There were some butterflies rumbling around my stomach as I rumbled down Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon in a 1971 Chevrolet El Camino for my first classic car show and scanned the pristine automobiles parked along the street.
It wasn’t the competition against all of these other antique vehicles that had me nervous, but instead, how was I going to back this boat into a parking space without dinging someone else’s ride?
Then I saw a wide-open space right in front of the Mt. Lebanon Municipal Building and thought its cool art deco design would make a great backdrop for my antique green El Camino. A man with a big white beard wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a wide-brimmed straw hat motioned me over and welcomed me to angle my vehicle next to his 1967 Pontiac GTO.
“All right, turn just a little bit more. OK, pull back up. There ya go.”
He introduced himself as John Bacha as he stood next to his gorgeous fire engine red convertible with the top down and a stuffed tiger perched on the back. We struck up a conversation and I soon learned that the Mt. Lebanon resident portrays Santa Claus during the holidays and even has a replica driver’s license for his other ride, which obviously is a sleigh.
I told him how this was my first ever car show with the El Camino that my Uncle Doug in South Carolina had left for me after he passed away last year. While I’ve been to many shows in the past, this was the first time I’ve been a participant, so I asked John what his favorite part is about coming to these classic car cruises.
“You see other cars. You make friends. You get to see people,” he told me.
And that’s exactly what we did for the next five hours on a sunny Sunday in Mt. Lebanon’s downtown business district that was closed to traffic for the car show and block party. My mother, Kathy, accompanied me to the show and found a nearby bench under a shade tree on the sidewalk. We sat there most of the day and watched people stream through and take a gander at the El Camino before moving on.
A young family came up and I overheard the father explaining to his daughters that it’s both a car and a truck. The young girls were full of questions with wonderment in their eyes.
“It’s the mullet of classic cars,” I said referring to the vehicle having a car’s front end with a pickup bed in the back.
Children seem to be most curious about it because they’ve never seen anything like it in their brief lifetimes.
Known as a “cruck” because of its car-truck appearance, the El Camino, which means “The Road” or “The Way” in Spanish, has always been my favorite classic car because it’s so weird. Chevrolet introduced it in 1959 as a response to the popular Ford Ranchero, and it eventually became more muscle car than work truck before the manufacturer discontinued it in 1987 due to slumping sales.
My Uncle Doug and I bonded over them. While visiting him in Myrtle Beach for yearly summer vacations, we often went to car shows on the lookout for an elusive El Camino that seems to be more prevalent in the south than it does around these parts. He had three when he passed away in March 2021 and left me one of them. I’ve promised my Aunt Cricket to keep his memory alive by sharing his story with everyone I meet who sees his classic automobile.
Many of the owners at these classic car shows sit near their vehicles and swap stories with enthusiasts and curious onlookers. I eventually asked John for his advice on how to fix a malfunctioning door handle, and a few minutes later two of his friends with the local Pontiac car club came up to offer their ideas. Pretty soon, they made me feel like I was part of their classic car inner circle.
It was a whirlwind weekend for my El Camino’s introduction to Western Pennsylvania.
The day before Sunday’s classic car show in Mt. Lebanon, I drove it in the Whiskey Rebellion Festival parade and waved to the crowd gathered in Downtown Washington. I spent years marching in parades with my high school and college drumlines, but seeing family and friends while rolling down South Main Street and past the Observer-Reporter building where I work as a staff writer was an experience I’ll never forget.
I grew up in Mt. Lebanon and reside in Washington now, so debuting my classic car at these two events was especially meaningful to me.
As the car show was wrapping up Sunday afternoon, the judges scurried up to the El Camino and began inspecting it. There are some rust spots behind the front wheels and the paint is chipping in a few places, so I already knew going in that it probably wouldn’t win any awards. I chatted with the judges and asked one of them an open-ended question about what I should do with the vehicle, assuming he’d give me advice on how to improve it for future competitions.
“Enjoy the hell outta it,” the judge told me with a smile.
And that’s exactly what I intend to do.