Hot rods at a drive-in

Most of you know that besides this bi-weekly column, I also post individual photos from my archive regularly on Instagram (@patganahl). A few weeks ago I ran a simple black and white version of a color cover photo I set up for a Street Rodder cover in ’75, showing two rods at an A&W drive-in at night. I was astounded at the number of “likes” and responses that one image drew–more than any other. So this reminded me that I have a whole binder titled “Misc. Color, Drive-ins etc.” You like Drive-ins? I’ve got plenty.

Sometime in the ’80s I joined a group called the Society for Commercial Archeology, a slightly academic “National organization devoted to celebrating the 20th century American roadscape.” In other words they appreciate and study what we call roadside attractions: bright neon signs, Googie diners, hot dog stands shaped like hot dogs (or dogs), cobblers in shoe-shaped shops, giant Uniroyal tires, big oranges, Wigwam Motels–stuff designed to grab your attention as you drive by in your car. This of course includes drive-in restaurants in several shapes, sizes, and colors. And note the involvement of the automobile.

This group holds annual conferences where members present papers with large-screen photos on a wide variety of relevant (usually colorful, often amazing) topics, and in late ’88 it was scheduled for the Henry Ford Museum, which had recently been redone in diorama form. We had just relaunched Rod & Custom, and I wanted to see and cover the new Ford museum, so I submitted a paper titled “The Dynamic Architecture of the Drive-In.” Briefly, its point was that however unique, zany, or neon-lit a drive-in was, it wasn’t complete without a bunch of cars parked around it, which were also colorful, of many shapes and forms, perhaps zany or noisy, and constantly changing. They became part of the architecture, thus making it dynamic, both in sight and sound. So I collected a whole lot of photos of drive-ins, several I had taken myself, others from sources I can’t remember. Plenty included rods or customs. The paper was well-received.

Hot rods at a drive-inTo illustrate my point I found photos of several early drive-ins built in a unique round style, usually with a central tower on top with a name in bright neon. But as you can see, they really aren’t complete without a full ring of cars parked around them.

Don’t ask me where these were located. And you can judge the vintage by the cars present as well as I can. Hot rods at a drive-inI couldn’t even find a copy of my paper, let alone any information on these early photos. How do you like the whitewalled convertible in the one at right? I’m not even sure what kind of car that is, let alone the year. Same for the sedan, but I like the skirts. However as you can see, even with only three present, the cars around the drive-in are an integral, necessary part of the picture.

These early drive-ins were quite rare. Much more common, Hot rods at a drive-ineven into the ’50s, was the small local diner or cafe, as seen in all the ’50s hot rod B-movies (Running Wild, Hot Rod Gang, Drag Strip Girl, and so on) that had a counter with stools, some tables or booths, but also a juke box and dance floor. This is where teens would gather, and certain ones might be adopted by one or more local car clubs as their hang-out.A good example in the ’40s was the Triangle Cafe on So. Eagle Rock Bl. which Tom Medley told me his club adopted just after the War, and is seen on the cover of Don Montgomery’s book “Hot Rods as they Were.”

The photo at right was the earliest drive-in I found. Hot rods at a drive-inI don’t see any hot rods, but you can see that the full circle of cars completes it. Also notice the lady in white pants serving a car at its window. I don’t know when the term, “car hop” developed, but this is what distinguishes a drive-in–the at-car service. It’s also why the menu is spelled out on the front of the building, so you can read it from your car.

Thankfully we still have some drive-ins today. But they have largely been replaced by the ubiquitous “Drive-Thru.” I think that began with Jack-in-the-Box, and is epitomized by the appropriately named In-N-Out today.

Enough of the academic stuff. I have lots of photos to show. I’ll try to keep captions brief. But let’s start with the opening pic. Bob Wian opened a 10-stool hamburger stand on Colorado Blvd. here in Glendale in 1936, just about the time our house was built 2 or 3 miles away. It became the first Bob’s Big Boy, and he soon added another one about 6 miles east on Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena, with a third in between in Eagle Rock. This became one of the first famous rod and custom cruise routes of the ’50s and ’60s. The one at top is the Pasadena Bob’s, and the guy with the tasty red Deuce coupe was actually a cook there.

Let the slide show begin. These are in no particular order, and they’re not even all drive-ins. But it’s stuff I think you’ll like.

Hot rods at a drive-inThis is a photo I got from Andy Southard, and he noted on it that it’s San Francisco, 7-28-68. Those are obviously mostly Bay Area Roadsters cars.

Hot rods at a drive-inHot rods at a drive-inSpeaking of San Francisco, I’d probably better show the most famous hot rod drive-in of all, thanks to American Graffiti. Mel’s was a chain founded in S.F. in 1947, and the one used in the movie, filmed in 1972, was at 140 S. Van Ness. It’s gone, but others remain. I’ll also throw in this extra shot from my files of the Toad with Steve’s Impala at an all-Corvette used car lot.

Hot rods at a drive-inThis is another Bay Area Mel’s, complete with a neon car hop on top. Andy Southard gave me the photo and dated it Aug. ’55, but I spy a ’59 or ’60 Plymouth (I think).

Hot rods at a drive-inAnd speaking of architecture, this is what we call Googie style, definitely designed to catch your eye as you drove by. I have no idea where this Biff’s was, but the style derives its name from the small but famous Googie’s coffee shop on Sunset Bl. in Hollywood. When I worked at Hot Rod in the ’80s, Petersen Pub. was at 8490 Sunset Bl., and Googie’s was still there, a few blocks away.

Hot rods at a drive-inI was going to dump this photo, because I don’t know what it is (can’t see a name), where it is, or how I got the picture. But hey, it’s a good night shot of a wild building, and that nice (new?) ’57 Impala convert does need some company.Hot rods at a drive-inAnother hallmark drive-in on Sunset Bl. (or anywhere) was the jet-wing Tiny Naylor’s built in 1949. This Hot rods at a drive-inwas the day it closed and went up for sale–hence the balloons and gathering of low riders–so I drove over from Hot Rod and took this photo. Don’t know where I got the somewhat earlier and slightly blurry night shot, with more low riders, but it’s cool. Those are the Hollywood hills in the background.

Hot rods at a drive-inTiny Naylor’s was a pretty widespread chain of coffee shops in SoCal. Most are gone, but this still-Googie-style example, seen here in a photo from the mid-’50s, is still operating on Wilshire Bl. not far from the Petersen Auto Museum.


Hot rods at a drive-inYou know the Eagles’ song “Down at the Sunset Grill”?  Well there it is. You can’t really call it a drive-in, but you can’t eat inside, either. It was right next to the original Guitar Center on Sunset, not far from Laurel Canyon, and I stopped one day in the ’80s on my regular drive to Petersen to grab this shot. The long-haired guys in tight jeans fit the scene perfectly, but better yet is the clapped-out Ford Torino.

Hot rods at a drive-inIt’s a shame to show this in daytime black and white, but that’s when this car-gathering was happening. While you drive-thru or sit inside a Club Max today, the originals had brightly neon-lit golden arches visible from the street, and you ordered at a window to eat in your car parked in front. This one, at 10207 Lakewood Bl. in Downey is one of the oldest originals, highlighted by the tall neon arch on the corner, topped by mascot Speedee, pointing that you should pull in here, and telling you that 10 gazillion burgers have now been served. I think McDonald’s gave birth to the term “Fast Food.”

Hot rods at a drive-inThis was another original McDonald’s in nearby Norwalk, where they let me set up this night-time cover shot for Hot Rod touting a story I did on street racing in L.A. (Aug. ’85). Supposedly this was the oldest existing McDonald’s at the time.

Hot rods at a drive-inThis ain’t the greatest photo, but I drove a couple hundred miles just to see if it was still there. Visalia was my mother’s hometown and the place of my birth, and I remember Mearle’s drive-in from my earliest days. It’s located on Mooney Bl. across from College of the Sequoias, and on a 100+ degree Valley day nothing was better than their vanilla shake or root beer float. There was a long U-shaped counter in the middle. Mmm.

Hot rods at a drive-in

Hot rods at a drive-inI haven’t even mentioned A&W yet, have I? That’s what started this whole thing, and it’s very likely the oldest, still-operating drive-in chain in the USA. Also purveyor of the best root beer (in a frosty mug) anywhere. They’ve sadly been disappearing, but still many are left. Some of you might recognize this as the one in Paso Robles, which was the perfect night-time hangout during the early West Coast Kustoms cruises there. These were shots I took at the 2nd or 3rd meet. Not only did the city fathers see fit to kick us rowdy rod and custom hoodlums out of town a few years later, but I think they also tore down the A&W…or turned it into some kitschy tofu bar.

Rod and Custom magazine February 1989

There’s a story behind this cover for R&C, the second “comeback” issue. Salinas, CA, has always been a car town, and longtime home of Rod Powell’s prolific custom shop. I think there was some sort of rod show going on at the fairgrounds in nearby Monterey, but Franco was there with his new Kookie Klone, as well as Johnny D’Agostino with his Stardust Matranga-style Merc. So I asked Rod if there was a cool drive-in in town to set up a cover shot, and he said, “Roy’s is the place.” He put out the word and we had more rods and customs than we could handle (that’s Curly Tremayne’s candy tangerine Merc back there). The only problem was that the big neon sign with the name and arrow was behind my back. So my Art Director, who was just learning how to use the new MAC computer, said, “Did you get a photo of the sign?” Sure. So she just dropped that in where it looked good, and added the orange glow to the evening sky while she was at it. A new digital age was dawning in 1989, but it did make a good drive-in cover.

Hot rods at a drive-inThis is probably my favorite nighttime drive-in shot, but it took a bit of old-fashioned manipulation. The cool drive-in with the checkerboard overhang was near the fairgrounds of a KKOA meet in Springfield? Dayton? Somewhere out there in the Midwest. Of course the participants found it and packed it each night. Perfect photo op. Except the lights on the Frosty Root Beer mug on top were burned out. To my rescue came one custom owner, parked just off to the right, who had real, working spotlights on his car. He lit one up, pointed it at the giant mug, and I got this picture.

Chicken carLord knows where I was on this trip–Ohio? I was actually photographing some weird cars at a body shop, and this was right across the street. How could I not take pictures? No, it’s not a drive-in. The sign says Dine In or Carry Out. But maybe they’d deliver in the chickenized mini-Mustang. In the South they’d call this a chicken shack. But they probably wouldn’t have chicken cars. The side window says Dixon & Rock Falls. Your neighborhood? Did they ever get famous?

Hot rods at a drive-in

Rod and Custom magazine February 1993

Speaking of famous, when it comes to car-cruising drive-ins, none top Harvey’s Broiler on Firestone Bl. in Downey, especially in the ’60s. I’ve never seen any photos from those legendary days. During my time it was Johnie’s Broiler, who had a hard time keeping the neon lit. The top photo was just a typical night in the ’80s. For the Feb. ’93 R&C cover shot that I got permission to set up, let me just quote the “On the Cover” blurb:

“What better way to herald the hotness of hot rods than to gather a group of flamed classics at Johnie’s (originally Harvey’s) Broiler in Downey, California? Bruce and Raylene Meyer in their hot highboy hail their son Evan and his friend Donna Albertson in Barry Williams’ classic trackster. Lending support are Tom Schiffilea’s hammered and flamed Deuce coupe and Steve Dennish’s limey, low sedan, while that Hemi-fired suede roadster belongs to photographer Robert Kittila, who set the lights and snapped the shutter.”

A few years later Johnie actually started to bulldoze the historic place, but it was saved at the 11th hour and resurrected by the Bob’s Big Boy people who run it today.

Hot rods at a drive-in

Hot rods at a drive-inThis was obviously another KKOA national meet, I’m pretty sure in Des Moines, IA. This drive-in gets zero points for eye-catching architecture, and its neon sign is so-so. But the big lot out back is where the action is, with strung-up lights, plenty of room to park, a big menu board, and car hops to serve you at your car window. The candy blue custom is Sonny Daout’s Pontiac-powered ’49 Dodge.

Hot rods at a drive-inI didn’t have anything to do with this Sept. ’83 Hot Rod cover shot other than tagging along and sniping my own pics once the Petersen Photo guys had it set up. Of course that’s Billy Gibbons’ ZZ Top Eliminator coupe (check the blue CA plate) shortly before it gained video fame. Rae’s “Since 1958” Restaurant is a classic mid-century diner on Pico Bl. in Santa Monica with good neon and counter seating, but I think the car hops were props for this photo shoot. Best part is it’s still operating.

Hot rods at a drive-in

Hot rods at a drive-inI can’t tell you much about these two drive-ins because I got the photos from someone who was taking them for Car Craft. The top one is called Big Daddy’s, while the one above is somebody’s Big Boy. I think they were in the Northwest. I spy a couple of rods in each, but this is definitely the ’80s street machine era of holes in the hood and snorkel scoops, as espoused by Car Craft then. In other photos I see they had roller-skating car hops and car window service. And plenty of turn-out when they heard somebody would be taking pictures for a magazine. Remember those–magazines–that actually had some clout?

Diorama model of Hot rods at a drive-in

Diorama model of Hot rods at a drive-inAnd check out this surprise I found in my drive-in photo file. I didn’t take these photos, either, so I can’t tell you who, when, or where, but I think it was a large model-building club somewhere in the Midwest whose members all contributed to this really well-done diorama. Is it a model of an actual Skip’s Drive-In? It leans more to customs than rods, but the workmanship and overall quality of the whole thing is superb.

Hot rods at a drive-inSo let’s end this when the past pointed to the future. This is another Hot Rod cover shot (Jan. ’89) that I tagged along on and snapped my own photos. Pop’s Burger was somewhere in the Valley, and you can see it’s already more of a drive-thru than a drive-in. That’s Scott Sullivan’s orange ’55 at the pick-up window. The bubble-top Pontiac Banshee was a rare Detroit concept car that actually ran and drove. It was touted as the next Firebird. That issue’s big cover blurb was “Future Hot.” Ha. Little did they dream then that most magazines would evaporate. And so would Pontiac…and Oldsmobile…and Plymouth…and Mercury…and?  So much for the future.

OK, this has been a long one. But I wanted you to have plenty to savor, because we’re goin’ racin’ and I’ve decided it’s time to take a vacation from this busy retirement of mine. So it’s going to be a couple extra weeks until I get the time and energy to do the next scintillating issue of this column. Go back and read some old ones if this doesn’t hold you. But don’t worry, I’m not evaporating. I’ve got plenty of topics impatiently waiting in line to appear here. That’s why I need to take a break. But I’ll be back.

Till then.