On a bright, sunny Saturday morning in June, thousands of classic cars rolled into the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul. Thousands of them, most older than 1964, flooded the fairgrounds as far as the eye could see.
That it was the 47th Annual Minnesota Street Rod Association’s Back to the Fifties Weekend was cause enough for excitement. But that it should have been the 48th, actually added to the thrill.
“Last year we didn’t have a show because of Covid restrictions,” said Dale Sohlstrom of MSRA. And they nearly didn’t have one this year either. “They had cancelled the show initially.” With Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings still in place in early Spring, the MSRA board of directors didn’t think they’d be allowed to hold the event, and announced its cancellation for a second year in a row.
But a week later, the effectiveness of the Covid vaccine and other public health measures led state officials to start easing emergency orders against large public gatherings. With a month-and-a-half to go, the show was back on. That was a good thing, because MSRA’s yearly budget is largely funded by the show, and having already missed last year’s, a cancellation this year would have hurt badly. But it also meant organizers would have to work fast; usually this event takes a year to plan, and they now had just 6 weeks to pull it together.
“It was a big thrash! Registrations, trying to get commercial vendors, getting a marketing plan together,” said Dale. “It was a monumental task.” But organizers pulled it off, and with 9,300 cars pre registered and an estimated 11,000 total entries from 40 different states, the show was close to its pre-pandemic numbers.
Some credit the Covid lockdown as one of the drivers for this year’s attendance as people flocked to an opportunity to get out of the house and have some fun at a car show.
And what a show it was! Classics of all shapes, sizes and styles swarmed the fairgrounds. Fancy paint jobs, monster engines, and wild interiors like this one, on Brad Goff’s 1939 Chevy Master Deluxe. Grey upholstery trimmed in red piping and, of all things, segmented mirrors, it’d look right at home next to the Addams’ Family Packard. He traded a ‘59 Impala for it because of that interior, as well as the Chev’s air bag suspension that drops the car to the ground. “That’s what attracted me to it,” said Goff, who’s showing the car at Back to the Fifties for the first time. “People are coming up to me all day long,” said Brad. “Yelling at me or giving me thumbs up. There’s a few people around the car non-stop all day here.”
It’s not all American iron. Not far from Brad’s Master Deluxe is another car that Addams Family trivia buffs might recognize, a Messerschmitt KR200 like the one driven by Cousin It. This one’s owned by Steve Lenoch, and he spent the day answering questions from the crowds flocking around his post-World War II-era microcar. We’ve got more on Steve and his fascinating KR200 here.
The show grew from humble beginnings, as twelve enthusiasts got together at a small Minneapolis restaurant called the Leaning Tower of Pizza to form an umbrella group that would include car clubs throughout Minnesota. Over pizza costing as little as $1.60 a pie, they founded the Minnesota Street Rod Association. The fledgling organization would host its first Back to the Fifties gathering a few years later in 1974 as a way to show what cruising culture was like 20 years prior.
That early get-together drew around 150 cars to the local Midway shopping center for a short cruise to Porky’s Drive In restaurant a few blocks away. The cars then descended on the nearby Grandview theater just in time to parade past delighted moviegoers leaving the building after watching, what else, American Graffiti. Those attending the gathering had so much fun, they asked the organizers to do it again. They had no idea what the future held.
Since that small beginning, a lot’s changed. While the theater still stands and is celebrating its 88th year in operation, the shopping center’s gone, having made way for a soccer stadium. Porky’s, too, is no more, much to the chagrin of Twin Cities-area car buffs.
Meanwhile the Back to the Fifties weekend got so big, it had to move a little over a mile north, to the State Fairgrounds. These days, a typical weekend will see as many as 12,000 street rods packing the 322 acre site while over 100,000 people come to take in the sights. The event’s gotten big enough that organizers even set up free shuttles to bus people in and clear up some congestion on streets running past the grounds.
Back to the Fifties is a great place for even the savviest auto people to learn something new about cars. Take this, for example:
Any idea what that is? If you said a jet engine, you’re.. Well, unsurprisingly wrong. It’s actually a ram-air conditioner. Invented before modern air conditioners became common in cars, these AC’s are more accurately called swamp coolers. A reservoir of water soaks a foam pad. As the car drives forward, air gets rammed down the throat of the cooler. That air then passes through the pad, cools down, and is routed into the car. From time to time, the pad dries out, and passengers then have to pull a little rope that dunks the pad in the water reservoir. Every 150 miles or so, the driver stops and adds water to the reservoir to keep the cooler cooling. These evaporative coolers work best when the air can evaporate a lot of moisture quickly, which means they were most effective where the air is dry. That made them a common sight in the desert southwest and other arid areas of the country until more high-tech, refrigerant-based air conditioners took over.
That swamp cooler isn’t the only interesting thing about the car it’s on. The photo is only a small hint as to the dazzlingly wild paint job the owner - a self-professed amateur painter - applied to the vehicle. To learn about the ‘64 Chevy Biscayne Wagon’s owner and his completely unique, hand-made paint job, look here.
Walking the miles of streets at Back to the Fifties, there’s a surprise around every corner. Parked unassumingly behind the Department of Natural Resources building, we found this Jeepney. Veterans whose ships called at Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines will recognize it as a particularly shiny example of the makeshift buses that transported sailors on leave from ships to the bars and the, shall we say, less-than-family-friendly entertainments beckoning from the City of Olongapo. This Jeepney is a particularly nice example; check out the detail on the open-air “windows.”
Not far away was this highly-collectible 1952 “Split Window” Beetle; the “Zwitter” license plate lets people know it’s a particularly rare example of the split window era, produced only between October of ‘52 and mid-1953. These cars came about as Volkswagen was updating the Beetles to a more modern design, with an interior refresh and a one-piece oval window instead of the previous version’s split glass.
But for that short period of time the company sold cars with the new interior, and the old split window. As “zwitter” is German for “hybrid,” the nickname quickly stuck to the cars, which would later be among the most sought-after models for Beetle collectors. There’s a reason this car hasn’t been modified like most of the rides here - some cars are just too rare to mess with.
The show’s got something for everyone - even those not into so-called “normal” cars. This is a great example of a.. Well, we don’t know what it is, but it appears to have a beer tap where the radiator should be, and that’s a modification we can get behind. Responsibly, of course.
There was even a classic way to haul classic cars to the show. This retro ‘50’s ramp truck would be a perfect compliment to any street rod.
Something for Everyone
Whatever your taste in vehicles, from unmolested classics to wildly customized rolling pieces of art, you’d probably find it here amongst the thousands of cars scattered throughout the fairgrounds. You might even find one of your own, as the show’s a popular place to put a for-sale sign on a street rod.
For Dale Sohlstrom, it’s a sign of the region’s emergence from pandemic-related misery. “I think this is the largest event that’s happened in Minnesota since the lockdowns began in March of 2020,” said Dale. “People have been cooped up and I think this is something where it’s exciting to get out and be in a happy place.”
MSRA’s Back to the Fifties is over for this year, but it’s coming back for the 48th time in 2022 from Friday, June 17 to Sunday, June 19. Watch their website for information and tickets.