It all started with four guys who liked to cruise around Manahawkin in their old cars. One day in 1994, the foursome—Bob Zimmerman, Tommy Davis, Joe Bourgeois and Rick Karwecki—stopped in at Joey’s Sweet Shop in the Waretown Plaza. The owner so enjoyed the cars that he encouraged them to return and hang out. Sentimental Cruisers Car Club was born.“I’ve always had a passion for old cars, their history and nostalgia,” says club member Bernie McGauley. He brings his 1967 Ford Mustang GT to the club’s weekly Friday cruise. Like many of the club’s 45 members, McGauley restored the car himself; he is now rebuilding a 1966 Mustang. Joey’s closed, and the club bounced around before finding its permanent venue at the Bayville McDonalds.
“Cruises show people taking the time to own a piece of history,” McGauley says. “I’m a Ford lover, but when I see a Chevy or an old 1933 Buick, it draws me right in, and I’m all over that car taking photos and thinking, That must be neat to drive.”
For anyone who thinks vintage and collectible cars are neat, New Jersey is the place to be. In the warm months, car clubs hold cruises all over the state. There’s not much actual cruising. Instead, club members gather in designated parking lots to meet with friends and show off their cars. Automobiles of all makes and eras are neatly lined up—many with their hoods open to showcase their showroom-clean engine compartments. As ’50s and ’60s music blasts, members wander around to check out the rides and take pictures. Spectators are always welcome to look—but don’t touch.
At any cruise, you may encounter a 1932 Little Deuce Coupe Ford of American Graffiti fame, a 1958 Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe, a 1959 Cadillac Series 62 convertible with its audacious fins, a host of vintage Corvettes, or a rare T-top Thunderbird. Clubs range from about 40 to more than 100 members, and their cruises attract everything from street rods to restored sedans. With the dog days of summer comes a sea of pop-up tents for shade.
“They don’t make cars like they used to,” says Jack Calvert, president of the Newton-based Rodfather Gang Car Club. “With classic cars, you can tell the make and model from a distance just by looking at the body.”
Calvert brings his yellow 1969 Mercury Cougar XR7 with burled walnut wood-grain steering wheel to the club’s weekly Saturday cruise. The car is distinctive for its sequential turn signals and for its hidden headlights.
“It’s a lot of pizzazz,” says Vin DePeppo, Rodfather Gang adviser and director. DePeppo’s ride: a red-and-black 1936 Auburn Boattail Speedster. The classic is the only one of its kind built by the late, great race-car driver Carroll Shelby, who equipped the Auburn with a supercharged 504-horsepower engine and Corvette drive train.
The Blacktop Villains Car Club, based in South Jersey, was inspired by a club in Delaware. Today, it’s one of the only clubs in New Jersey with a female president.
“I was the one who took notes when we had the idea to start the club, so I got to be president and social director,” says Sue Striewski, who shows up at events in either of her two customized treasures. Striewski’s viper-red 1947 Ford Coupe has all the hallmarks of post-war customization: the roof is chopped (or lowered) four inches, there are no door handles, the lights are frenched (recessed for a smooth appearance)—and it boasts a fuel-injected Corvette motor. Her turquoise 1955 Ford Customline sports cruising skirts that hide the rear tires, as well as flamethrowers out of the back.
New Jersey is blessed with more cruises than almost any other state, Striewski says. “You really have to find your day of the week for your area because there are so many.”
Al Dompieri is the executive director of the Jersey Shore Car Shows Foundation, which runs its own cruise and uses social media to promote Jersey cruises. Dompieri’s pride and joy is a 1980 Pontiac Trans Am Indy Pace Car with a gaudy phoenix—or screaming chicken, as it’s known—emblazoned on the hood. Dompieri typically hits the Top Gear Cruise in Brick on Tuesdays, and the Outcast Cruise in Toms River on Thursdays.
“I’ve wanted this car all my life, and we found one for sale by its original owner,” he says. Dompieri’s wife graciously agreed to scratch their planned vacation and put the money toward her husband’s red, white and blue dream car.
There is some banter at the cruises, to the tune of, “my car’s better than your car,” but it’s all good natured.
“At the end of the day, you appreciate everybody else’s car, the stories behind them, and the work that went into them,” Dompieri says.