VISTA — Things have come a long way since 1978 when Joe Free and three friends drove their classic cars to the Pepper Tree Frosty in downtown Vista for some burgers, creating their own impromptu car show. This year’s 22nd annual Burger Run brought in more than 400 classic cars and countless spectators to the iconic burger and ice cream shop Jan. 10.
With vintage vehicles of all types spilling out from the Pepper Tree and into the adjoining streets and adjacent church parking lot, it was hard to imagine just how small the early events were.
“When I first started coming to the Burger Runs, six of us sat on the picnic tables … and it was dirt from the back of the building back,” Rocky Brown said. He has participated in the event since he drove his ’57 Nomad to the third Burger Run in 1980. “You had to get here early enough and beat your buddies here so you didn’t have to park in the dirt.”
These days, Free is still running the event, charging just $10 to bring in a vehicle. Other places charge up to $75, and they don’t offer a T-shirt — or a chance at some of the nicest trophies available.
Of course, one would think money would be of little object to these collectors. Car restoration has become a pricey hobby, according to Terry Newman, a veteran of 17 Burger Runs and secretary for North County’s Little Guys Street Rods.
“Back in the early days, there were things you’d build in your own garage, parts that you’d get at the junkyard,” Newman said. “Now with all these after market companies, people are putting $100, $200, $300,000 bucks in their car. It’s crazy!”
Exhibitor Jim Gerrard said that he has put a good bit of money into his pride and joy, a ‘53 Chevy wagon with the engine and transmission of a vintage Corvette. He bought the car for fun five years ago, upgrading from a 6 cylinder to a V8.
“This class (of car) is a ‘sleeper’ — you look at it from the outside it just looks like Grandma’s car,” he said. On the road, the power from the big, fuel-injected engine makes itself plainly evident, Gerrard explained with not a little pride.
Rob Remy has $20,000 invested in his classic car, a ‘71 El Camino. It was his first car, bought from his grandfather when he was 16 for just $1,000. Now Remy is looking to sell the beautifully restored vehicle, though he recognizes the market may be slow for a while.
“I want to get $89,000 for it, but I don’t think it’s going to sell for $89,000,” he said.
Many collectors get nostalgic about their first cars. If they aren’t lucky enough, like Remy, to still own them, they find similar vehicles. Rocky Brown’s trophy-winning ‘32 wood-paneled Chevy wagon was such a project.
“I drove a ‘32 to high school in 1962,” Brown said. “I built it when I was 16 and I always wanted it back but could never afford it.” Brown was so fond of the car that he purchased two of them, both of which he displayed at the Burger Run this year along the ‘57 Nomad, which he’s owned since 1977. Brown noted that he’s put more time than money into his labors of love, reconstructing the cars in his Leucadia garage.
Both of the wagons have modern Corvette engines in them, and they get driven regularly, Brown said. Because of this, Brown has stuck to modern parts and accessories.
“I paint all my cars colors you can go buy right at the dealer because when you drive a car, they’re going to get hit, they’re going to get banged,” he said.
In a time when stores are closing and commerce is shrinking, the Burger Run is growing. Brown’s contribution is no exception. Only half of his collection made it to the event this year because he didn’t have enough drivers.
“I’d love one year to have all of them lined up at the Burger Run,” he said.