ESCALON — The ocean-blue 1953 Cadillac sits on the asphalt like an heirloom, its finned hood ornament calling out to another era.
The daunting silver-chromed bumper, which surely never lost a collision, shines like sunrise. Sidewall tires are set off by eagles on the hubs, and the white metal-flake roof fits like a crown atop a king.
"If this machine hits anything on the road," an admirer said, "the other object would not survive."
No, they don't make cars like they used to.
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This is not news to the crowd gathering at Hula's Restaurant, a burger joint with a sports motif on the inside and a yen for classic automobiles on the outside. The car buffs arrive on summer Friday nights, not unlike churchgoers on Sunday mornings, to do what they enjoy the most.
Talking cars. Showing off cars. Admiring cars. Inspecting cars. And, before they leave, talking more about cars.
"People love this stuff," said Valley Home's Bill Babcock, 66, the owner of 13 classic cars, including a 1932 Austin Bantam coupe worth about $55,000. "I drive 'em to get the reaction from other people. When you pull into a gas station with this, everybody has to find out what it is."
Summer is car show season, of course, and the Escalon Lions Club has turned its nights at Hula's into a hot rod happening. It will convene again tonight from 6 to 8 for another "pre-cruise" leading to the grand finale Car Cruise on Sept. 12.
But like it's often said, the journey often trumps the destination. The pre-cruise is the weekly vehicle, the excuse to celebrate fans' ongoing love affair with the automobile.
Fifty-two cars, all driven to the site, were displayed last week — rods, classics, pickups, muscle cars and some for which there's no classification. Some were made in 1930, others a few years ago.
Caravan to the big show
Valley Springs resident Dave Cahal, a divisional director for the National Street Rod Association, will drive his 1940 Ford to the upcoming Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, Ky. A party of 22 departed this week, but by the time it arrives — after stops in Barstow; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Elk City, Okla.; and Bowling Green, Ky. — it expects its caravan to grow to about 100.
"I can keep ahead of the trucks. We've driven it back there five times. I built it in my garage," Cahal said, pointing to his blue four-door gem. "The best thing about this hobby is the people. The people are the greatest thing in the world."
Here are a few essential facts: Classic car restoration is a multimillion dollar industry, and parts are available for even the most obscure models via a single call or Web site visit. Most people involved in these projects fall into two categories — young and enthusiastic or retired and affluent. Many practitioners pour boatloads of money, six figures and beyond, into their latest car.
They will contract out rebuilding engines, upholstery or paint jobs, but often the tasks are done at home.
"These people are artists. You can't do this stuff with a hammer and a wrench," said John Salvin, a Lions Club member and car cruise chairman. "When you take metal and rework it like you see with some of these cars, it's phenomenal."
Crazy about a Mercury
Junior Solorio of Modesto backed away from motorcycles and discovered an affection for classic cars. "I sold two Harleys to get this," he said, standing a few feet from a '49 Mercury.
"I bought this when I had my daughter four years ago. My dad had a Mercury in his 20s, so I always wanted one," he said.
Solorio had 6 inches chopped off the roof to get the look he desired, a machine perched about a half-inch above the pavement, a low rider from yesteryear.
Friends and owners unfurl lawn chairs in the shade near their favorite car and tell stories that probably have been embellished over the years. Others retreat to the restaurant for burgers and shakes while "My Girl" by the Temptations or "Runaway" by Del Shannon ("A-run-run-run-run runaway") drift through the warm evening air. The scene is about as close to 1959 as 2009 gets.
Conversations are overheard about wheelie-bars, 411 posi-traction and original steel cars. Escalon's Frank Bryan, another of the Lions coordinators, presents his version of a yellow 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. The front is normal, but the rear is a flatbed.
"Eighteen months of retired labor," Bryan said.
Only one rule is enforced: Don't touch the cars. Don't even breathe on them. One bad move, and the guilty party might find himself body-blocked onto Highway 120.
A special relationship
As vacationers fly by, a green '59 Ford Edsel defies time. Next to it is a '30 Ford Model A pickup, not far from a 2007 Shelby GT500 and its 500-horsepower engine. Each one comes equipped with a proud owner and a story custom-made for throwback nights.
See, a relationship has formed between car and owner. Intense attention to detail has been invested here. Feelings, too.
Robert Bumgardner Sr. of Modesto always liked his father's 1950 Ford F-1 pickup. "He bought it in 1957 when I was a high school senior. I told him, 'Don't ever sell it,' " Bumgardner said. "On my 50th birthday, he said, 'Happy birthday,' and gave me the keys."
The keys to an heirloom on wheels.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.