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Feature Stories

Long Island Weekly Gets Car Crazy

Long Island is no place for a classic automobile.

To be sure, ours is a car culture. For better or for worse, the late Robert Moses saw to that. If given the option to take the train, the masses seem to prefer braving the Stressway any day of the week — even with gas averaging $4 a gallon.

Of course, we’re talking about your average commuter, putting around in one of the myriad overgrown jellybeans that pass for transportation these days. Winter storms? Check. Salted roads? Got ‘em. Salty air? Pretty tough to escape it, what with that whole ‘island’ thing. None of this really matters when your daily driver is mostly plastic.

If, however, the machine inquestion is a work of art from a bygone era — two tons of steel, glass and style, and quite susceptible to rust — one can think of far better climes.

Looks like someone forgot to send out that memo.

They hibernate in garages from the North Shore to the barrier beaches, patiently waiting for the weather to warm. Sprung from their winter cages, and with an obligatory nod to Springsteen, these beasts are born to run. But run to where?

They meet throughout the summer, invading the Tri-County Flea Market every Tuesday. Wednesday finds a herd at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville. Cedar Beach is overrun every Saturday night. The grand finale comes Sunday morning, when cars (and bikes) from Manhattan to the forks descend upon Oak Beach.

This week, Long Island Weekly pays a visit to several Nassau County cruise-in hot spots, from Nathan’s Famous in Oceanside (Wednesdays), to the legendary Bellmore train station cruise-in (Fridays), and speaks with the men behind the machines.

What Is A Cruise-In?

A cruise-in, in the loosest possible definition of the term, is a car show. But, not really. A cruise-in dispenses with the formalities of the car show circuit. No judges, and no trophies. Forget about admission fees. It doesn’t cost anything to register your car, either.

Nobody is broken up into classes, so that ‘69 Camaro could be sitting between a lifted 4x4 and a super-tuned Civic. Rules are unwritten. Start and stop times are but vague suggestions.

A cruise-in can happen anywhere more than a handful of cars can park at once. An ideal spot would be a local burger joint (All-American Burger, in Massapequa, perhaps?), but depending on the number of cars, much larger stomping grounds become a necessity.

Some come to admire. Some like to take a stroll down memory lane, surrounded by the transportation of their youth. A cruise-in has yet to occur where someone failed to remark “I used to have one just like it back in the day. Except mine was …”

Gearheads swap performance tips. Who can you trust to do your exhaust? What are the best engine builders in the area? Who should you avoid? Some come to sell their rides. Some rides are perpetually ‘for sale’ at prices sure to discourage any would-be buyers.

Above all else, a cruise-in is a great opportunity to meet like-minded individuals and, hopefully, make a few new friends.

So, ladies and gentlemen, don’t start your engines (seriously, don’t. Needlessly revving your engine over and over at a cruise-in is kind of frowned upon).

Life-Size Slot Car

You wouldn’t know it now, but this corner-carving monster started life as just another one of the 600,000-plus plain-jane Mustangs that Ford gifted us with in 1966. Known as Pony Cars, the Mustang quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Almost 1.5 million were produced in the first two years of production alone. Blessed with timeless lines, a healthy selection of performance options, and the kind of mystique that you simply cannot put a price on, one would be hard-pressed to find fault in a stock example. However, current owner Kenny Edwards decided “thank you Ford, I’ll take it from here,” and brought this Pony into the 21st century.

Built for autocross racing, the car now sports a 364 small-block (utilizing a Dart block and Trickflow heads), a T5 5 speed transmission, a full Mike Maier suspension, 4-wheel disc brakes, and, well, basically enough modifications to make your head (and the tires) spin.

This Mustang is far from a trailer queen. Edwards not only regularly races the car (and races it hard), he actually drives the car to competitions all over the continental United States.

Having recently completed a project car for one of his sons, Edwards felt it was time to get a toy of his own. This was a case of love at first sound, as he heard the car at a show before seeing it. Father and son occasionally compete against each other, and while nobody likes to lose, at a recent event Edwards lost to his son for the first time. Smiling, he claims he was “never so happy to be beat.”

Most car enthusiasts, if pressed, can point to one or two incidents that really make all of the blood, sweat and gears worth it. For Edwards, it happened on the way to a competition down south.

“While driving down I-95, I looked over at my two sons in the car next to me. They looked over, we all smiled, and they gave me the thumbs up. That moment right there was the exact moment I bought the car for.”

Father & Son

James Sommers Jr. & Sr. decided it would be fun to go into the business of buying cars, fixing them up, and selling them. A terrific business model, but for one flaw. They get attached to the cars and never sell them. How big a problem this is depends on who you’re talking to, of course. This gorgeous 1972 GMC Suburban makes vehicle number 5. The average classic car enthusiast might just consider that a good start.

This truck is sure to stand out wherever it goes, thanks in part to the retina-searing orange paint job (which the Sommers’ are quick to point out is the original color). The relative scarcity of the truck helps as well. Utility vehicles such as this simply didn’t survive in large numbers, as they were more often than not driven hard and put away rusty.

So, what to do with all of the fine rides they’ve accumulated? Not too worry, the kids in the family are all busy fighting over who gets what.

Back In Black

Not many think of the 1980s when it comes to performance cars, and for good reason. For all its virtue (Cyndi Lauper, The Goonies, neon leg warmers), this was also the decade that brought us the mini van, Chrysler’s K car, and the beginning of the Japanese invasion.

Yet, surprisingly, one of the more lethal street machines birthed by Mother Detroit not only hails from the MTV decade, but even has the audacity to be a V6-powered Buick.

The Grand National (produced from 1984 to 1987, and dressed in formal black for all fancier occasions) is a classic example of what happens when a car company seems to forget what kind of cars they are supposed to be making.

Tom Weber’s 1987 model, shown above, is a shining example of what could have been had more manufacturers followed Buick’s lead. Weber prefers to keep a factory appearance on the outside, but had a bit of fun under the hood. The 5 months he’s owned the car have seen the addition of a larger turbo and intercooler, a full 3” stainless-steel exhaust, 42 lb. injectors, an aftermarket chip, steeper rear gears and an alcohol / methanol injection setup. Yikes.

Weber says this beauty — with only 30,000 original miles — is a keeper for sure. Better keep a close eye on this one, Tom. Not only was the Grand National the fastest production car in the 80s, it was also one of the most stolen.

Killer Impact

Want to go really fast? It’s simple! Take an economy car (stop laughing … the Chevy II / Nova was actually intended to be an economy car) and shove in the biggest engine you possibly can without having to cut pieces of the car out of the way. Want to go faster than that? This mean ‘67, belonging to Levittown resident Rich Piccione, proves that where there is a torch, there is a way.

The largest engine available in the first-gen Nova (1962-1967) was the 327 c.i. small-block Chevrolet — a formidable enough powerplant when built right, but not quite known for the frame twisting power found in its bigger brother. Using what can only have been the world’s largest shoe horn ever, a very warped mind saw fit to cram 396 cubic inches of insanity under the hood.

Piccione estimates the engine puts out roughly 600 horsepower. A number like that is no laughing matter in a full-size car. In a ‘67 Nova? Says Rich, “it’ll yank the front wheels right off the ground.”