GRAND FORKS — Allen Lunski reckons he's owned more than 100 cars. He'd buy them cheap, fix them up and sell them.
Today, he has a 1978 Trans Am that he takes to car shows, but back in the late 1970s, it was all about cruising with friends – if you had money to keep gas in the tank – and sometimes racing them.
"Oh yeah, we raced the quarter mile," said Lunski, who grew up in Grafton, North Dakota.
Cruising Main is what you did back then he said, whether it was in Grafton or any other small town. It was a chance to hang out, listen to music and show off cars. And put them to the test.
"On County (Road) 9 there, we had a quarter-mile (track) set up,” he said.
Cruising Main Street – the car culture in general – was a familiar part of life for people who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and even into the '80s. But what happened to the culture surrounding cruising?
According to Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering and industry relations at AAA, there are various reasons for the decline of what could be called “cruising culture.” Generational distance from the origins of cruising, the price of vehicles, changes in law enforcement and the rise of social media and smartphones all contributed to the decline of the culture encapsulated in the 1973 film "American Graffiti," directed by George Lucas.
But where did that culture come from? How long did it last? Is it gone?
A car equaled 'freedom'
Brannon, a self-described “hot-rodder,” said the dawn of the cruising age began after World War II, when soldiers returned home and began working. They carried with them all the experiences a soldier returning from war would have, but some brought something else: knowledge of working on tanks and the turbo and supercharged engines of airplanes.
“They took a while to get into the automotive scene, but that's what these soldiers did,” Brannon said. “They came back and people that were interested in that kind of thing. That's how hot-rodding got its start.”
Part of the culture of hot-rodding was souping up old jalopies, then cruising around looking for someone to race. Perhaps more important was looking cool while doing it.
Those “gearheads” had children, and the culture perpetuated itself. Brannon said cruising was something to do for like-minded younger people in an era that long-preceded social media.
“That really started in the late ’40s, and then became a major phenomenon through the ’50s and into the ’60s and probably all the way through the early ’90s,” Brannon said.
And those vehicles, then affordable and easy to fix up, meant a lot to cruising kids. For some – including Brannon – cars became an extension of the owner’s personality, and especially after sinking so much time into getting them looking good for the road. It became only natural to show them off after all the effort, and talk with others about the repairs they made. It’s a common theme among cruisers, but so is the idea of the car representing freedom – the freedom to go anywhere at any time, meet old friends, race the next hot rod, all while looking good.
Matt Heher, recently retired from the University of North Dakota and in attendance at the Prime Steel Car Show adjacent to the Art on The Red festival earlier this summer, didn’t at first think of a car as a symbol of freedom. After reflecting, it came to him.
Heher said he grew up with seven brothers and sisters. His father had a car, as did his mother. Dad’s car was off limits, so when he wanted to go out, he had to ask to borrow his mom's car. Getting his own car, a 1966 Rambler Classic, put that to an end.
“I need to go somewhere? I can go now,” Heher said. “I don't have to go fight with my brothers, my sisters, my mom and my dad and beg, take the garbage out and mow the lawn, so that I can drive a car.”
Heher and his wife Lisa have a 1967 red Camaro, with a white top. He bought it from a person in Chelsea, Quebec, a 25-hour drive from Grand Forks. Matt Heher said he never used to cruise, but Lisa quickly corrected him.
“What? He did,” she laughed.
Added Matt: “Well, Washington (Street),” he said. “Up and down Washington. That’s all you ever did.”
Cruisers have lots of stories like those. Lunski also attended the Prime Steel Car Show in June, with his Trans Am. On a long-ago visit to Wahpeton, North Dakota, he stopped at a traffic signal in his 1970 GTO. A car pulled up next to him, engine revving. Lunski answered in kind.
“A cop came off the sidewalk, came right up to my door,” he said. “The other guy took off. The cop had me stopped, and he wrote me a ticket for enticing the race. I didn't even get off the lights!”
Gregg Zimbelman, has a few stories, too. He’s from Montana, but has been in Grand Forks for decades. The U.S. Air Force brought him here, and when he got out, he stayed. He’s a cruiser, with a 1968 Caprice and 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. He said he was never a drag racer way back then, and not really a drinker.
But his friends drank beer. And Zimbelman, back in Brady, Montana, had a 1968 Ford Custom 500 a former Highway Patrol vehicle, complete with the spotlight and roof-mounted lights. He put them to use busting up rural keg parties, only to scoop up a few kegs for his friends.
“A funny thing about a kegger: when they see a car with a spotlight and a rotating dome on it, they don't bother to pick up the keg,” Zimbelman said. “The friends of mine that did drink drank for free, generally.”
For Brannon at AAA, the decline of cruising culture is multifaceted, and follows what he calls the decline of the automobile in America. The cost of owning, maintaining and insuring a vehicle, not to mention a classic vehicle, is too high for some younger people. Cars, he said, don’t represent that same sense of freedom, either. The advent of the smartphone and social media means young folks don’t need to spend time together riding around in cars, just to be together. They can do that with a hand-held device anywhere.
“They're less apt to get out and spend a night riding around in the car, just sitting so they can be seen,” Brannon said.
And law enforcement has played a role as well. Laws against racing have long been on the books, but anti-cruising laws were established in many cities to crack down on the perceived nuisance of cruising. In some cities, Brannon said, cruising down a main thoroughfare twice in a given amount of time can get a driver a ticket.
That isn’t the case in Grand Forks, however. According to Derik Zimmel, a lieutenant with the Grand Forks Police Department, there is no local anti-cruising ordinance. Problems did crop up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s with people parking in lots off of South Washington Street. Fights sometimes broke out, and people left a mess in their wake.
It came down to property rights, Zimmel said. Business owners didn’t want people parking and hanging out if they weren’t patronizing a store, and they didn’t want to have to clean up garbage that was left behind. There are signs still in some South Washington Street parking lots prohibiting parking after certain hours. But people who want to cruise the strip are free to do so.
“As long as you have gas and you're following the rules of the road, you can drive up and down the same stretch of street all day if you want,” said Zimmel.
State of cruising
While the culture hasn’t died out completely, it appears cruising has come under the domain of car shows and clubs, like the Prime Steel Car Show, and the . Members meet up with their cars and then park and chat. They still talk about their old stories and the work they put into their cars, and it’s likely that won’t change for people who still love classic cars. But it has come a long way from Bob Falfa, played by a young Harrison Ford, wanting to challenge John Milner, portrayed by Paul Le Mat, to a race. In "American Graffiti," Falfa gets his wish, but blows a tire, rolls his car and escapes as it burns.
Some still cruise, but it is different today.
“Well, the cruise is over to Cruz Night, and then the cruise back home again,” said Rick Jackson, who owns a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Aire.
He prefers when a car show is 50 miles away, instead of on the other side of town. He said cruising is like a time machine. When he drives down an empty stretch of highway with his 1950s music on, it takes him back to those days.
“But then some car from 2020 goes by, and it's like, that shot that deal,” Jackson laughed.