ELKHART — The root beer is flowing, the sun is shining and the cars are sparkling.
“This thing would walk away from that, the Olds,” Mark Lee tells an acquaintance. “This thing” is the 1973 Dodge Dart he's now standing beside, owned by his friend, Charlie McClain, while the “Olds” — apparently an inferior vehicle — is somebody's Oldsmobile.
Over at a nearby picnic table, Ron Thiele and Ned Holloway explain that the conversation isn't limited, notwithstanding the overriding interest in autos among the assembled crowd.
“The old days, cars,” says Thiele, alluding to some of the typical discussion topics.
Holloway chimes in: “Ex-wives. We talk about anything.” He and Thiele, both from Elkhart, laugh.
If it's summer and there are classic autos, root beer and car buffs, it must be Classic Car Cruise-in night at the Simonton Lake Drive-in, held every Wednesday night. On this evening, about 25 cars are parked in a field adjacent to the 1950s-style eatery and Blue Shoecraft, owner of a 1956 Chevy Bel Air, is making sure everyone who wants it gets a styrofoam cup of root beer.
“People put a lot of money in them cars,” he explains. “You hear a lot of the old guys say, 'I used to race out at the Osceola Speedway.'”
A car rumbles in and the man standing beside Shoecraft wonders aloud if it's a Chevy. “No, that's an Olds, an Oldsmobile 442,” says Shoecraft, a burly guy with a bushy beard.
For most, a car is a means of getting from point A to point B. Say that here at the Simonton Lake Drive-in — just one of many places in Elkhart County that hosts cruise-ins — and you might get a funny look.
“I just love cars, I love old cars,” says McClain, the 20-something Dodge Dart owner and one of the younger car buffs in attendance. “They're the heartbeat of America, they really are... It's just something about the old style of life still being around.”
Lee, who's from Cassopolis, Mich., notes the big engines and power of the cars of yesteryear and their solid metal construction. He owns a 1965 Ford Galaxie.
As if to expand on that, McClain, from Edwardsburg, Mich., steps in his car, turns it on and revs the engine loudly.
“That's why I like old cars,” he shouts over the din.
Thiele, still sitting at the picnic table with Holloway, ponders what makes a classic car. Whatever it is, it isn't always readily apparent during a car's actual production years.
Take Thiele's shiny black 1957 Chevy Bel Air, one of the many parked over in the field at the Simonton Lake Drive-in. It's a classic now, but in its day, it was considered a good car for racing, perhaps, but not necessarily a whole lot more. “They were just cars,” says Holloway, owner of a blue 1966 Chevy Impala, also on display this evening.
At the same time, the technology of the old cars, even if well-maintained, can leave something to be desired.
Thiele's Bel Air, though a smooth ride, doesn't have power steering or power brakes, requiring extra force when he wants to turn or stop. The 1930 Ford Model A Coupe owned by Dan Closser, also at the Simonton Lake Drive-in, tends to drift when he drives it.
No matter, these guys — and they're mostly male — are passionate about their vehicles.
Mike Strausborger is showing off his 1955 Chevy 150/210. It was once used in the military, later became a race car and now he owns it, having restored it to a shiny yellow luster.
“I've owned a lot of cars in my life,” Strausborger says. “This car was the only car I wanted to own before I died.”
Cruise on in
If you want to show off your car, bring it on by. You may learn a few things from the other owners.
If you want to get a peek at some classic autos, likewise, drop in. The owners, most likely, will be more than willing to bend your ear about their car's history and the sweat they've put into it.
Summer's the time for cruise-ins — most are held through early September — and there are plenty of options around Elkhart County. Some charge entry fees for vehicles, other don't, and inclement weather typically puts a hold on activity.
Here are a few of the local spots that regularly hold cruise-ins:
• Culver's, 2726 Emerson Drive, Elkhart, Mondays from 5 p.m. to around 7 p.m.
• Texas Roadhouse, 3015 Brittany Court, Elkhart, Tuesdays from 5 to 8 p.m.
• Simonton Lake Drive-in, 51602 S.R. 19, Elkhart, Wednesdays from around 6 to 8:30 p.m. The restaurant has cruise-ins for motorcycles on Monday, import cars on Tuesday and 4x4 vehicles on Thursday.
• Das Dutchman Essenhaus, 240 U.S. 20, Middlebury, Thursdays from 4:30 to 8 p.m. The cruise-ins here can get pretty big, frequently upwards of 300 cars, sometimes more.
• Long John Silver's, 1724 S. Nappanee St., Elkhart, Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. This one's overshadowed somewhat by the Essenhaus event.
• Concord Mall, 3701 S. Main St., Elkhart, Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. through Sept. 7. Each cruise-in has a different theme, though the classic cars don't vary. June 29, for instance, is Country and Western Night.
• Penguin Point, various locations. The fast food chain hosts a cruise-in most every Sunday through mid-September, from 4 to 8 p.m., at rotating locations around northern Indiana. In Elkhart, cruise-ins are slated for July 15 at the 1147 Center St. restaurant, Aug. 19 at the 301 W. Lusher Ave. location and Sept. 9 at the 840 Bristol St. eatery.