On a brisk, bright, very early (6:30 a.m. to be precise) Saturday morning, the sun glints off more than 100 hot rods, vintage cars and sunglasses as members of the Early Rodders make their weekly trek to the parking lot of the United Artists movie theatres on Verdugo Road. Even though this particular weekend happens to be a holiday weekend, this group is not too depleted.
Pulling into the parking lot, men and women can be seen clustered in groups, talking, peering into car windows, under hoods and checking paint jobs.
Some cars are meticulously restored while others are left “as is” to reflect authenticity. What is apparent is that all the cars are well loved.
As Rick Chew, founder of this hot rod club explains in his written history of the organization, “I did not want this to be a club with bureaucracy and did not want this to be so organized that cones would have to be set up every morning, a 50/50 raffle ticket would take place, and music would be blasting in the air.” The La Cañada venue has none of those things — just a bunch of people who love cars getting together for a few hours on Saturday mornings.
Chew goes on to explain that back in 2001 he was attending the “Donut Derelicts” cruise club in Huntington Beach. “[It was] just a bunch of guys and an occasional gal with great cars and stories having a great time every Saturday morning,” he recalls. He would get up around 5 a.m. and drive the 60+ miles to Huntington Beach to get a decent spot. He would stay until around 8 a.m. and then drive back home. Chew enjoyed the peace of the morning and the relative traffic-free freeway, the cool air and the relaxing drive.
“It was a great way to start the day,” he said. He decided to investigate having a cruise club closer to his own backyard and discussed the possibility with close friend Bob Vacca. The meeting place had to have some kind of eating facility, a public restroom and it had to be nearby.
Chew made up a 'make it happen' flier and began attending local cruises and car shows, passing out his fliers. The first Early Rodders cruise was held in Goldstein's parking lot in October 2001.
“Starbuck's and Goldstein's took a liking to us and supported us,” Chew said. “My feeling was, and still is, that as long as the vehicles are licensed and insured, our hot rods are no different from a person with a Mercedes, Lexus or Honda parking their vehicles, getting out and patronizing the establishments. And the rest is history — the Early Rodders was born.”
Longtime Early Rodder Don Tubbs couldn't agree more. “It can't get any better than this. A beautiful morning, a good cup of coffee and hot rods,” he said. “We started as a group of about six cars. We had the other lot (at the movie theater) for overflow, just in case — but now we even fill the overflow!”
Tubbs is an active, avid member of the group along with his son, Danny, and grandson, Michael. Danny is the proud owner of a 1964 black Cadillac and a 1961 Chevy Impala. Right now, Michael is just an enthusiast, but may be seeking his own hot rod in the future.
Don Tubbs' first car was a 1934 Ford three-window that he got when he was 15 years old. “Fifteen-year-olds could drive back then,” he reminisced. He now has a '54 Cadillac that he has restored, fixing the upholstery and revamping the engine.
Dave Paney of Glendale has a '34 five-window Ford Coupe street rod with a chopped top and hand-painted authentic flames on its hood and sides. He painted the car himself and then had Mike Lavallee from Keller Paint out of Washington flown down to paint the flames. The costs of hand painting, six hours of work plus hotel accommodations for Lavallee, were about $10,000, but “well worth it” according to Paney. By doing the other painting himself, he saved several thousand dollars.
A “hot rod” is an old car frame that is completely restored and has all the modern safety features, such as updated brakes, and a new Ford or Chevy block engine. These particular engines are used because they are small enough to fit into the old cars and are not too expensive. Some restorers use a Model T chassis and build a race car body around it. The car may be used for street driving, but it will still look like a racecar. These types of cars are known as “custom” cars.
Even those who are not “morning people” are encouraged to visit with the Early Rodders on any given Saturday between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m.There is no loud music, no one is trying to sell anything and the area is pristine in appearance. Grab a coffee, stroll amid the cars, talk or not — just take your trash with you when you leave.