What do vintage-car owners and Moab residents have in common? They all share something of incomparable beauty.
The annual April Action Car Show brings spectacular scenery together with awe-inspiring cars, producing dramatic results, like an adrenaline rush for the whole town.
It peaks on the night --hundreds of old cars predominate traffic on Main Street, igniting excitement, hoots, hollers and applause up and down the roadway for hours; then ebbs slowly over the next couple of days as these wondrous works on wheels sit idle at the park for all to admire and murmur about. Then they exit town one by one, happy drivers honking and waving goodbye as they go.
To return again next year for the annual indulgence -- a caravan cruise to Dead Horse Point.
About 600 vintage automobiles begin arriving in Moab on Wednesday before the weekend event, and by the time all the registrants arrive -- sometimes in caravans coming from other shows elsewhere -- in addition to others who come to participate but aren’t registered, Moab has been known to host upwards of 1,000 or more vintage automobiles.
As car-show organizer Rod Petty said, “Moab has gone on the map as a car-friendly town.”
This year the show is April 24-27. And it’s all free to the public -- except the barbecue, of course.
Moab got national exposure as a must-see side trip for vintage car owners in 1990 when Great American Race participants travelled the river road enroute from New York to California.
Scenic Highway 128 was the only Utah stretch included in the eighth annual event, produced by Great Race Ltd. of Dallas, Texas. The timed race brought 101 antique vehicles to Moab, which served as a one-hour pit stop for the racers.
Their arrival marked the 10th day of a 13-day tour that started with 120 participants June 24 in White Plains, N.Y., and ended with a celebration at Disneyland. Among participants in the 4,000-mile race was a 1914 America LaFrance speedster, Frito-Lay’s first potato chip delivery truck, a 1936 Scarab Stout, and a 1936 Lincoln Towncar that once carried U.S. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.
A 1924 Bentley roadster crossed the finish line first, followed by 89 others that completed the transcontinental trek.
Participants pay $35 to register with the show’s sponsor, the Rod Benders Club. Much of the proceeds benefit local high school students in a scholarship fund -- and the local Lions Club joins with Smitty’s Golden Steak Restaurant to host a barbecue for $10 per person. Most of the Lions Club fundraising for local projects comes from the car show barbecue, according to Petty, Rod Benders president.
The April Action Car Show, now in its 16th year, first attracted 250 cars, which at the time was the third-largest show in the state, Petty said. It grew to more than 1,000 automobiles in 2003 -- a year remembered by the club president as “chaos.”
With so many registrants anticipated, the club had decided that year to have Main Street closed off to non-participating motorists for a uniquely vintage Saturday night cruise. Local law enforcement was supportive, and spectators set up curbside chairs, tables and tail-gate picnics throughout the day, along both sides the length of Main.
That year will be rememered ruefully as an experiment gone awry. Old cars dragging Main Street, some equipped with explosive mufflers and others spewing fire like dragons -- all uniquely designed and painted -- drew a crowd that grew increasingly excited, unruly and rowdy as darkness descended.
“We found that ‘1,000’ wasn’t enough Main Street,” Petty said. “Sometimes the best-made plans don’t work out.”
Because Moab itself wasn’t home to a lot of old-car owners in the early ‘90s -- as far as Petty could tell -- and the town is rather remote in an area, he’d figured for “an ugly desert” before moving here, he’d surmised that the more-established vintage auto clubs and owners from areas such as Logan, Grand Junction, Colo., and Farmington, N. Mex., would be reluctant to drive out of their way to an unfamiliar area to attend a fledgling event.
“We were very concerned because we were going to have a car show and had no track record.” His wife, JoAnn, the club’s secretary-treasurer, got on the internet and contacted every car club she could find, the club sent out hundreds of flyers, and every member worked hard at word-of-mouth.
“Very much to my surprise, we got a good turnout,” Petty recalled. “We received really big support from Farmington. They have a good convention of classic old cars. There’s also a big contingency of old cars from the mining days -- ‘muscle’ cars, and ‘50s cars. Cars from ‘64 to ‘72 were the best muscle-car years.
“And what made it work was we had a really dedicated group of people. Members, past and present, have always done their best to make it happen.”
The Rod Benders Club, initially just a group of 18 to 20 local enthusiasts or hobbyists who “were just hanging out at the park” in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, formalized as a nonprofit in August 2002 and produced the first car show in April 1993.
After that, “It just grew and grew and grew every year. It got bigger and bigger...and it did by leaps and bounds,” remembers Andrea Winters, one of the charter members whose late husband, “Duke,” co-founded the club.
The reason for the popularity of the Moab show is simple, she said. “It’s unique. It’s in Moab. People just like to come to Moab. There was an energy.”
The Winters owned his-and-hers 1934 Chevrolet trucks that Duke re-built from the chassis up, both painted blue. Duke bought his truck for $25 in Colorado about 40 years ago, his wife recalled. He drove it home and from that point, Duke in his Chevy was a common sight around Moab.
“The other one, we found in Durango and I think we paid $400 for it about 20 years ago,” Winters said. After her husband passed away, she sold both vehicles and watched as a father and son from Tacoma headed back to Washington with her truck in tow on the back of a trailer.
“That guy was just floating on air,” she said. Chevy trucks from that era are hard to find, because “they’re just all rusted out” and the trucks were built with wooden frames that rotted. “As far as finding parts for them, it’s pretty hard,” she said.
Duke Winters’ truck is still being driven around, in Ogden, she said. The couple spent many thousands of dollars restoring their trucks, and she felt good about getting $8,000 for her original investment of $25. But money is beside the point with old-car owners, she and other local owners insist.
Petty, who is retired from the National Park Service, owns a ‘37 Ford coupe that is 90% restored. Many spend a lot of time and money on their “hobby,” but don’t like to admit how much. Others point out that you don’t have to own an old car to love them, and that being an enthusiast is no hobby.
“It’s a way of life; it’s just who I am,” said Sam Welch, another Rod Bender charter member. He is still working on his first project, a 1928 Model A roadster pickup truck that he bought at age 14 for $15, out of a barn in Arkansas in 1956. An internationally-renowned engraver, Welch has replaced the shifter knob in his ‘28 Model A with an engraved 1849 Colt pocket pistol as a special touch.
Welch and Petty both grow eloquent when describing the charms of vintage automobiles, and they have no doubt that restoration of old cars -- and the desire to drive them to shows, to show them off, and to inspire and see reactions of others --will never die, no matter how high gas prices rise.
Petty also works on a 1927 roadster and said he has collected enough parts to rebuild an old firetruck. Welch’s son has told him that if he has to spend all his money in old age and leave no inheritance, that’s OK -- as long as he doesn’t get rid of the old cars.
As Welch put it: “The young guys look at the old cars and say, ‘Boy, I sure wish I had one of those.’ And the old guys say, ‘Boy, I sure wish I’d kept the one I had.”
“I’d much rather have an old one than a new one,” he said. “Old cars were built with character. Now you can’t tell cars from each other. Old cars have personality -- and besides, I’d rather do it myself. I’ve been working on my Model A for 21 years now. It’s slow, but the fun is in the building.”
“The building, and the camaraderie,” Petty added. “That’s what makes it worthwhile: camaraderie, working on cars, and helping make a difference in the community.”