They live for the symphony of finely-tuned engines running side-by-side, the sweeping lines of a carefully-crafted chrome and steel masterpieces and the eclectic smell of old cars. In their dreams, they breathe gasoline and their hearts pump motor oil.
And, as long as the weather co-operates, they congregate every Thursday in the big parking lot at the Crossroads Church for Red Deer Cruise Night, a fixture on the local show-n-shine scene for the past 13 years.
For some, it’s a love affair that has lasted a lifetime.
Rochelle Burnham actually lets her husband, John, take the wheel of “Yellowbird,” the 1969 Camaro RS convertible she bought spanking new from a Chevy dealer in Colorado Springs.
“I saw this on the showroom floor and I said, ‘That’s mine, I always wanted a convertible,’ and I gave him a cheque and drove it home. It was $2,173, and that was with tax and all of the fees.”
Originally from Denver, CO, she and John had met in 1958 and fallen in love. They went their separate ways in the mid-60s and each started life with a new spouse. Rochelle kept in touch with John’s family, but didn’t see him again until 2004, when his sister reconnected them through an e-mail conversation.
John had moved to Canada in 1973 and his wife had later died. Rochelle had also been widowed.
“(John) came down to Denver and visited for about three and a half months and we decided to get together.”
He offered Rochelle the choice of staying in Denver or moving to Red Deer. She decided she would like to live in Canada, but under one condition.
“I wouldn’t move up here until he built me a garage for her. My marrying him was contingent on him having a garage for her. And he is my mechanic.”
Yellowbird has now clocked just over 141,000 miles (227,000 km) and her inline six-cylinder engine, overhauled in the mid-70s, still purrs like a kitten.
An appraiser told Rochelle that Chevrolet made only 250 cars in its configuration and that, of those, there are likely only about 25 survivors.
Rochelle has fended off a long series of offers, including one young man who told her “I’d even marry ya” if she would just sell him the car. None of the prospective purchasers has ever said how much they would be willing to pay, and that doesn’t make a lot of difference to Rochelle.
“I don’t want to sell it. I’m perfectly happy with it.”
The love she feels for Yellowbird is no less than the love others at Cruise Night feel for their rides.
Sherryl Johnstone is particularly proud of her 1957 Bel Air, a four-door classic that she purchased about 10 years ago after six years of hunting.
“It is an addiction, it really is,” says Johnstone, who has attended almost every Cruise Night held since its inception in 2003.
She uses her Bel Air all summer long, including driving it to work at Shoppers Drug Mart in Clearview Market. She said there is always a risk that the car will be damaged. Her previous car, a Buick Special, had suffered at the hands of vandals. So, she keeps the Bel Air well insured.
“My husband says there’s two kinds of people in this world. Those that admire them and those that are jealous, and you have two choices: Park it or drive it. So, I drive it.”
Greeting visitors at the entry, she was handing out home-printed flyers to a charity drive to be held on Sept. 22 in conjunction with Cruise Night’s last big event of the year. The garage sale, at Clearview Market, will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in support of Women’s Outreach.
Cruise Night founder Dave Burden, who had to leave his ’74 Challenger at home because of all the gear he needs to set up the show, said it all started with a group of 10 car buffs who would get together on Thursday nights, hang out and talk about their wheels.
They used to meet at the Willy’s hamburger stand next to the Shell station in Gasoline Alley.
“Cops were chasing us out, thinking we were congregating to go street racing. We were just trying to find a place where we could hang out and chat with our cars.”
The group started looking for other places to meet and approached the City of Red Deer to see what parking lots might be open to them on Thursday nights. They started at Prairie Office Supplies and moved from there to the Safeway parking lot at Parkland Mall. They were kicked out of there fairly quickly, because the number of cars, trucks and motorcycles coming out for the event was getting bigger and bigger.
They then shifted over to the small lot behind the Sears store and from there to the bigger lot, but were still getting squeezed, with events bringing 400 to 600 cars.
Burden said this is Cruise Night’s second year at Crossroads church, which has accommodated as many as 700 show-and-shine vehicles along with up t0 1,200 more carrying people who came out to have a look.
It wasn’t until he had to leave his job after an injury that Burden realized how much it was costing him to hold the event. It was especially tough this year with rainouts of all but nine events since the Cruise Night season opened in May.
“Last year, I lost $22,000 out of my own pocket. It’s not that I wanted to do it, I just didn’t realize I was running so much out of my own pocket until I was unemployed with a neck injury and I was on EI and having to cut into my savings,” he said.
“I asked for a $2 donation from visitors and the outrage was huge. So, I just said, you know what, if you like to donate, great.”
If not, well, that’s great, too.
Burden said the food trucks and other vendors who come out for the show each give $25 to support charity. This year, the money goes to a group that provides sports equipment for underprivileged children.
While the event has never made money, Burden feels obliged to keep putting it on because people love it and because it’s part of a big show and shine that hits Red Deer once every three years.
”I love putting these things on. I love the looks on everybody’s faces. Over the winter time, I’m always debating whether to do it again, and then by March, I’m always getting these phone calls, ‘When are you starting?’ Fine, I’ll start, if you pester me enough.”
Last Thursday’s Cruise Night attracted 245 cars, trucks and motorcycles and a healthy contingent of car buffs. Burden hopes to keep them going until Halloween, weather permitting, with the last special event planned for the evening of Sept. 22, from 6-9 p.m.