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Riders on the storm

Back to the 50's showcases America's passion for vintage vehicles

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An estimated 100,000 spectators packed the Minnesota State Fairgrounds  last weekend for the 40th annual Back to the 50's weekend.


An estimated 100,000 spectators packed the Minnesota State Fairgrounds last weekend for the 40th annual Back to the 50's weekend.

Rather than driving our old '49 Pontiac to the Twin Cities in Minnesota for the annual Back to the 50's car show last weekend, my wife Melanie and I opted for the air-conditioned comfort of our jacked-up, late model Chevrolet Silverado 4x4 pickup. Turns out that was the best decision we've made in ages.

More on that in a minute, but first a little background on this huge event.

Back to the 50's is billed as one of America's largest car shows. This year marked the event's 40th anniversary and for the first time in its history, more than 12,000 vehicles were registered. There were also an estimated 100,000 spectators in attendance. The three-day event takes over the entire Minnesota State Fairgrounds, an area roughly the size of the University of Manitoba campus -- but obviously much easier to get in and out of.

The Back to the '50s weekend is orchestrated by the Minnesota Street Rod Association (MSRA), one of America's largest car clubs with more than 20,000 active members. This nostalgic event has been rolling strong since 1973 and is hosted by a sea of benevolent MSRA members who donate more than 16,000 volunteer hours each year to keep things running smoothly. Money raised at the annual show benefits a number of local charities, and a scholarship fund for club members' children has also been in place for many years.

When the big show hits town the streets surrounding the fairgrounds are humming with hot rods. Take my word for it -- you can actually get a sore neck ogling all the chrome. A sea of volunteers carefully guard the fairground's many entrances to ensure only vehicles manufactured prior to 1965 are permitted into the car-show area. This year, every type of vehicle from bone-stock restorations to million-dollar, mind-bending customs was on display.

In addition to a huge crop of Minnesota metal, the event also attracted classic cars and their owners from as far away as Alaska and Australia. The Canadian representation is also always strong with numerous participants from here in Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Key attractions included more than 300 vendors, who set up elaborate displays throughout the fairgrounds, a huge classic-car auction on Saturday, a massive swap meet Sunday and '50s inspired live rock SSRqn' roll all weekend long.

Back to the 50's is ground-zero for all things hot-rod. New trends emerge here, and this year was no exception. Although it had been a couple of years since our last visit, I have been coming to this show since I was a kid. The big thing I noticed this year was that the American economy is obviously recovering. Back in 2010 I was amazed with how many cars had a "for sale" sign in the window. Sure, there were still a lot of cars for sale, but not nearly as many as past years, and the good deals were few and far between. The same can be said for the prices of merchandise offered by the many vendors; the days of the deal appear to be gone. That said, the seeming emergence of a new cash flow into the American cruising culture has also vastly improved the quality of the cars on display. Never before have I witnessed so many amazing vehicles all corralled into one spot.

Big-buck paint jobs and shiny chrome wheels are beginning to once again replace the "rat rod" craze that took the impoverished nation by storm in the early 2000s. In past years there were a huge number of rat rods on display. These low-buck builds were great for the hobby and showed off the owner's individuality, but truthfully I was getting a little sick of seeing cars that looked like the ones rotting away in my backyard. For me it's exciting to lay eyes on a mechanical masterpiece built by a seasoned fabricator that showcases the latest technology. This year those cars were everywhere. Any concerns I had in the past regarding the health of the hot-rod hobby were thrown out the window by Friday afternoon. There's still a place for battered rat rods in the grand scheme of the scene, but it looks like the big-buck builds are back.

Now, about that decision to drive our Silverado to Back to the '50s. First up, thanks to the observant technician at Jim Gauthier Chevrolet, who noticed on the day before we left, while changing my oil, that the reason my truck had no air-conditioning was due to a missing belt. Not sure how I missed that, but thanks, we would have been cooked alive without you.

When the gates opened Friday the weather was stifling hot. It was among the best days I've ever experienced in my many trips to Back to the 50's -- total sensory overload is the best way to describe it with more cars than ever, a huge crowd and a new level of excitement in the air. It was as though in past years folks couldn't afford to let loose, and they were making up for it big time. The revving motors, cheering crowds and the smell of exhaust fumes filled the air with an intoxicating mixture of sights and sounds.

Then it all came to a thunderous halt.

When word of a storm brewing hit the fairgrounds early Friday evening the place emptied out like there had been a gun fight. We made the exodus too, and wound up at the Ol' Mexico restaurant for a nice candle light dinner. Turns out it's a good thing there was candles -- moments after our food hit the table the power went out and never returned. We ate in the dark and paid cash, then hopped in the truck to face what was likely the worst storm we've ever experienced. We dodged falling trees, waded slowly through streets that rivaled rivers, and witnessed a firefighter save an elderly motorist who was stranded in waist deep water... in the middle of a street. It was a scary scene and I can't imagine how our old Pontiac would have stood up to all that water. We would have surely had to park it and run for cover.

Thankfully, we made it back to our hotel safe and sound, and so did the many friends we've made in Minnesota, who also agreed it was among the most severe storms they'd ever experienced. The weather turned out great on Saturday afternoon, but the rain returned on Sunday and pretty much remained.

Ultimately our trip Back to the 50's was a great time. It is always a perfectly orchestrated event that continues to showcase America's passion for vintage vehicles. About the only thing they can't orchestrate is the weather!


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2013 F2

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