Summer cruise-ins a place for classic cars and old stories

Cruise-ins are all over the place now as classic car lovers show their vehicles and compare notes.
Colonie's Rich Tortorici stands proudly alongside his sunflower yellow 1948 Chevrolet. Tortorici and his wife, Barbara, love hitting local cruise-ins to talk about cars and meet people. (Jeff Wilkin photo)
Colonie's Rich Tortorici stands proudly alongside his sunflower yellow 1948 Chevrolet. Tortorici and his wife, Barbara, love hitting local cruise-ins to talk about cars and meet people. (Jeff Wilkin photo)

Too bad cars can’t talk.

Ray Bronk’s 1955 Ford Customline, shiny black and full of chrome, could tell stories from decades on the road — maybe cruising Schenectady’s State Street in ’59, or running the Neba Nationals in Rotterdam in ’66.

Good thing Ray likes to talk, and especially likes to take questions, about the classic automobile he shows off during the summer months.

“I bought it in New Jersey four years ago,” said Bronk, 67, as people strolled by rows of vintage cars and trucks at the Harbor House Fish Fry restaurant in Clifton Park on a recent, mild Thursday night. “The new cars, I don’t want to have anything to do with them. I grew up with these.”

“These” cars are the Plymouth Satellites, Buick Skylarks, Chevrolet Impalas, Ford Thunderbirds and others that pull into parking lots all over the Capital Region on warm nights. For Bronk and his friends, “cruise-ins” are more than chances to show off transports rarely seen in highway traffic. They are chances to set up lawn chairs, prop up front hoods and watch people ogle engines and interiors.

Guys who own the machines sit in back of their cars as oldies music blares near the restaurant. Passers-by know the drill — they can look, but can’t touch. Folks who peer into open windows always notice the oversized pairs of dice many car men consider standard equipment for the rear view mirror.

“They love to hang around with other car guys,” said Walt Dugan, president of the Adirondack Shelby-Mustang Regional Club, which sponsors the Harbor House fish fry restaurant party on Thursdays from June through September. “They talk about their vehicles, compare notes. If you have a problem, this is where you come and find out how to fix it.”

Dugan, who lives in Grafton, said many of the car buffs are in their 60s and 70s. They grew up in the days of the Thunderbird and Chevelle, and like to remember nights of cruisin’ now long past.

Cruise-ins are all over the place now. Juicy Burgers on New Karner Road in Guilderland, PJ’s BAR-B-QSA restaurant in Saratoga Springs and Kohl’s Plaza on Central Avenue in Colonie all host weekly car nights. The “Juicy” cruise is Monday, the Saratoga barbecue nights are Tuesday, the Kohl’s “Leadfoot Lucy” exhibitions take place on Wednesday. Other gatherings are held at the Big Dipper ice cream restaurant in Wynantskill and Guptil’s ice cream in Latham, among other places.

But wait, there’s more. Poppy’s Ice Cream in Rotterdam goes on Tuesday nights, Corner Ice Cream in Guilderland is the Thursday night spot. Saturday nights are reserved for the Chuck Wagon restaurant in Duanesburg.

“They’re outrageous now,” Dugan said. “It’s been steady uphill. Probably 20 years ago, they were rare, there weren’t that many. But everybody’s buying the old cars and fixing them up, it’s been going through the roof. You can find them every night of the week, probably two or three.”

Bring back memories

Bronk said people don’t have to own the classics to appreciate them. He said some cruise visitors just want to see the cars their parents used to drive.

Mike Ledley is one of those guys who likes to hang out at cruise-ins. “I go to one every night of the week,” said Ledley, 67, who lives in Duanesburg. “It’s nice to be able to go someplace and talk to people who are into cars. I don’t have a boat, no motor home, I don’t bowl, don’t fish, don’t golf. I’ve got a hot rod and a Corvette. It beats sitting home and watching TV.”

Ledley enjoys cruising so much, he’ll drive out of the greater Capital District for automotive pursuits. “I go to Richfield Springs, I go to Sharon, I’ve been to Bennington,” he said. “You want to see different cars once in a while.”

Shaun Brennan, 73, of Clifton Park brings his 1961 Impala 409 out for a simple reason. “You spend $100,000 on a jalopy, you want to show it to people,” he said.

Tom King of Ballston Spa just likes showing off his red and white 1955 Oldsmobile Super 88. “No bondo, no plastic, all steel, original body,” he said.

Vic Falcone of Guilderland, who was at Juicy Burgers on a recent Monday, called the old cars time capsules. “It’s, ‘My dad had a Falcon like that.’ Or a ’55 Chevy. It takes people back to when they were kids,” he said.

Tortorici said he and his wife Barbara are cruising just about every weeknight. “We’re retired and I’ve been into cars my whole life,” he said. “A dyed-in-the-wool motorhead.”

“It’s see the cars and meet new friends,” Barbara added.

Joseph McQuade, who owns Harbor House, said the big car crowd always increases business. “People just driving by, they see stuff going on, they’re going to pull in,” he said. “We make it fun for them, gets people out of the house.”

McQuade agrees with Falcone’s time travel analogy. He has another idea — people have to love the present to see the past. He wonders what cruise-ins will be like in the future.

“You wonder, is a 2008 Chevy whatever, is it going to be the same thing?” McQuade asked. “You see some of the newer cars, they don’t build ‘em like they used to. The new Corvettes are beautiful, but 40 years from now, are we going to be looking at them the same way we look at these?”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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