Cruisin' together on a Friday night

Enthusiasts: Street Survivors gather weekly in the summer to stay in tune with a shared passion of vintage automobiles.

August 17, 2005|By Chris Yakaitis | Chris Yakaitis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At 6:15 p.m. on a recent Friday, Fred Voll- merhausen blasts Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' 1960 hit "Stay" over the Brooklyn Park Shopping Center parking lot.

As president of Street Survivors of Maryland, he's the master of ceremonies and deejay for cruise night, a gathering of vintage automobile owners from Anne Arundel County and southern Baltimore. The group gathers every Friday night throughout the summer behind the KFC on Ritchie Highway, typically drawing dozens of cars and the gaze of passing shoppers.

With a soundtrack of 1950s and '60s rock 'n' roll singles in the background, the Street Survivors, their friends and curious Brooklyn Park residents stroll through aisles of gleaming metallic cars from the '30s through the '80s. They peer into popped hoods that reveal immaculately restored engines, from their original hose lines down to every factory-issued bolt.

Vollmerhausen, 65, is as colorful as the cherry red Chevys and baby blue DeSotos that surround him. He wears a bright blue shirt with striking red and yellow flames rising from the bottom, the top three buttons left open to reveal three gold chains -- one unadorned, one with a cross and one with Elvis Presley's "TCB" logo.

It's a wardrobe perfectly in tune with an informal event that speaks to personal pride, shared passions and nostalgia for a simpler time.

For every owner present, the cars represent something more than a set of eye-catching wheels.

"They've all got their own personal value," says Vollmerhausen, the retired owner of an auto repair shop. "So I never turn around and say, `Man, that's a piece of junk.'"

Seated among the Stingrays, Cobras and Mustangs are proud owners in collapsible camp chairs whose conversation topics range from a coming auto show to a child's progress in school or a relative's illness. The group's official membership hovers around 80, but cruise nights are open to anyone.

The Friday gatherings typically begin in early April and run until Halloween. The official time bracket is 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., but members often linger until close to midnight. On this particular humid night, convertibles and street rods pull in through the evening while the sun sets.

Brian Hamilton, a pastor at Arundel Christian Church, is a recent convert to the car club. He met Vollmerhausen two years ago when the club's president joined his church.

Now Hamilton has joined the auto congregation.

"I got the fever," the 43-year-old Severna Park resident says. "Man, I love these cars. It rubs off on you."

Hamilton's '87 BMW is the pup of tonight's litter. Vintage automobiles are traditionally considered to be at least 25 years old, but there are no strict rules in Street Survivors.

"We don't have a cutoff really," Vollmerhausen says. "We let it ride."

As cruisers listen to Connie Stevens' "Sixteen Reasons" and The Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me," Bud Tormollan, 71, the group's vice president, circulates among the cars selling 50-50 raffle tickets. Street Survivors pay a $20 annual fee to offset the cost of trophies, dash plaques and a monthly newsletter, but at the fiscal year's end all leftover funds are donated to charity.

Individual shows sponsored by the nonprofit group raise money for specific causes, such as a show last Sunday to benefit the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America.

Street Survivors originally formed in 1990 and is one of several vintage auto clubs in Maryland. Many of its members work with automobiles professionally, but others are just enthusiastic collectors.

A few of the cars are works in progress, with charcoal-gray, unpainted fenders. But the vast majority are the shimmering products of their owners' painstaking restoration work. Several Street Survivors have photo albums documenting years of effort, with shots of dismembered engine blocks and leather seats sitting in garages and workshops.

Bernie Wagner Jr., 33, of Lakeland rebuilt his '57 Chevy nearly from scratch using parts purchased on eBay, found in junkyards or constructed by hand.

"It ain't the greatest, but it's mine," he says. "I built it myself, with my own two hands."

Wagner says he'd always wanted to own a '57 Chevy and tells how his wife, Angela, 36, first gave him a toy model of one for inspiration.

He later found a battered Chevy parked on a residential lot -- with a tree growing through the floorboards -- and purchased it from the owner in August 2000.

"Nine hundred knuckles later, here it is," he says, displaying scarred fingers.

Wagner, who is not a member of the group, nevertheless shows up most Friday nights and views his Chevy as a deep source of pride.

"To hear a kid over there say, `Damn, that's cool,' made me feel good," he says. "A kid ain't gonna tell you a lie."

Andrew Jeffries, 59, says that as a retired cable splicer, he keeps his time occupied with his '55 Crown Victoria.

"Otherwise you cut the grass and look out the windows, especially on a hot summer day," he says.

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