100 for the college fund. That doesn't happen so much anymore, but the heaving heavy metal still does. Big-block Chevys. Hot-rod Lincolns. On Friday nights, happy days are here again.

From New England to Seattle, weekly car shows are a slice of Americana, but no place does them like Southern California. Every night, there's one somewhere. Car clubs rally at diners, doughnut shops, any old place that'll have them.

At the top of the sheet metal heap is this Bob's Big Boy rally, 6 to 11 p.m. every Friday since the dawn of time (which, by the way, was right around 1949).

Early afternoon, enthusiasts start lining up for prime spots near the restaurant, where the building's red neon piping will reflect off the hard-candy shells of Studebakers, Kaisers, Cobras and Corvettes.

Vintage cars. Men collect them like Christmas ornaments.

My latest half-baked theory is that everything is always for sale. You just have to find the right price point.

And that's the case with this fleet.

Take this full-competition 427 Cobra, built in 1965 and one of only 21 big-block 427 Cobras ever made. Anthony Boosalis owns it, babies it. What's it worth?

"Probably $2 million," he says.

Some owners restore the cars, then bring them here to flip. Others hold on to them almost forever.

Chevy Jim is one of those, flaunting his beloved 1956 Bel Air convertible in a color you've never seen. Paint was custom-made in a guy's blender, he says: "Harvest Pearl Yosemite Yellow." You'd probably call it gold.

"I'm Gary Cooper's cousin," announces Chevy Jim, also known as Jim Etter, and like Cooper, he's got a cowboy face.

New, his Chevy went for a few grand. Chevy Jim bought it, crusty and without wheels, for $750 when he was still a student at John Burroughs High. He says he's been offered $225,000 for the restored classic but that it's not for sale.

Oh, Jim, everything's for sale.

And sure, the cars are great but the old boys are even better. Most are in their 60s and 70s now, and like Chevy Jim, they stand around in the silky light of 7 p.m. and tell stories about this cartoony diner that still serves almost 2,000 burgers a day.

Back in the '50s, this was the center of the car-crazed universe. Kids from Burroughs brought their roadsters here, they say. The Burbank High kids went to another Bob's in Burbank, up on San Fernando Road.

"You can't even get to the sparkplugs on today's cars," says Edley Rondinone, lamenting the decline in teens' passion for cars.

After all, kids today assemble motherboards and processors, not carburetors and water pumps. At most high schools, shop class has gone the way of Latin.

Teens today don't use their hands, except on each other.

And to eat cheeseburgers.

So, in that vein, maybe there is hope for American mainstays like Bob's, where the food is hot and the cars are hotter.

Just flash your high beams.

Next week: A burger and a shake with another classic, Angie Dickinson.

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