Nothing can come between these aficionados and their vintage cars.
by Jaclyn Mittman
photography by Rhiannon Mim
Stepping into the garage of Jim Thomas makes you feel like you are in the 1950s. Three hot rods in a row fill the garage, but against the walls are shelves filled with jars, cans, trophies, plaques, vintage oil cans, old tools, coffee mugs, light-up Budweiser signs, posters, framed articles, soda bottles, carburetors, thermometers and magnets. Old lanterns hang from the ceiling in a row. It is almost impossible to keep your eyes from wandering with so many nostalgic items on display. There is even an antique milkshake mixer. This is the ultimate hot rod garage.
Thomas, a retiree from the General Telephone Company and a La Verne resident, is a collector of everything antique. There are old boat and car motors on the floor along the walls. Thomas tells stories of his travels and everything he’s collected along the way.
He takes the cover off each car, and the garage begins to glisten as the sun hits the mirror-like paint. Thomas owns a blue 1941 Graham Hollywood, which he jokingly refers to as “the gangster car,” a burgundy 1932 Ford Roadster, and an heirloom that has been in the family since 1950: a purple 1939 Ford Coupe.
“I actually drove this car in high school,” Thomas said, referring to the 1939 Coupe. “I even had my first date with my wife in this car.”
It’s not uncommon, cruising the streets of La Verne, to catch a peek of a beautiful classic car sitting in a driveway. There is something about these classic beauties that draws your attention. The beautiful, shiny coat of paint or the details in the car can leave one breathless. Classic cars, or hot rods, are quite popular in La Verne.
The expensive and time-consuming hobby of collecting and restoring classic cars has become a passionate hobby for many La Verne residents. Many people who are into classic cars either keep cars through generations as heirlooms, such as Thomas’ Ford Coupe, or they get into it later on as a hobby.
California is well known for its classic car culture and is a haven for many car sports and car enthusiasts. Pomona plays a huge part in the cars and automotive sports, so it is no surprise that La Verne would follow along with this trend. Classic cars are popular nationwide, but Southern California is the heart of the car culture, and La Verne is a big part of that.
Former La Verne mayor and vintage car enthusiast Jon Blickenstaff says it may also have to do with the large number of people more than 50 years old living in La Verne. Blickenstaff, a classic car collector himself, also says the California weather plays a part.
The car culture in La Verne starts as early as high school. La Verne’s Bonita High School has always had auto shop and a strong automotive program.
Blickenstaff also recognizes the importance that neighboring Pomona plays in the car culture in La Verne. He says that being so close not only to the Pomona drag race facility but also to the NASCAR track in Ontario are advantages for the local car culture. The National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum is conveniently located in Pomona. This museum houses many vintage and historical hot rods, customs and race cars. This is also the location of one of the largest classic car swap meets in Pomona, which draws thousands of people from near and far.
Blickenstaff told La Verne Magazine in a 1994 interview that he didn’t get enough time to restore antique cars, and that if he were not working or serving as mayor, he would be spending a lot more time doing so. Fifteen years later, that time has come, with the retirement of Blickenstaff as mayor in spring 2009.
The former mayor owns four classic cars: a black 1934 Ford Woody station wagon, a red 1940 Ford Woody station wagon, a red 1952 Ford pickup, and a 1965 Chevy El Camino which, according to Blickenstaff, is still under construction.
“I’m always looking for the next car. It is a passion that I have never outgrown,” Blickenstaff says.
Another major part of classic cars in La Verne is the Cool Cruise Car Show that is put on annually by L.D. Johnson, former maintenance operations superintendent for La Verne. According to Johnson, this event is huge and is one of the biggest events the city has to offer. The car show brings together many car collectors. Johnson said there have even been participants that come to the show from as far away as Louisiana.
Johnson, who grew up in California, says being from California meant you grew up cruising around in cars “looking for chicks.”
He got into car shows several years ago. The first car show put on in La Verne, according to Johnson, had only 124 cars and had very limited time and a small budget. The purpose of the show was to boost downtown La Verne business through the car shows and to bring all the car enthusiasts in the area together.
Johnson said he is now busier than ever with his 13th Cool Cruise show and is expecting to have 800 or 900 cars participating.
“A lot of people have discovered La Verne through the years by coming to these car shows,” Johnson says. “This show has helped put La Verne on the map.”
Johnson told about an incident that made him realize the impact the car show has had on the La Verne community.
About six years ago, he received a call from a woman who was clearly not a “hot rod person.” She assumed that “downtown La Verne” was somewhere around Foothill Boulevard and was concerned about how traffic would be affected, since they close down the streets. Johnson said he wanted to meet her after speaking with her because it was clear she had no idea where downtown La Verne was located, even though she had lived in La Verne for four years. Her son was even a student at Bonita High School. Johnson met with her at the car show, and she finally discovered where downtown La Verne was located. If not for the car show, Johnson says, she might never have discovered where downtown was.
The car show also does wonders for the downtown businesses. The restaurants get busy because people who come to the event need to eat, and the stores receive much more traffic than usual. Johnson says one man, who was not from the area, actually went into Segal Diamonds and purchased $20,000 worth of jewelry. The barbershop also gets much traffic during the show because there are usually a lot of men who do a lot of sitting around during the day of the show – a perfect time to get a haircut.
“Many merchants would say [the car show] is the biggest event of the year,” Blickenstaff says. “It is a very positive, strongly supportive event.”
Blickenstaff has attended every Cool Cruise car show, and has even had his cars featured in a few of the shows. Blickenstaff adds that, as time allows, he would like to be more involved in these events. “It’s fun to mingle, talk about the good ol’ days and reminisce.”
The show has even inspired some people to move to La Verne. One family purchased a home in La Verne after visiting the area for the car show. This means that it also has an impact on the La Verne real estate market.
“People come and enjoy the show, discover the community and [buy] homes,” Johnson says. “The intent of the show is working.”
The La Verne community not only has a popular hot rod culture, it also relies on these enthusiasts to bring business to the city. Whether it is based on the history, geographical influence, or a passionate hobby, classic cars are here to stay in La Verne.