Growing up, I had never even heard of the quintessentially American phenomenon known as the “Car Show,” much less attended one. Since arriving in California, however, I have been to two of them – and I have to admit, I totally enjoyed myself at both.
In case you don’t know anything about car shows, they are gatherings of car enthusiasts – and, of course, their cars – that generally take place in large parking lots, downtown centers, or convention halls. Many shows are dedicated to a certain variety of car, such as “muscle cars,” “woodies,” or “roadsters,” or even a certain make and model, like Corvettes, Camaros, or Ferraris. As far as I can tell, car shows provide an excellent motivation for folks who rebuild and remodel older vehicles to get theirs into mint condition as well as a great excuse for all auto fans to polish up their rides. Owners can then proudly showcase their prized possessions in venues where others will appreciate the time and effort that has been invested into their acquisition and care.
Basically, that translates into a lot of people (let’s be honest – men, mostly) sitting in folding chairs adjacent to their shiny babies “shooting the shit” with their companions, car owners in the neighboring parking spots, and any passersby who seem interested in starting up a conversation.
There are often vendors on site selling car-related paraphernalia (read: metal signs with automobile logos and pin-up girls for your “man cave”), t-shirts, and greasy food. There’s usually music playing over the loudspeakers, with songs predictably running the gamut from “Duke of Earl” to “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Some shows have events incorporated into them, such as coordinated cruises around town, and others bestow awards.
Almost all shows have entry fees, and in many cases, a good portion of these fees benefit non-profit organizations or community agencies. The show I attended last week, called “Hot Rods on the Beach,” charged between $35 and $60 per car for the one-day event. With about 500 cars attending, the Santa Cruz Police Officers Association who manages the show raised about $10,000 for an Industrial Arts Scholarship Fund.
Although some shows charge entry fees, both events I have attended were open and free to everyone – you just walk in and gawk. There’s really only one piece of car show etiquette that you must know before showing up at one, which I heard explained this way, “car shows and strip clubs share the same rule: no touching!”
Right, got it.
If, like me, you made it through 40+ years of life without ever having wandered into a car show, you may not know just how popular they are. A quick Google search revealed a site called californiacarshows.org that maintains a calendar of, well, just what you would expect. While there are only one or two shows per weekend throughout the winter in this state, during the months of May and June there are up to fifteen California shows per weekend.
That’s a LOT! That’s a lot of nice cars to exhibit, a lot of car enthusiasts to own and prepare them, and a lot of curious onlookers to come and check them out.
I can’t help but wonder why these shows are so popular.
My first introduction to cultural anthropology occurred in eighth grade when my class was asked to read an essay called “The Magic Rac.” This essay described a culture where people worshiped these objects called “racs,” spending thousands of dollars acquiring them and hundreds of hours cleaning and decorating them. They sang songs about them, painted pictures of them, and even built houses in which to store them. “Racs” in this culture were even key indicators of social status. Needless to say, “rac” is “car” spelled backwards, and this essay was about our good-old American culture. We love our cars; everyone knows this, and car shows are certainly one obvious manifestation of our obsession with them.
Because cars are so enmeshed in American lives, they’re also inextricably woven into our memories. Many people associate certain cars with particular friends or loved ones, or with significant events in their lives like first dates, proms, and graduations. Lots of us can picture the car we were in when we heard a certain song for the first time, and certain songs, albums, or even artists are tied up in memories of driving. I guarantee you anyone my age (+/- ten years) who grew up in New Jersey associates Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” with driving. Which highway they reminisce about will vary, as will the make and model of the car they call to mind, but I bet they will be thinking about “the freedom of the open road” in some fashion.
With all of these poignant memories stored in big hunks of metal, it’s no wonder that may people have “relationships’ with their cars. I struck up a conversation with one of the few Mustang owners at this weekend’s show, asking him how often he took his car out for a ride.
“Well, she’s got a drinking problem,” he said.
“How bad?” I asked, “like 15 mph bad?”
“More like 8. And she only holds 16 gallons. So, we go back and forth to work once, maybe twice a month.”
“I guess you’d better take it slow and enjoy the cruise then,” I added.
“Yeah, right; you see, she’s got a drinking problem, and I’ve got a lead foot problem. Guess we’re a match made in Chevron’s heaven.”
I’d call that a relationship.
I’m a worshiper of beauty, and as such, I know that beauty can take many, many different forms. I also know that beauty can be more accessible to us when it appears in familiar contexts. The more time we spend in the mountains, the more we appreciate the subtle splendor of a blanket of new snow on the high peaks. The more we follow fashion, the more struck we are by an innovative and sleek new shoe design.
Cars can be beautiful. Sure, their beauty is not the same as a star-filled night’s or a soaring guitar solo’s – but it doesn’t need to be. Luckily for us, there’s no cap on the amount of beauty that can exist in the world, nor on the amount of beauty we can appreciate.
I believe that people at car shows see beauty in the curve of a chassis, and the sparkle of a well-applied paint job. We see beauty in the progression of ’64-’69 Camaro body transformations, and in the amount of care someone took to restore the upholstery and dashboard of a late 1950’s BelAir. There’s a look and a style for everyone, and for me half of the fun is figuring out which make, model, and year of car I would choose if I could have any car in the show. I’d pick the most beautiful one, of course. The fact that for me it would be an early-60’s El Camino in no way detracts from someone’s else’s choice of a 1972 Charger.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as we all know, and in no situation is that more clear than at a car show – a thought that crossed my mind as I marveled at someone’s decision to spend their hard-earned money restoring a late-50’s hearse.
As someone whose mission in life is to encourage others to appreciate beauty, I can’t help but smile at the throngs of gray-haired men wandering the rows of a car show with cameras.
They’re doing it, no question about it.