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The American Road: Cruisin'

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The American Road: Cruisin'

Bill Crittenden
March 31, 2014

American Cruise Night1959 Morris Minor 1000 Hot Rod American Cruise Night1959 Morris Minor 1000 Hot Rod
Well, I was asked to write a little but about American cruising here. That can mean a lot of things, but to me it's primarily about "cruise nights."

Summer weekends are filled with all sorts of formal car shows, some based around themes, others serious competitions for rare and expensive cars. But on weeknights, at drive-in restaurants and municipal parking lots all across the area, informal "cruise nights" give car people a place to come together, pop the hoods, and talk cars while having a hot dog.

Little ones can involve a couple dozen cars at Dog 'n Suds, a local hot dog & root beer restaurant in the classic drive-in style, or big ones like the Green Street Cruise Night that draws hundreds of cars and involves vendors and live music.

The key difference between a cruise night and a car show is informality. Formal car shows have admission fees, registration, and specific places to park your car by class. Cruise nights might have some spots reserved for a night's "theme car," but otherwise it's pretty much just drive in with whatever you brought, find a parking space, and back in.

Sure, if you drove in mom's minivan you should park away from the main crowd of cars worth looking at, but beyond that, it doesn't matter: hopped up Hondas and hot rods and classic Jags and chromed-out custom Chevelles, are all welcome and you just show up when you want, find a spot that's open, stay however long you want, and leave.

While informal, they're definitely not spontaneous. Because some Americans consider litigation a hobby someone has to run the event and have insurance. Police can be really great about directing traffic, and since they're usually around at the bigger events hooning is definitely not part of the show. It's not at all like the street races in The Fast & The Furious, it's not a place for teenagers to break their first cars seeking YouTube infamy, it's a family-friendly gathering where people can look at each others' cars.

Despite the name, actually cruising anywhere isn't part of the show, either. Sometimes people come and go in groups, but that's generally not planned by the people running the cruise night. It's more of a stopping point on whatever trip you plan on making yourself that night.

I was asked about this because it can seem really cool that on sunny summer evenings we can fill a parking lot with classic American muscle cars, hot rods, all the sort of dream cars of American Graffiti fame. But to me, as I mentioned our diversity in my first American Road posting, the variety at these shows is what makes them great.

Import night brings hundred-thousand-dollar Ferraris and home-modified Hondas to the same spot. "Orphan night" is when guys who have cars from marques that aren't around anymore show off their Hudsons, AMCs, Ramblers, DeSotos, and now Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs. Sometimes an interesting motorcycle will be a part of the mix, and sometimes local race car driver will bring their race car (trailered, of course) to show off, sign autographs, and get some exposure for their sponsors.

Cruise nights' free admission and informality are also great for bringing out that kind of car that's in-between a regular daily driver and a show car, the kind of vehicle that isn't seen on the roads every day anymore, but isn't the kind of car the owner's going to enter into a show for $15. This means an unbelievable variety of late 70's, 80's, 90's, and custom late model cars, as well as great classics by owners that just don't enjoy taking them to formal, judged car shows.

Rarity isn't always about exclusivity, sometimes it's about hanging on to something that everyone else threw away, and seeing 20 year old 4-cylinder diesel compact pickup trucks ranks pretty high in the things I've seen at cruise nights and not at car shows. They were surprisingly popular, too, as so many passing by had memories of trucks like them but hadn't seen one in a decade or more. But it's not the sort of thing you'd spend six hours polishing and $15 to show off, so the informal cruise night is perfect for the owners to get together and about the only place the rest of us could see a couple of them in real life anymore.

So what's an average cruise night like for my family? We hop in our 2003 Pontiac Vibe or 2010 Mazda CX-7, as budget and space don't allow for a classic car at the time, and head on off to McHenry about ten miles away. We park at the old grocery store lot across the creek, since our cars aren't really anything special to anyone but us, and walk on over.

Of course I take a lot of pictures, along with a lot of other people. What they do with theirs I have no idea, because I see a lot more photographers at the events than online photo collections from the places I go.

If I'm feeling sociable with those outside the family I might say hello to the other local "car guys" I know. The Northern Illinois Streeters car club always has an orange canopy where they gather. My father-in-law used to be around every now and then in a Dale Earnhardt Edition 2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and of course I'd have to ask him if there was anything especially worth photographing I may have missed.

Sometimes a vendor has an old shop manual I can score for my home library, but then as we're not fond of the walking-with-a-hot dog thing, we leave for dinner, and then we find some reason to go somewhere else (shouldn't waste a trip to town) and take the long way home. Depending on the amount of time we have, the "long way" sometimes involves going through Wisconsin.

And that's just me, it means so many different things to so many different people.

It wouldn't require a single classic American car for anyone to recreate an American-style cruise night anywhere in the world. That's just what ends up at ours in large numbers because that's what so many of our enthusiasts drive. All it really requires is some unusual cars, some people who love cars, an empty parking lot, and a loud stereo with a Beach Boys CD.

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