Cruisin' Downtown, a car trip down memory lane

Sep. 4—It's a mecca of metal, muscle and moxie — and one of New Hampshire's largest one-day events.

On Saturday, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people came to Elm Street in downtown Manchester to check out 900 to 1,000 cars at Cruisin' Downtown, the Manchester Rotary Club's 22nd annual fundraiser for charities that benefits children and families.

Personality sparkled everywhere.

One of the stars was Baby Lou — 1962 mighty Morris Mini-Minor painted robin's egg blue.

Its owner, Maelynn Hill of Auburn, discovered the pint-sized auto on Facebook, and drove to New Brunswick, Canada, to purchase it. No journey seemed too far because minis are her passion.

"The first time I took it out, people stopped me at a gas station and said, 'It's so cool. What is it?'" said Hill. Baby Lou "is fun to drive."

The car and driver's favorite hangouts are cruise nights and car shows where they're surrounded by kindred spirits, human and chrome alike. There's a sentimental connection. In the end, it's about the ride.

For onlookers, the cars are novelties. To the owners, they're treasured pets and secondarily, a pastime.

Baby Lou gets requests for photo opps, weddings, and charity appearances. The car, whose license plate is 'Baby Lou,' was named for Hill's grandfather and the car's former owner, who called it Baby Blue.

It has a personality all its own — maybe three. John Lennon, Jay Leno and Mr. Bean of British comedy fame all drove Morris Minis. Hill said, "This car opened up the car world for me."

For five years they've cruised to Minis on Top in June, when the Mount Washington Auto Road closes to host a parade of 300 to 400 minis by various makers rumbling up the road's steeps and switchbacks, looking a little like oversize jelly beans on wheels — from a distance, that is.

"People at that event knew what it actually was," said Hill, while Baby Lou attracted a bevy of curious admirers on Elm Street. "It's extra special when people can appreciate what (this car) is."

Brad Fournier, a Rotarian and one of Cruisin' Downtown's organizers, said the person-car relationship boils down to America's love affair with cars.

"We were pioneers in the auto industry. Everybody has a sentimental side. We all grew up with growth in the auto industry, and we went on family road trips." With revived and restored cars from different eras, revving and resplendent, "We spend a lot of money to relive that moment that made us happy," said Fournier, who owns a 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster named "Strip Teaser" that he used to race with his dad.

Every car at Cruisin' Downtown had a compelling history, along with years of TLC.

Chris Post of East Derry, a Manchester native who had a rock band called Dillinger in 1991, brought his glistening '71 Cuda — short for Barracuda, a classic Plymouth muscle car painted a grape-like color known as 'In Violet.' With a 425 horsepower engine under the hood — which looks like a polished museum piece, "It's a beast of an engine," said Post. "Back in the day, highway patrols used 440s. They just go and go and go."

It's babied to remain in mint condition. "It stays in a heated garage," said Post. "I haven't washed it in 15 years."

In the 1960s and 1970s, muscle cars were made by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler Dodge," who would fight against each other to get the most horsepower when gas was 39 cents a gallon," Post said. "They have a really deep rumble, a lot of bass, a lot of volume and a lot of macho muscleness."

Post owns other muscle cars, but the Cuda is his favorite. "I'll pass out of this world with it," he said. He's given a buddy instructions to drill a hole in the frame "and put my ashes in it. Then I'll drive forever in my Cuda," which he's owned for 23 years.

John Sherman Sr. and John Sherman Jr. of Nantucket and Franklin, N.H., came with their favorite joint venture, a Shelby Cobra in electric blue, signed by Carroll Shelby, the race car driver who designed the original car.

"They were built to eat Corvettes — eat 'em or beat 'em. They were basically a race car," said Sherman Jr., "with lines like Marilyn Monroe."

The car, built in South Africa in 2008, is a replica of the model that won the Lemans, a 24-hour road race in France. One of the original Cobras sold for $5.5 million, Sherman Jr. said.

"Older people come and say, 'I saw one of these back in the day. Then they tell me the color and the circumstances," he said. "There's a car show every time we stop at a gas station. People just swarm this car. When we eat at a restaurant and come out, there are five or six people with their jaws dropped."

Mark Loulakis of Nashua, clad in a black 'Gasoline Forever' T-shirt, came with his 1995 black Chevrolet Caprice NC-1, a Massachusetts State Police cruiser that survived a shootout — which blew out the back window.

Purchased and refurbished by a later owner, the car eventually raced in the Cannonball Lap from Virginia to California, and still bears that driver's autograph inside the trunk. If it were human, it would probably be John Belushi.

"John Belushi lived hard, lived fast and burned out," Loulakis said. The license plate is an homage to the Blues Brothers: BDR-529, after the original Blues mobile.

Saturday's Cruisin' Downtown was a day to soak up the sun as well as compliments. Just like the hundreds of other cars sparkling on Elm Street, Parker Dewey's 1976 Pontiac GTO, a sleek black convertible, drew stares of desire. Its sound system played "GTO" by Ronnie and The Daytonas and Beach Boys hits.

"Can I get a ride to Bristol?" asked an admirer. "I'll pay for the gas."

Dewey, who lives in Newport, has owned it for 45 years, and cruises on winding back roads to car shows and in Main Street parades "with an occasional politician or beauty queen" riding on a cream colored leather seat.

"Everyone looks at it and says. 'It's beautiful. I wish I had one' or 'I had one just like it and wish I hadn't sold it.'"

David Graham's VW bus drew double takes, stopping walkers on Saturday. Originally 14 feet, Graham had a midsection removed, shortening it to 10 feet. Now it glistens like a large, polished, beloved toy.

"I saw them when I was younger and thought they were cool," said Graham, who lives in North Billerica, Mass.

If it were a person, it might be Danny DeVito, said Graham.

"You see some in Florida, all custom made," he said. "I get a lot of 'Cute!' from people. It cruises around town comfortably at 30 to 35 mph, but requires a straight, smooth road without bumps, cracks or bends to accelerate to 50 to 55.

It's been the subject of snapshots that make it look miniscule in a monumental setting. A photo of the bus in Oregon in front of a towering statue of Paul Bunyan and his giant ox make the blue-and-white bus mini look like a palm-size toy.

Petite is its appeal, along with the memories and conversations it sparks.

"People like it because they picture themselves years ago when things were peaceful and simpler," said Graham. "Driving, you get a lot of peace signs from passing cars."