In San Bernardino, they don’t stroll down Memory Lane, they cruise it.
Memory Lane is E Street, one of the main north-south streets that crosses Route 66 in the city.
If you turned the clock back 50 years, you’d see gleaming chrome and hear engines revving as the “Happy Days” moments of cruising, ice cream shops and bobby socks helped define a generation.
Back then, cruising was bumper to bumper.
San Bernardino was the car-cruising capital of Southern California from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.
Memories of cruisin’ E Street in 1955, stopping at Carnation Ice Cream and grabbing 15-cent burgers at McDonald’s are etched into the city’s collective memory.
An important chapter in San Bernardino’s history.
Steve Portias, a 1967 graduate of San Bernardino High School, says he was born at the perfect time.
The consummate “car guy,” Portias said the culture got its start in the 1930s and ’40s, when young drivers would go for “land speed records” at the El Mirage dry lake bed, near Adelanto.
“The most popular car at the time was the 1932 Ford — everyone wanted one,” said Portias, a member of the San Bernardino Historical Society and president of Inland Vans Berdoo, a car club that’s been around since the late 1960s.
“Most guys customized their cars to attract the girls,” said Portias, now 65.
Think “American Grafitti” or “Grease.”
“All towns had a cruise route, but San Bernardino was known as ‘the car town.’”
By the early ’70s, car clubs were huge, and the Over the Hill Gang, which had its roots at San Gorgonio High School, developed the car club culture, according to Portias.
Danny Castro, board member and former president of the California Historical Route 66 Association, remembers getting his first “muscle car” in 1971.
It was a baby blue 1964 Mustang Fast Back, he said, with four speeds and a 302 engine.
At the time, those cars we think of as “classics,” were cheap, said Castro, who always had several cars at the same time.
“You could get a ’64 GTO for $400,” he said. “But a car that might cost $500 to $800 would be bought by Europeans and then sold for $8,000.”
Cruisers in their heyday would stop at Eros and Bogart’s, a popular E Street nightclub and the former Orange Bowling Alley with a nice wooden dance floor.
San Bernardino was a happening place, attracting popular and up-and-coming bands at its venues.
The first time Van Halen played in front of an audience was at Eros and Bogart’s, and he introduced the band as “a garage band out of Pasadena.”
But things started changing in the ’80s, and as E Street declined, so did cruising.
The former nightclub is now a thrift store on E Street, between Ninth and 10th, Portias said.
Car shows became popular, but the car culture hit a new low when E Street died.
Enter Route 66 and the revitalization of the city with souped-up classic cars.
When the city’s classic car culture intersected with San Bernardino’s stretch of Route 66 (along Fifth Street), a national car culture rose up from the asphalt of the Mother Road.
Route 66, the legendary strip of highway running between Santa Monica and Chicago, dubbed “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” has connected a cultural cross-section of Americans since it was paved in 1937.
Cruisers were back on the road again.
Between 1991 and 2013, San Bernardino hosted the Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous — California’s ode to the Mother Road — in the city’s downtown streets.
Roadies and car buffs could tell the stories and relive the memories of traveling in vintage vehicles across California’s vast yawning desert.
The huge automotive street fair, which celebrated cruisin’, classic cars and hot rods, attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to the three-day event.
In 2013, the Rendezvous was put on hiatus after the city filed for bankruptcy and the state eliminated funding for the San Bernardino Convention and Visitors Bureau, producers of the event.
Fast forward to the present.
No matter how crazy the city is about classic cars, it’s the positive aspect of shining a light on San Bernardino that has so many people looking forward to this weekend.
On Saturday, the prestigious Great Race cross-country car rally comes to San Bernardino to join forces with local Route 66 car buffs in a huge celebration that includes yet another car culture.
The 2015 Great Race, this year themed “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” will transform downtown streets with 120 vintage cars.
Great Racers, who start arriving at 5:30 p.m. from their weeklong journey, will join the 1,000 classic American cars on display, with festivities including live music, a veterans parade, chili cook-off, food trucks, craft beer garden, stagecoach rides and vendors in the downtown area,
San Bernardino’s Great Race Committee, headed by city Parks, Recreation and Community Services Director Mickey Valdivia, has been working since early February to plan the event.
These days they are sprucing up the area around City Hall.
“We are getting the landscaping cleaned up, flowers planted and the Route 66 Cruisin’ Hall of Fame wall restored so it will look its best for the big event,” Valdivia said.
Sign painter and muralist Robb McDermott has been working on the wall for nearly a week.
McDermott, who owns a sign-painting company in Redlands, worked in three-digit temperatures giving the wall its face-lift for the Great Race event.
A self-taught muralist and painter, he is a San Bernardino native who looks forward to the festivities.
Welcoming signs are elsewhere in the city.
Great Race banners hang across downtown streets and at the former Arts on Fifth Street gallery, “This is San Bernardino,” a new public art project by poet Juan Delgado and photographer Thomas McGovern, will be unveiled Saturday in the windows of Arts on Fifth, 468 W. Fifth St., just in time for Great Race day.
The classic event, which showcases Americana and its diversity, would not be complete without a veterans’ parade and vintage military vehicles, as well as hundreds of small flags for bystanders lining the parade route beginning at 4 p.m.
Veterans’ services and a mobile service office for Disabled American Veterans will also be on hand.
So prepare to be amazed as San Bernardino recaptures its glory days — and once again, the shine will come from gleaming chrome.
By Michel Nolan – The Sun