Our Sunday Best

Car talk: Cruise-In attracts enthusiasts of all kinds

By From page A1 | April 06, 2014


Glen Byrns shows off his 1959 Austin Healey "Bugeye" Sprite. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Go for a spin
What: Davis Cruise-In
When: Tuesday, April 15 (third Tuesday of the month from April to October)
Time: 5 to 7 p.m. (or later)
Where: The Marketplace, Sycamore Lane and Covell Boulevard in West Davis
Who: 45 to 80 participants share their interesting and unique vehicles monthly

Listen up, gearheads. Once a month in the spring and summer, dozens of owners drive their out-of-the-ordinary vehicles to meet with the public at The Marketplace shopping center. There is no entry fee, no judging, no trophies.

Bruce Risley, his wife Marie, and right-hand man Ron Vogel — respective owners of a ’36 Chevrolet, a ’50 Studebaker and a ’69 AMC AMX — started the event in 2009. With more than 200 Cruise-In participants, 45 to 80 show up on a regular basis.

Among them are Steve Slinkard, Glen and Leslie Byrns, Ron and Ann Arneson, and Steve Garcia and his son Austin.

Slinkard likes the Davis Cruise-In because of its casual nature. “You just come relax and have fun. There’s no expectations, there’s no politics …. anybody’s welcome, just bring your car and have a good time.”

Glen Byrns is an English car guy who has a hankering for American hot rods. “Every time I go, something drives up that just knocks me out.”

Like French Citroëns. “They’re something out of the ordinary you don’t see very often,” Steve Garcia says.

Garcia takes his ’56 Mercury Montclair to dozens of large car shows around the state. He likes the Cruise-In for its smaller venue. “You get a more personal touch and you get to know more of the people there,” he says.

Ron Arneson goes to the Cruise-In for the nostalgia where drivers get together and swap stories. “There’s no entry fee, and no trophy, but who cares!”

The strength of the Cruise-In lies not in the owners or their cars, but in the stories that link them.

Steve Slinkard: ’51 Chevy
Slinkard may have had one of the best childhoods one could imagine. Growing up in the Southern California hot rod culture, he spent vacations in the 1950s and early ’60s watching his father Al and older brother Rex race a pair of family cars at San Gabriel, San Fernando and Saugus speedways, as well as the historic Bonneville Salt Flats in Nevada.

Rex became a crew member of the “Freight Train” dual-engine dragster, owned by John Peters, with Bob Muraves as the driver. Muraves, who went by the alias “Floyd Lippencotte Jr.,” wouldn’t inherit the family Maytag business if he was caught racing by his father. So after a race, Rex and Muraves would switch places behind the wheel when the car was brought back to the grandstands. Rex was photographed with the winning trophy as Muraves stood at his side in one clipping in Slinkard’s album.

“Freight Train” is on exhibit at the National Hot Rod Association Motorsport Museum in Pomona.

Steve inherited a 1951 Chevrolet Styleline DeLuxe convertible from his older brother, who’d inherited it from their father.

“One of the most fun things I’ve done with the car,” Steve recalls, is letting his Chevy carry UC Davis Chancellor Emeritus Larry Vanderhoef in the Picnic Day Parade.

At age 65, Steve’s childhood may still be ongoing. He takes the Chevy for a spin, up F Street as it turns into County Road 101A. The powerful Cadillac engine and Hydramatic transmission are still evident.

“I drive this car like my dad and brother are right there with me. It’s such a spiritual thing for me,” he says. “I find myself talking to them when I’m driving, like ‘Hey, Dad, what do you think?’

“I’m sure my dad would be thrilled to see the way it is, that I’m keeping it up. He’d be happy,” Steve says.

Glen Byrns: Bugsy, Winifred and Winston
Southern California racing culture was also alive in Ray “Bud” Smith, the owner of a promising ’59 Austin Healey “Bugeye” Sprite. He wanted to race and needed help. Across the street lived a kid, Glen Byrns, who was eager to help and soaked up the knowledge.

Glen went on to buy unwanted English cars dirt-cheap, trading up to a Triumph Spitfire. “I blew the engine again and again, racing it through high school.”

Then came a 1959 MGA from a junkyard that he repaired and drove through college.

Thirty years, his marriage to Leslie and two daughters later, Glen was riding the Davis Double Century bike ride. As he crested Cantelow Hill, he heard a familiar rumble and waited at the top. A man was pleasure-driving a ’59 MGA. The pair took a half-hour break to discuss their automotive passion.

Leslie further fueled Glen’s interest with a Father’s Day gift of a coffee-table book on British cars. A “Bugeye” Sprite stood out, sparking the question, “Whatever happened to Bud?”

When Glen tracked him down, Bud responded, “I bet I know what you’re calling about. … Do you want the Sprite?”

With a borrowed truck, Glen became the owner of his first automotive love. He named it “Bugsy.”

But Glen couldn’t leave his wife without a taste of English conveyance; when Leslie spied a Morris Minor she liked, Glen found a right-hand drive Woody Wagon.

It was painted bright persimmon with an “Unkl Fud” vanity plate. It had been stored in an Oakland garage after being towed off the streets of Berkeley in the ’70s. Speculation regarding its imaginative history ensues.

After Glen restored it, Leslie renamed her Winifred, after her mother.

Winston came from nowhere. Glen built it from “the best bits from what it needs to be,” starting with a green Morris cabshell and frame, a Datsun transmission, a Sprite engine and brakes and Chevy Vega wheels. It’s a mutt with a fifth gear for good highway mileage and modern electronics.

His next project is a red 1962 Morris Mini that he found on ranch property near Redding.

But before that step forward, came three steps back.

Upon returning from a weeklong backpacking trip, Glen parked Winston in the driveway; Winifred and Bugsy were in the garage.

Soon the Byrnses heard pounding noises in the garage; a transformer that ran the sprinkler timer died after 37 years and overheated, falling into a box of balsa wood. The garage exploded into fire.

Lost were fishing poles and a hammer with Glen’s dad’s name that he had made during the Depression, model airplanes, collectible bikes, car parts.

Bugsy and Winifred were severely damaged.

“It was hideously depressing,” Glen recalls.

Bugsy’s upholstery was burned away. Anything rubber or chrome was destroyed. The dash and steering wheel were black. Winston’s hood was burned and blistered.

To re-restore the cars, Glen says, “I pulled everything off and started sanding, and kept sanding until it wasn’t black, then varnished it.” Bugsy went from yellow to blue. The Woody got tighter.

“I did everything but sew together the leather seats. Since the engine ran after the fire, I just scrubbed it clean and repainted it.”

When Glen opens the hood of his 55-year-old Sprite, it becomes obvious that it’s not exactly stock. There’s a giant turbocharger, a custom manifold added by the previous owner, a new intake, a different throttle body, modern fuel injection.

“It’s as modified as it could possibly be, but I like it to look stock on the outside to keep it subtle. I’m sure the previous owner would be proud. In his line of thinking, I only added more power.”

Glen says he will be done restoring cars when the 1962 Morris Mini is complete.

“That’ll be a nice little set, then I’ll be finished … unless someone gives me a Jag,” Glen laughs.

He notes that he appreciates the effort that Bruce Risley and company have put into the Cruise-In.

“I don’t know where the guy finds them, but he gets people to turn up with curious cars that you’re not going to see at the average show. It’s funny what people have hidden in their garages.”

Or their chicken houses.

Don Arneson: Fabulous Thunderbirds
Don was looking for a birthday present for Ann, his wife. He found it, along with a family of seven rats.

Don, who specializes in restoration and remodeling of pre-1930 structures, was working on a rural house near Williams. It had been built in the early 1900s by the owner’s father.

The owner, a woman in her 70s, told him there was extra trim left over in the barn, a chicken coop. As he opened the doors, he spied a different bird altogether. Covered in pigeon poop was a 1960 Ford Thunderbird; the owner stored it there after her son lost interest in driving it.

Don had restored a 1955 Thunderbird years ago, sold it and was looking for another to restore. After haggling for several months, the owner finally agreed to sell on the condition that he would give her a ride when he got it running.

He squirted oil in the cylinders and worked them until they moved well enough. He added transmission fluid, got the starter to work and had the carburetor rebuilt. The engine fired right up, although the rats had chewed up quite a bit. “I had to replace everything rubber.”

Don plans to retro the T-Bird, meaning that he’ll buy a new engine and transmission, which will get better gas mileage.

“I’m going to do 90 percent of the work. I’ll take it to have it painted. I’ll do all the body work myself.”

He figures it will always be a work in progress. “I want to let my grandbabies ride in it without me freaking out. It will never be perfect. It will be … a car,” Don says.

“It’s just for fun,” Ann adds.

“Some of these cars are just a labor of love. There are the rare exceptions where they are taking them and preserving them. It’s a part of American history that is rapidly disappearing.”

Now, Don only takes the car to the Davis Cruise-In. “It’s not in that dependable stage where I want to drive it for a long distance,” he explains.

And one of the main reasons he brings his barn find to the Cruise-In is to introduce the next generation to older cars because they are disappearing.

“Our heart, and Bruce’s heart, is getting these kids interested in doing restoration work or just preservation.”

One inspiring example is the relationship between father and son.

Steve and Austin Garcia: Hello, Earl
Steve Garcia is a man of work and dedicated to helping others. As a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, he organized consecutive car shows to benefit diabetes research. He recruited several Cruise-In cohorts to participate.

His own car, a yellow and white Mercury Montclair, was passed on to him from his father Benedicto, a concrete layer, when Steve was 14. The car needed work. His father said he’d put up half if Steve put up the rest.

“That inspired me to do a lot of lawn jobs,” Steve recalls.

His school friends refused to believe his claims of owning such a unique car for lack of evidence. He finally got the car running during his senior year in 1984.

“I’ve gone through the front and rear suspension, the engine, transmission and interior. I try to do as much as I can. If it’s beyond me, I’ll try to learn how to do it,” Steve explains. The pride of it is that I can say, ‘I did it.’ I am particular about details.”

That can-do attitude he received from his father is being passed on to his son Austin, who has his own project — Earl — named for a vehicle owned by family friends.

Woody and Charlotte Morris, parents of Austin’s mother Suzette’s lifelong friend Giselle, drove a 1949 Ford F1 pickup truck named Earl. All of them would cruise the back roads on the lookout for aluminum cans. The girls would throw the cans into the truck bed as they sat on the Earl’s running boards.

Try that today.

Years later, Austin and Steve met Earl in the Morrises’ garage, where it had been parked for 15 years. The bed was full of stuff as high as the cab. The hood and fender were off. It was painted multiple colors.

“It was pretty much complete but it was in parts,” Steve recalls.

Dad and son set out to get Earl running again. “A lot of free time is dedicated to helping him learn,” Steve says of Austin.

The pair have been attending car shows since Austin was little. Recently, he came to realize that he wanted an old car for himself.

“Everybody I know has them,” Austin says. The craftsmanship has him sold.

“They actually took the time to form these,” he says, pointing to the wide fenders and fancy grill.

“Someone took the time to design this and think about every little thing. Nowadays, they put it on the computer and draft it all up. You don’t see many cars with chrome. I love chrome,” says Austin, who is eager to get Earl on the road.

— Reach Fred Gladdis at [email protected]

Fred Gladdis

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