If you’ve passed the parking lot on State Street near the intersection with Main on a Saturday morning, you’ve probably noticed 10-20 unusual cars parked there.
Some of the cars are so old that few of us were alive when they were built. Some are so unusual that most people will never see them outside of automotive history books or an auto show.
Those who own these cars meet just about every weekend for what’s become a tradition in the downtown village – almost like the Pet Parade or Festival of Lights Parade, but not nearly as organized. The group, started with a casual conversation at the Los Altos Fall Festival’s annual car show nearly 10 years ago, doesn’t even have a formal name. Regulars refer to themselves as “Donut Derelicts,” taking our name from a similar group already gathering in Burbank when we had our first get-together in the rear of Main Street Cafe & Books and the adjoining parking lot on State Street.
Our only objective was to share our love of classic, collectible and just plain unusual cars – of which there seemed to be a great many around Los Altos. Someone had noticed that the back parking lot of the cafe (which sits under the Town Crier’s office) was usually empty early Saturday mornings, and the shop had an area in back where we could meet over coffee and share information about our cars.
We decided to get together the following Saturday morning to see if anyone was interested. At that first meeting, there were probably 15 cars in the parking lot and about that many enthusiasts around the table.
During that first conversation, we decided that it would be too complicated to have one specific Saturday every month, because that would be hard to remember among a group with many retired people who barely looked at their calendars. So we decided simply that there would be a gathering on any Saturday when anyone came.
Similarly, we talked about getting organized, and everyone decided that was a bad idea – there were already too many organized groups, and organization would mean officers, bylaws and elections. None of that seemed necessary if the only point was to look at cars and talk about cars in a specific place every Saturday morning.
And that’s the way the group has existed. Since that first gathering, there has never been a Saturday when there weren’t at least 10 people around the table, and sometimes the number exceeds 30.
Similarly, there have been cars in the parking lot every Saturday morning, except when the space is needed for a street festival or parade.
To wander through the parking lot on any given Saturday is to see the widest range of automobiles that anyone can (or has been able to) imagine. Spanning 100 years, we might have a 1904 Franklin with its air-cooled two-cylinder engine and crank starter at one end of the lot, and a new Dodge Viper or Ferrari super car at the other.
Spanning technologies, we might see one of the first gasoline-powered Ford Model Ts that were the basis of the American automobile industry, and that same weekend, see a pair of Sparrows – one-person vehicles manufactured for a very brief time in Gilroy – now converted to battery power.
Size doesn’t seem to be a limiting factor, either. One of the regulars has driven his Peel, the smallest road-legal four-wheel production car ever built and roughly one-quarter the length of one of the Packards or Cadillacs that frequently makes an appearance.
And as everyone insists, this is not a contest among show vehicles. One of the regular cars is a Pierce-Arrow from the mid-1930s, jointly owned by three of the regulars, that won its class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the most prestigious automobile show in the country. But one of its owners might just as likely drive up in a running, but completely unrestored, Jaguar XK120, parking it next to an equally rusty but equally dependable old Dodge stepside pickup truck or a Lancia in similar condition.
Ownership is an interesting conversation topic as well. Some of our regulars pride themselves on the new cars they find on the market, often buying and selling classic cars for the fun of enjoying something new and different. A Bizzarini showed up a few weeks ago, and even the most experienced aficionados had to sneak over to check out the name on the rear deck before they could tell what it was.
On the other extreme, one of the regulars takes pride in driving the lovely Jaguar XK140 he bought new when he got out of the service after the Korean War in 1954. Even more fun, one of the younger members sometimes drives to the gathering in a Nash Auto that his father drove as a demonstrator car when he was a salesman for the Nash dealership on Van Ness Avenue in the mid-1930s.
But what do we talk about around the table? Sure, the most typical topic has to do with cars. We share information on where to get a particular part repaired or how to take care of some common problem. We share information about upcoming car events, and the group is the source of most of those cars you see at the Los Altos History Museum celebrations, in the Pet Parade or at the Los Altos Hills annual picnics.
There’s also the pleasure of sharing things that we’ve found, whether it’s a scrapbook of pictures of the car dealerships in San Francisco before World War II or an unusual old part with which we can play “What Is It?”
Conversations often flow into nostalgia, remembering what it was like in a world of dial telephones, manual typewriters and gas pumps at service stations with a bell that rang when you drove in and a fill-up that came with a check of oil, water and tire pressure. However, the group might just as often compare features on new iPhones or discuss the ins and outs of setting up a home Wi-Fi system.
Of course, with the broad range of interests and depth of education that is typical of this area, conversations can flow to politics and the state of the world, but usually when those topics start to come up, someone suggests that we all adjourn to the parking lot to see what someone has done to their car, or discuss that new (to us) car that has just driven in.
If you’ve got a newer or older car that’s the slightest bit out of the ordinary, you should drop by with it on a Saturday morning and join us. If it’s not running, come anyhow and someone might be able to offer some advice on how to get it back out on the road.
And if you’re just downtown on a Saturday morning – between 9 and 11 a.m. – stop by and look at the cars. Show them to your children to help them understand the evolution of technology, or just to tell them what it was like when mom and dad, or grandma and granddad, drove a car just like this one. We guarantee you’ll be welcomed, and there’s never an admission charge or dues to be collected.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.