Robert Bushard’s ’57 Chevy is a familiar site in his Merriam Park neighborhood. The classic ride—a bright red ragtop model with a 350 crate engine and a turbo transmission—was built for cruising in the poodle-skirt and greaser era, and it’s still going strong. Unlike other classic car owners, Bushard isn’t afraid to take his pride and joy out for a spin.
“I drive it all the time,” Bushard said. “I usually put like 5,000 miles a year on it. I’m on my third engine, second transmission, second rear end. I just bought my ninth set of tires.”
Those new tires will be making tracks to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on June 17-19 for the Minnesota Street Rod Association’s 48th annual Back to the ’50s Weekend, a yearly attraction for gearheads and classic car lovers from across the United States. Bushard’s ’57 Chevy will be among the 12,000 classic cars on display. Food vendors, children’s games, live music and a swap meet will also be featured.
New this year is an appearance by Justin Nichols and his crew from the television show “Wrench’d.” Nichols and company will meet fans, sign autographs and “sell their wares,” according to Wally Burchill, a member of the MSRA board and one of the organizers of what has become the largest three-day show of its kind in the nation.
“We usually get participants from all 50 states, as well as Canada when they’re allowed to cross the border,” he said. “We also have a number of international participants and spectators.”
Humble beginnings in 1974.
Back to the ’50s has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The inaugural Back to the ’50s was a single-day affair that drew about 140 vehicles to the Midway Shopping Center parking lot in 1974, according to Gene Sonnen, a charter member of the MSRA and one of the organizers of the original event.
In the early days, participants would get together after the show and “go for a cruise,” said Sonnen, who grew up in Macalester-Groveland and still lives in the neighborhood. “It was small enough that we could handle that.”
Participation grew to 400 vehicles in 1975. A year later, the car show outgrew its Midway location and moved to the more spacious fairgrounds, Sonnen said. Through the years, the event continued to grow with more cars and more attractions.
“The word got out. It got bigger, and we kept adding stuff,” said Sonnen, a proud owner of three 1940-vintage Fords—a coupe, a sedan and a woody wagon. So persistent was the growth that organizers eventually limited participation to vehicles from 1964 and earlier, Sonnen said.
Mark Kluge, of Forest Lake, is a longtime Back to the ’50s fan and participant. He brings at least one car to the show just about every year, he said. His entry this year is a 1940 Willys Coupe. People show up to admire the cars and take in the entertainment, but it’s a social event as well, according to Kluge. “We have a lot of friends who go there,” he said. “Some of these people we see only once a year.”
Like Bushard, Steve Boche of West Saint Paul is the proud owner of a ’57 Chevy. The two-tone green beauty with a 283 engine is identical to the one Boche’s parents bought new. “My dad had a ball driving it,” he said. “A week before he passed away, he was driving it.”
Also sitting in Boche’s garage is a 1958 Chevy Apache pickup and a 1920s-vintage Ford Model TT truck. “I haven’t tried to fire it up yet,” Boche said of the Ford. “It just looks like a skeleton right now. It’s got the wood-spoke wheels on it. The whole drive train is done, but the body needs to be built. That’ll be one of my upcoming projects.” Boche, who repaired auto bodies for a living, had his own shop on University Avenue in the 1980s.
From local mechanics to national celebrities, people from all walks of life have shown up for the Back to the ’50s Weekend. Among the more famous classic car enthusiasts is a former host of the “Tonight Show.”
“I’ve seen Jay Leno out there quite a few times,” Boche said.
— Brian Johnson
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