The 1958 Chevrolet Impala rumbled like a cabin cruiser and shot from its tailpipes two 6-foot plumes of fire. The crowd of car freaks gathered around the garage on Mountain Road in Pasadena seemed pleased, and Dallas Cooper got out from the behind the wheel as the fuel vapor stink rose into the breeze.
Impressive. But what sort of gasoline mileage does it get?
"Who worries about that?" Cooper said.
You don't discuss mileage around here. Around here you find solace in history's rear-view mirror, the one adorned with the big fuzzy dice. You remember when $3 filled the gas tank and nobody talked about cholesterol over a drive-in cheeseburger. You gawk at white Ford Fairlanes born way before OPEC, before imports swallowed America, before you heard about Blue Cross, mortgages and heart disease.
You get lost in the '50s.
The hangar-sized garage in Pasadena was filled last Saturday afternoon with men in their mid- o late 40s, members of the Lost in the 50s Custom Car Club, men whose teen-age dreams often whizzed by in a flash of fins and grillwork. They were back now to claim their dream, live in it, drive it, make it shoot fire.
"It takes you back to when you were a kid, when you didn't have any worries, no mortgage," Richard Lord of Pasadena said.
He's a tall man in denim who smokes Cigarillos. He owns the Lost in the 50s towing company garage, where the 2 -year-old group meets on the first Saturday of every month. The radio in the garage was tuned to oldies.
Outside the garage office stood a female mannequin dressed in white roller skates and a hot pink drive-in waitress outfit. Her tray held a plastic mock-up of a balanced meal from the days before America discovered sushi: burger, hot dog, fries, banana split.
"Everybody in my neighborhood had hot '55, '57 Chevys when I was a kid," said Kenny Inks, 45, of Dundalk. "I finally got to the point where I could afford one."
He stood before his prize, a turquoise 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air with the white rag top and the fuzzy turquoise dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. He bought the car three years ago and figures he's got about $20,000 invested -- the price of the car plus the paint job, engine work.
No matter. It could be worth up to $70,000 if he wanted to sell it, he said. It's a good investment, but that's beside the point.
"This car, the '57 Chevy, represents the '50s," said Inks, who runs a cookie distributorship. "It brings back good times. Twelve, 14 years old, no cares in the world."
Those 1957 cars hold a permanent place in the heart of Bob Dick, 43, of Gambrills, owner of B & C Bus Service. He was a teen-ager in the 1960s, but his first car was a 1957 Ford. He stood outside the garage last Saturday morning before the steel ghost of a simpler time. Decked out in pink and white and named "Popsicles & Icicles" after the 1960s song by The Murmaids, the 1957 Ford is just like the one Dick drove when he first got his license. That first car "was freedom to get away from the farm."
It's one of five vintage cars he owns, about $125,000 worth.
Club members don't much care for new cars. They all look alike, they say. No style.
"All new cars are garbage, just about," Lord said. And imports, you don't want to even talk about them with most members of the club.
The club claims 619 members, who own among them about 1,000 cars. To join, one needs only to own a car that's at least 25 years old. Members pay no dues and no fees, Lord said. In spring and summer Saturday nights, members of the club rally at the parking lot across from Faye's Sub Shop in Glen Burnie to show off their stuff. These rallies usually attract club members and cars by the score. For that moment once again it's Saturday night in the '50s out on the cruising strip.
The monthly afternoon club meetings are occasions for talking with buddies, maybe showing off a bit. Dallas Cooper found it an occasion to shoot a little fire.
He's a round man, 49 years old, who tends bar in Baltimore's combat zone and gladly talks about all the prizes he's won with his fire-breathing monster, a machine he says was a "boneyard-bound" heap of rust when he found it in a Mount Airy garage 18 months ago. He paid $1,000 for the car and pumped in hundreds of hours of work and another $8,000, revving the car's value to more than $50,000. Since then he's won prizes for the paint job, prizes for riding low, so low that the side pipes clear the ground by a quarter inch. Prizes for breathing fire. Yes, they give prizes for that too.
But stand back when Cooper pumps the hydraulic suspension and raises the back end, rocks the engine to life and begins filling the exhaust pipes with gasoline vapor. He's been known to burn a thing or two. There was the time at Genderson Chevrolet on Revell Highway in Annapolis when Cooper fired it up and ignited a couple of bushes. That's when Richard Lord gave Cooper his club nickname, "Moses." And Cooper freely admits to having set fire to a row of his neighbor's shrubs in Brooklyn.
With his rig of propane and compressed air tanks in the trunk, and a spark plug in each exhaust pipe, Cooper claims to have shot plumes up to 18 feet. On this day, though, the monster would breathe 6-foot rolling tongues, black at the edges like the flames from a car wreck.