Hot rods, hamburger havens, and having fun in the 1960s and 70s
In the two decades between 1960 and 1980 â€“ whenever in there that you officially became a high school junior or senior â€“ it was almost a rite of passage that, once you received your driver's license, you just couldn't wait to buy your first car. It was a time when teenagers declared their freedom, and could finally drive themselves to school or work, and could get out and socialize away from the watchful eyes of mom and dad.
If you went to Cleveland, Franklin, or Benson High Schools, it was downtown Portland, on Broadway, that was your favorite place to be cruising. But when it came time to stop for a chat, and to down some burgers and fries dipped in gravy, there was a special place for that, too.The Speck Drive In, at the intersection of Powell and Foster, was always loaded every weekend with souped-up cars and teenagers. And there was plenty of room to park along that very long building! The colorful neon signage of the Tik Tok Café and Yaw's Top Notch Sandwich Shop also appealed to kids with cars back in the 1960s. But in Outer East County, Marine Drive and Sandy Boulevard provided the preferred spots for teenagers to gather, and to parade their cool cars and fancy hot rods.
No matter where you went to school, or in what parts of Portland you hung out, most of us then wore "far out" clothes, and spoke a groovy kind of language that only teenagers understood. It caused our parents to roll their eyes.
For those who know Sellwood resident Dan Presley, today the lead bass player for the popular band Tall Jazz, in his younger days this mild-mannered, soft-spoken musician once raced his home-made roaders through the streets of East Portland.
Encouraged by his dad, who was also into having fast and powerful cars â€“ including Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, and Cadillacs â€“ Dan and his brother Jim Presley started racing at an early age. When they were as young as ten to twelve years old, they were making their own go-carts from parts and engines taken from old lawn mowers.
Collecting discarded mowers from around the Parkrose neighborhood, and getting donated parts from local gas stations, the boys began building go-carts made of wood, and test-driving their creations down the city's paved streets. They soon graduated to building metal frame go-carts, adding steering gears, brakes, and spoke wheels â€“ whatever they could scrounge up â€“ to make their own crazy contraptions.
It wasn't long before they turned their interests to automobiles, and together Jim and Dan purchased a Model A pickup truck that they hoped to turn into their own version of a hot rod. They modified the wheels and the engine, painted the body blue with a white top, and began driving their new vehicle around the 'hood.
"It was a prototypical 'barn find' â€“ it had been stored in a farmer's barn for 30-plus years," recalled Dan about his first investment, "Then we sold it for $300 to get a motorcycle, and of course today it would be worth many thousands of dollars." Dan was only thirteen at the time, and was an unlicensed driver, but that didn't stop him from driving around town. Dan explained that the police had more serious lawbreakers to deal with, and seldom wasted their time chasing down under-aged boys who were staying out of trouble. If you drove like a confident driver, you could drive as fast as was safe, and he says the police would look the other way.
"But if you did get stopped by a cop, your car had better be in good shape, or you'd get a ticket," warned Dan.
By the time he was attending Parkrose High in 1967, Dan had moved up to a two-door, six-cylinder, 1954 Chevy â€“ and, of course, he began modifying the car in his parents' garage â€“ alongside his brother Jim, who was working on his own roadster. Evenings and after school were devoted to boring out the cylinders of the 235-stock engine to make them a larger size, and adding bigger pistons for more power.
Dan also added an extra carburetor and a louder exhaust. "My dad was always supportive of my and my brother's tinkering, and would inspect our work. He make us redo it if it was sloppy." Dan even installed arched wheel caps â€“ called Baby Moon Hubcaps â€“ to his roadster.
Once the modifications to their cars were completed to the boys' satisfaction, it was time to join other young auto enthusiasts along Marine Drive, near the Portland International Airport, to find out just who had the fastest wheels in the county.
Barricades were set up between N.E. 130th and 160th, and that section of Marine Drive was marked off in 1/8 and 1/4 mile increments for drag racing. It was a showdown between rival schools, and everyone from David Douglas and Reynolds showed up with their hot rods, in anticipation of some rubber-burning matches.
Aviation gasoline, which could be bought at a few service stations around town for 25 to 30 cents a gallon, was used as fuel. Dan assures, "Everyone was careful; we had seat belts put in, and carried fire extinguishers for any mishaps." Dan estimated that he probably got about six miles per gallon out of his vehicle while using 103-octane aviation gas.
The drag racing occurred on the weekends, starting after 10 p.m. when traffic was slow, and few other cars were apt to be out and about in that section of Portland. It was a fun event attended by hundreds of young men, and the noise of screeching tires and the smell of burnt rubber and drifting clouds of gas fumes often drew the attention of law enforcement officers patrolling in the area. When I asked if the cops showed up during the racing events, Dan laughed and said, "They sure did, the County Sheriff deputies would come down and race their cars, and keep things safe."
Scouring the local junk yard for parts, the Presley Brothers were constantly on the hunt for cars equipped with a useable six-cylinder engine. Especially desirable were the older Corvettes, preferably made in 1953 or 1954, and augmented with extra carburetors and exhaust systems to make them faster. To supplement his racing hobby, Dan hired on as a dishwasher at the Glendoveer Golf Course, and he later served customers at the Parkrose Hardware Store. Parkrose Hardware was known to hire high school boys who were saving to buy additional parts to customize their cars. When he wasn't fooling around in the garage, or practicing with his upright string bass, Dan's summer days included hauling irrigation pipes around agricultural fields for the local Parkrose farmers, and picking the beans and berries that were abundant in East County. But once he had any free time, he was back working on his bright-red two-door Chevy Impala with a 409 engine and 450 horsepower, trying to improve its performance for the next race meet.
For Steve Reginer, Parkrose High class of 1966, his choice of wheels was his dad's car: A Pontiac Catalina with a 389 engine, the same one as in a GTO race car. "I borrowed it one night and took it for a spin, down S.E.122nd Avenue."
The Parkrose area was still semi-rural in the mid-1960's; Steve remembers raspberry fields lining the east side of 122nd, and once you reached Marine Drive there was nothing nearby other than cow pastures and open green farmland. Traffic was light, and grocery stores were closed by 8 p.m., so once the sun went down the streets belonged to students in cars, cruising up and down the open road.
Hamburger joints like Artic Circle on Halsey Street, and Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor, just north of there, is where the East Portland guys and gals met for food and fun â€“ when they were not driving back and forth along the drag strip. "One of my classmates, Gary Smith, drove this neat-looking Chevy Super Sport with a 327 engine," recalled Steve. Does any of this remind you of the movie "American Graffiti"? If it doesn't, this will…
While stopped at a red traffic light, side by side in their vehicles, both boys probably checked out each other's cars. Gary was driving his prized Super Sport, and Steve sat confidently behind the wheel in his Catalina. Both revved up their engines to showcase their power, and each car took its turn rattling up close to the light, waiting for the green signal." He challenged me," said Steve, "And you know, we didn't back down to anyone back then."
Once the light turned green, they were off! "Burning Rubber" and screeching north through a long stretch of the road down to Marine Drive, the roar of their car engines echoing off the Sandy Boulevard overpass as they raced neck and neck." I couldn't believe it, when I looked down at the speedometer, I had that car up to 95 miles an hour!" recalled Steve.
In the long run, though, most of these teen drivers who raced along city streets were responsible and very rarely reckless. Fortunately, not many accidents occurred. And, to cool off after an exhilarating race, the kids would stop off at Shakey's Pizza Parlor, or the A&W Root Beer on Halsey Street, for a well-deserved break from the action, and to show off their cars.
A part-time job was needed to buy that first car of course, or to pay for the upkeep and the gas needed for Saturday night excursions in it. Many students worked as a gas station attendant at one time or another; there were two or three gas stations located around each corner of busy intersections in Northeast Portland. Other Parkrose High students boxed groceries at Kienow's Market on Glisan Street or, like Steve, hired on at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor.
"I started out working the fountain at Farrell's and then helped out in the kitchen. After a few months I was promoted to waiter, and starting earning a $1.10 an hour." Plus, on some nights, Steve could earn up to $10 in tips â€“ a big night for a young man! Steve added that when he first was hired, Bob Farrell, the original owner of the iconic ice cream parlor, was the man who trained him.
Farrell's was a restaurant themed for the 1900's era. Ragtime music from a player piano entertained customers, and the boys waited tables dressed in pink-and-white-striped shirts, while the girls wore white blouses and short skirts with garter belts. The first Farrell's opened in 1963 on N.W. 21st Avenue in Portland. The second one opened at East 21st and Burnside, soon followed by the Parkrose Farrell's, near Halsey Street.
Steve's first car â€“ a faded blue two-door 1955 Chevy â€“ was used for those short jaunts to school or back to the ice cream parlor. But his most cherished possession was a 1962 canary yellow Chevy Malibu that he acquired next. His neighbor helped put in new seat cushions. "It was my dream car," sighed Steve, "Wish I still had it today."Steve has his own pulled-over-by-a-cop story. It happened when he was caught burning rubber between traffic signals. Instead of issuing a ticket, the officer ordered Steve to go home, and the officer followed him to make sure he did. Once Steve parked his car in the driveway and entered the front door, the officer stepped up to talk to his parents. "When my dad arrived," said Steve sheepishly, "The policeman said, 'I just wanted you to let you know what your son was doing on the street tonight'." What was the result? Steve vaguely remembers being grounded for a few weeks. But, Steve does clearly recall the silent look on his dad's face that seemed to say â€“ in the lyrics of the Johnny Bond and Charlie Ryan hit song in 1960 â€“ "Son, you're going to drive me to drinkin', if you don't stop driving that Hot Rod Lincoln." (The song was a hit again in 1972 by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen.)
When the 1970's arrived, the terrain of East County was rapidly changing. New housing developments were springing up east of 122nd Avenue, and the berry fields and vegetable farms that once were there were turning into commercial districts. Fast food diners like Kelly's Drive In on S.E. Division, and McDonald's on Glisan Street, were becoming a haven for students of David Douglas High; and other hamburger stands like Burger Chef, Arbys, Dandelion, and Herfy's (which had a picture of a lighted cow's head out front) came and went over the next decade.
Drag racing wasn't as thrilling as it was for the 1960s alumni, and cruising for Parkrose and Douglas High students was confined to 82nd and 122nd Avenues. As a David Douglas graduate, Dave Speer, of the class of 1970, commented, "Marine Drive was pretty scary to race on, as it was only two lanes. More than one car went into the river."
At David Douglas High, the parking lot of the Senior Building was filled with classic muscle cars and hot rod beauties. During lunchtime or after school, those who owned a car enjoyed showing it off in front of the building, with burnouts and gunning the engine. David Speer was among the students who came to watch the action, or be a part of it himself.
David drove a black 1948 Chevy Coupe that he bought from his brother, who put together the hot rod after he returned from his stint in the Service. With a 327 engine and 400 horsepower, Dave remembers that, "If you put your foot to the floor and side-stepped the clutch, it would pull the front wheels off the ground for about 20 feet. Speed was very addicting."
Lightweight cars with powerful V-8 engines became an overnight sensation. Everyone had a favorite: Chevy Camaros, Bel Aires, Ford Mustangs, and Pontiac GTOs, and they came in bright, showy colors. Part of the fun was adding accessories to your muscle car, painting it blue or red with yellow striping â€“ with decals, and spoilers in the rear, to add an extra look to your car.
Attending sport events, listening to school bands like the Aztecs of Parkrose, dancing at School "sock hop" dances, and cruising the local streets where the newest fast-food joints had suddenly appeared, by then all seemed more fun than slaving over a car engine all night in your dad's garage. Drag racing just wasn't that cool any more.
What David Douglas and Parkrose grad didn't have an 8-Track or, later, a cassette player in their ca ? A lot of free time was filled with listening to the radio â€“ especially KISN, which played the Top 40 hits. Nothin' better in the world than tuning into the station and listening to the voices of "Tiger" Tom Murphy, Dave "Records" Stone, Addie Boykins, Rod "Kangaroo" Muir. They had "far out" names, and made us laugh about life.
Okay, let's get personal: A typical weekend for a guy like me would include dressing up in bell bottom pants and a tie-dye shirt, splashing on some Hai Karate cologne (to fight off the babes), and â€“ with a carload of buddies â€“ cruise 122nd Avenue. I, myself, drove a 1972 fire-engine Red Ford Econoline Van, with chrome side pipes and mag wheels, and a rear license plate that said "Lets Boogie" on it. My good friend Jim Brandt commanded a 1969 Ford Fastback Mustang, with spoke wheels and a burgundy finish. I had this cool fake shrunken head with long red hair and a dark face that hung from my rear-view mirror.
There was a large parking lot in the San Rafael Shopping Center, between Dairy Queen and Taco Bell on 122nd, which was a gathering spot for young people after Friday Night football games or on Tuesdays after a basketball game. Parkrose dudes came to show off their wheels, and Douglas guys came to check out the local girls. Sometimes the Reynolds rowdies drove by in their fancy cars, and suddenly bragging rights broke out on both sides. But you know, it was friendly competition and nobody got hurt or landed to jail. Ah, those were the days.
By the 1980's cruising wasn't what teenagers wanted to do anymore. But it was a fun part of our lives that we'll never forget.
I can kind of feel sorry for today's young people who are missing out on such life experiences today. In conversation. we of that generation relive the sixties and seventies almost every week. Some fancy vintage Red Corvette will go racing by while we're on the way to the grocery store, and that grey-haired guy behind the wheel will remind us of some classmate we raced against. Or the make of the car will bring back good memories of what we first drove fifty years ago.
Just the other day, while I was sharing a burger and steak fries with my wife, step-daughter, and grandson, at Killer Burger in Sellwood, a familiar song was playing in the lobby as the customers waited for their order: "Somethin' Tells Me I'm Into Something Good", by Herman's Hermits â€“ and the three of us who knew the lyrics actually harmonized them pretty well together.
Teenagers at the table next to ours looked up from their phones and smiled at us. A young girl approached us and asked "That was so fun, do you belong to a singing group?"
Nope. We just belong to the Timeless Generation of the Sixties and Seventies.
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