Classic Cars are Making a Comeback in the Southland

San Dimas resident Joe Levandowski, the next generation of classic car enthusiast, sits inside his first project car — a 1978 El Camino. Levandowski got hooked on classic cars when he helped work on a high school classmate’s Ford hot rod. Photo: Rommel Alcantara

By Melanie Henson

Joe and Christina Levandowski’s story is as classic as their favorite hobby. 

At the tender age of 16, the two shared a common career goal –– joining the Air Force. Both signed up as cadets at an engineering academy, and the rest was history: the pair married in 2017. 

What the couple did not share was Joe Levandowski’s love of drag racing –– at least not in the beginning.

But as Christina Levandowski’s artistic side took over, she began to appreciate the cars her partner was so enthusiastic about. She said she quickly became hooked. 

“Just listening to him had me falling in love –– not just with him, but with cars,” Christina Levandowski, now 22, said.

The San Dimas couple’s story is becoming more common. According to local residents, interest in the hobby is growing. And with social distancing restrictions lifted in recent weeks, car appreciators say they are bringing friends and family to events, introducing the hobby to a wider range of people than ever before.

What’s old is what’s new 

The classic car market increased by almost a billion dollars in the U.S. between 2019 and 2020 and is projected to jump to $15.5 billion by 2023, according to data from consumer data leader Statistica.

This impressive growth is due to a variety of factors, a big one being word of mouth.  

“We’ve seen this hobby grow at Classic Car Cruise Night,” said Russ Golesh, who conceived of and helped organize the Via Verde Plaza event. “Friends invite friends. Then the next time, those friends will bring their kids and grandkids.” 

This hobby has a heart

Golesh said a major motivation –– and responsibility –– in collecting classic cars is a preservation of history. 

But there is more to it than that. According to local residents, the hobby is a way to help people in need in a fun and interactive way. 

Classic Car Cruise Night was created to fill a need for community interaction in a time of restrictions, Golesh said. 

“San Dimas restaurants were really suffering, and people were tired of being at home,” he said. 

In the summer of 2020, Golesh sat down with La Villa Kitchen owner Jerry Ramirez, former owner of Century 21 Alan Nash and Palermo Bakery owner Joseph Durkan to brainstorm a way to address these concerns.  

“We decided to hold a combination outdoor car display plus law enforcement appreciation day and have it be for a charitable cause,” Golesh said. “We had our first Cruise Night in September of 2020, and we held a food drive along with it. The only entrance fee was to bring a food item to donate.”  

The results were more than they could have dreamed of. 

“People brought so much food, the Salvation Army had to bring in a box truck to haul it all away,” Golesh said. 

New growth, new management in San Dimas

As a result of this enthusiastic response to Classic Car Cruise Night, Baldwin Park-based Cal-Rods Car Club was brought in to manage future events. The gathering takes place on the first Friday of each month and features a charity and raffle. Each meetup is dedicated to a charitable cause, with 50% of raffle proceeds going to help a group in need. 

Local input is not only welcome but also vital to the enterprise, according to Cal-Rods president John Hussey. The club originated in 1954 and currently has over 200 members.

“Local businesses will still be very much involved,” Hussey said.  

Hussey said the ability for locals to socialize, give back to the community and enjoy the picturesque location are all part of what makes the event popular.  

“We’ll continue to have booths and a DJ,” he said. “People can bring their loved ones and have dinner at a restaurant in the plaza afterward.”

 Classics offer something for everyone

Part of what makes classic cars such an appealing hobby is variety, according to San Dimas residents. 

The Classic Car Club of America’s stance on what makes a car a classic is that it is “fine or distinctive” and originally built between 1915 and 1948.

A car is classified as historic in California if it was made before 1975, when state emissions laws changed, according to the California Division of Motor Vehicles

Local enthusiasts say restoring a classic is a matter of taking a historic vehicle and refurbishing or maintaining it, no matter its age. Classic car collectors might race, show or simply cruise their automobiles around town. Whatever one’s tastes, the interest offers something for everyone. 

San Dimas business owner Steve Lindemann said when he takes his favorite car out twice a week, he gets plenty of beeps and waves.

“They know me,” he said of his 1940 Buick Century Model 61. Lindemann’s classic ride, decorated with a sign advertising his business, Linco Picture Framing, is an easily recognized fixture on Bonita Avenue.

In fact, the car is so famous that Lindemann rents it out for events, sometimes as “a wedding getaway car,” the business owner said.

But for Lindemann, it is more personal than that. A longtime enthusiast of automobiles from the 1940s and 1950s, he had already owned a series of 1957 Chevrolet convertibles. “I was born in 1948, and I was looking for a car from that year,” Lindemann said. 

He did not find one, but when a 1940 classic car with suicide doors came his way, he said he fell in love. 

Long-time car lover and local business owner Steve Lindemann and his wife Leslie stand in front of his restored Buick at a desert car show. Lindemann’s classic sometimes makes appearances as “a wedding getaway car” for newlyweds. Photo Courtesy: Steve Lindemann

For Joe Levandowski, the fascination also began early. Levandowski said in high school, a classmate had an old Ford hot rod. Levandowski helped the friend work on the car. 

By Levandowski’s senior year, he had bought his first project automobile, a 1978 El Camino. 

“From there I was hooked,” he said. Now he races an El Camino regularly.

“There is a certain personality and liveliness that a classic car has that today’s cars do not show,” Levandowski said.  

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines

In many communities, classic car driving and showing was once thought of as a boys’ club or the domain of the wealthy.  

Today’s new wave of appreciators come from all age groups and involve men and women from all over. 

Car shows also bring in new friends into the local community.

“I grew up going to car shows, the Pomona Swap Meet and running around my grandfather’s junkyard,” said Kim Wilson of Chino Hills. Since then she said she has met “so many amazing friends and people.”

Wilson said this sense of camaraderie is common among classic car appreciators. “I think what I like most is that the car community is full of great people with old-school values. It’s not just about the cars. It’s a bunch of people who look out for one another.” 

La Habra resident Sharon Frazier said she frequents a Placentia car meet but occasionally drives all the way up to Palm Springs to show off her favorite ride. 

“My husband has a 1955 Bel Air, but I have a ‘66 El Camino,” Frazier said. “I’m a truck girl.” 

Frazier said she and her husband are both wild about classic cars. She said she has no plans to slow her hobby down anytime soon.

“I’ll keep doing this until I can’t drive anymore,” Frazier said, adding with a laugh, “and then I’ll just have someone drive me.” 

Others have found purpose in bringing the past into a changing, and sometimes challenging, world. And the friends made along the way are invaluable, according to local residents.

Passing the love of classic cars along to the next generation, or sometimes to friends or spouses, appears to be a big factor in the hobby’s growth in recent years. 

“A car show is the breath of fresh air we all need,” Frazier said. “I have made so many friends. We all have one goal: to show off our cars and have a good time.” 

Past perfect: Keeping history alive

Although the local classic car community is thriving, there is concern in the community that newer generations may not have as much of a hankering to get behind the wheel of a classic.

With growing interest from young car enthusiasts like Joe Levandowski, classic car collecting may be a timeless hobby that is here to stay. Classic cars, Levandowski says, “bring like-minded, passionate people that are ready to be inspired into the same area. [Classic cars] bring a sense of nostalgia to the community.” Photo: Rommel Alcantara

Charlie Tachdjian, owner of American Classic Cars in La Verne, said sales of his fantastic finds are still there. But following a brief explosion of interest in classic cars several years ago, Tachdijian said interest has leveled off a bit.

“Primarily, our clientele is age 55 and up,” he said. “They remember the cars they loved, and they want to experience that fun again.” 

At the same time, Tachdjian expressed concern over whether the hobby will be as popular in the future.  

“Classics will be around for a long time,” he said. “The question is, who’s going to own them?”

Enthusiasts like the Levandowskis bring fresh hope and a brand-new clientele into the world of classic car collecting.

Buena Park resident Nico Monge owns and shows his four cars for fun. But he said there are practical reasons that this is not an option for everyone. 

“Younger people are just starting to get to a point where they can afford a classic,” 27-year-old Monge said.   

Still, Monge said the interest is there.  

“Young people are coming out [to shows] more and more,” he said.  

Monge said a lot of them are on Instagram and frequently exchange ideas.   

“Car shows and swap meets are always fun,” Monge said. “And chasing down a lead [on a vintage find] is a blast too.”

Will this newfound appreciation continue? Absolutely, according to residents.  

“Classic cars bring inspiration and color to the area,” said Joe Levandowski. “They also bring like-minded, passionate people that are ready to be inspired into the same area. [Classic cars] bring a sense of nostalgia to the community.”

And that is a sentiment that never goes out of style.

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