There’s a reason why the concept of the drive-in had struck a chord with so many Americans. Whether a restaurant or a theater, the drive-in allowed for the enjoyment of our beloved cars in addition to whatever else the destination offered. I was reminded of this while revisiting one of my favorite diners and lunch counters back home in Flint, Michigan several summers back. I felt it was especially appropriate that there was both a Buick (1971 Skylark Custom hardtop) and a Chevrolet (’67 Impala SS fastback) parked out front, as Flint famously built models from both makes, at one time.
In the interest of full disclosure, it’s probably not a regular occurrence that vintage GM, golden-era muscle machines just happen to park at Angelo’s Coney Island on the East Side at any old time. While its true that many (mostly GM-branded) classics come out of hiding in late spring and roam the streets of Genesee County through the summer months, this particular sighting was during the week of the annual Back To The Bricks car festival. The main show, the festival’s centerpiece, happens downtown all day on a Saturday in August, bringing literally hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of classic vehicles to the red brick pavement of main thoroughfare Saginaw St. for a day of chrome, steel, music, eats and treats. Still, the sight of this pairing felt pretty serendipitous as I pulled into the parking lot of this neighborhood staple for a couple of coneys, a plate of fries, and a Mountain Dew.
Seeing these two cars at Angelo’s was a reminder of the magic of growing up in this Rust Belt town full of factory workers (“shop” guys – and gals) who had all the know-how and skill to actually fix up and tool around in older cars, with many making it seem so effortless that anyone (i.e. many a hapless teenager) could do it. And so, after an intoxicating whiff of the Skylark’s vinyl interior while passing by its open, driver’s side window, I sat down atop a stool at the diner’s counter for a meal, wondering who among the other patrons either one of these cars belonged to. (I did end up striking up a conversation with the owner of the Impala, the details of which are somewhat foggy to me now. Perhaps I’ll get another chance to interview him for a future piece, which will hopefully include more pictures of that nice coupe.)
I flashed back to the mid-90’s after having moved from this area (Flint is still “home” to me), when I had owned my ’88 Ford Mustang LX 2.3L. I would spend most Saturday mornings detailing it after getting back from my early-morning shift as a groundskeeper and landscaper at a golf course in Ft. Myers, Florida (dirty work in a posh country club). My car would be spotless when I would drive it up to the local Dairy Queen around lunch time. Occasionally, I would eat in my car, with the rich scent of cherry “Tire Wet” dressing and cherry air-freshener mingling pleasantly with the delicious aroma of hamburgers and fries and the taste of the sweet tartness of a cherry slush. There would also be the faint trace in the air of the Armor All on the vinyl dashboard and interior panels, normally somewhat pungent but inoffensive amid these other smells. Sometimes, though, I’d find a booth inside the restaurant next to a window, through which I’d gaze lovingly at the prettiest four-cylinder Mustang hatchback in all of Lee County. (Ah, to be able to eat and drink what I want anymore without adverse consequences, as I did in my teens and twenties!)
It dawned on me that perhaps my desire to enjoy both my car and my meal at the same time was some kind of instinctual throwback to when I was a young boy and wanted to bring my favorite Matchbox cars to the dinner table. It actually all kind of made sense. Whereas an admonishment from my parents that my toy cars may be (really) dirty and didn’t belong next to where I was eating, it would then stand to reason why, as an adult, I would make sure my car was spotless on weekends before bringing it to “table” at the local DQ.
Enjoying a meal while also enjoying my car seemed to appeal to something so deeply rooted in my psyche – as if that was, obviously, just the way it was meant to be. There’s just something liberating about getting into your own, prized automobile – which represents a near-perfect combination of freedom, art and power – to go your favorite eating place to stuff your face to your heart’s content. I have read pieces about the intersection of Americans’ love of the diner and the automobile which have been well-researched and more eloquently stated, but for my part, I would just like to offer a Homer Simpson-style “Aaarrgh!!...” for the experience of beholding and appreciating genuine Detroit (or Flint) iron over a blue-plate, blue collar feast.
East Side, Flint, Michigan – as photographed at various points from between August 2010 through August 2012.