Fins, chrome and axle grease, discover the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant car culture
Folks in Washington state love their classic car shows. In fact, it’s hard to put a number on how many vintage and classic car shows, meet ups and cruises happen statewide every year. Do a Google search on your own. The count runs into the hundreds.
“We car people like to show off our cars and brag on them,” said Seattle resident Lance Lambert of the appeal. Lambert hosted 465 episodes of the syndicated Vehicle Vintage Show from 1993 until 2016. He also started a number of classic car events around the Puget Sound that are still going strong. Lambert estimates that about 30 car shows are held every weekend from Tacoma and Everett between May through October.
Classic car shows are a great way for classic car hobbyists and tinkerers to exchange ideas, and for car loving “civilians” without an old Chevy or GTO in the garage to learn about cars from the people who love them. The outdoor events are often free to spectators, while car owners usually pay a fee to display the car. The proceeds are often donated to a nonprofit.
“If you show an interest in someone’s car, you may get five minutes, or you may get 25 minutes of history and everything about the car,” Lambert said. “But it’s a very friendly group.”
Given the interest in old cars and custom rods, as well as the large number of clubs and shows around the state, Washington’s car culture is a worthy topic to explore. Read on to learn about why there are so many classic car shows in Washington, plus see some notable car shows held throughout the year.
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Issaquah’s beehive of classic cars
People will dispute where the state’s most passionate car owners live, but ground zero for car shows is undisputedly the Triple XXX Drive-In in Issaquah about 20 miles east of Seattle. Almost every Sunday morning from the spring through fall, Pontiacs, Buicks, Chevys, Corvettes, a rare Datsun or classic Honda — every and all types of classic cars and rods — can be spotted chugging down I-90 bound for the distinctive red barrel sign that looms over the diner’s roof.
Owner José Enciso bought the restaurant in 1999, and started hosting more and more classic car shows as the drive-in became popular with the car clubs. The previous owners also held car events going back even further (Triple XXX has been in its present location since 1968), but not nearly as many.
In July 2023 alone, Triple XXX will host The Hot Rod Hall of Fame, the Shelby and Mustang Car Show, the Camaro Car Show, the Rat Bastards Car Show and the Corvette Car Show. The diner hosts more than 30 Sunday shows per year from May through October, and a few Saturday cruises.
Cars fill up the lot before 7, spilling over into the surrounding properties. The drive-in’s neighbors allow the use of their lots on Sundays. The number of cars and spectators varies each week.
“It all depends on the type of cars, also, it depends on the weather,” Enciso said. “You are talking about anywhere from 500, 800, 1,000 cars. It becomes a beehive of classic cars.”
The drive-in’s interior matches the early-Rock ‘n Roll vibe of the classic car shows outside, with walls covered with license plates, buttons, memorabilia from the 50s, 60s and 70s; and a long-time staff serving burgers that spare no calories and a root beer made with sugarcane from a 1930s recipe.
Enciso, originally from Mexico, is a car lover, too.
“We couldn’t afford toys like American kids, so my dad would wrap twine around a stone and we would pull them,” Enciso said. “It symbolized the truck and trailer that pulled the trailer full of cotton. That was our toy. I’ve grown to love them and totally appreciate them. They are not just classic cars, they are pieces of art.”
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Classic cars and retro vibes
Marvin Nielsen, president of both the Issaquah-based Sunset Highway Cruisers and the Washington State Hot Rod Hall of Fame, has been organizing car shows at the Triple XXX Drive-In for 27 years. He recalls that a few years ago he was at a show with his restored ’57 Chevy, and he noticed a woman walking around his car a few times with her hands in her pockets. She finally crouched down and looked inside, and Nielsen figured his car must have sparked a strong feeling.
“I walked up to her, opened the door and said, ‘It looks like you better sit down for a while with your memories,” Nielsen said. “She had a big smile on her face, and got in the car. I shut the door and said, ‘You are welcome to turn on the radio if you like and enjoy your stay here.’ She was there for about two hours. When I walked over there, she was crying.”
Nielsen says he hears a lot of stories at car shows. “People go, ‘Oh, grandpa had one of those only it was grey,’” he said. “People have a connection with those old cars, and the people who owned them, and that is what I like. I love to talk to the people. The backstory on some of these cars is unbelievable.”
Washington’s growing love of classic cars
Washington state didn’t always have this many classic car shows, Lambert said. Car events were rarer when he taped the first episode of his TV program in the summer of 1993 at a Friday night cruise in the A&W parking lot on Aurora Avenue in north Seattle. He went on to interview almost every big wheel in the collector car community, including celebrities (Jay Leno appeared twice on the show).
Lambert’s long-running TV show is proof of the popularity of cars and car events in Washington state and everywhere. Ultimately, the program ran on 100 stations nationwide on cable, commercial and PBS stations, and broadcast in 27 foreign markets. It’s still in reruns and has its own YouTube channel.
“Back then you would have one or two shows locally a weekend, but it just kept growing and growing,” Lambert said. “Then, when schools and charities found out that they could make $5,000 at a car show as opposed to $500 at a bake sale, they started paying attention.”
Generally speaking, a large portion of the proceeds of a car show (if not all) goes to a nonprofit. Some of these events have been known to raise as much as $20,000 for a good cause in an afternoon.
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Cars and coffee: A Pacific Northwest blend
Cars and Coffee events have been gaining popularity in recent years in the classic car scene. These are informal short gatherings of car enthusiasts on a Saturday or Sunday. They are a bit different than traditional car shows, which tend to start early and last the entire day.
Lambert says he regularly attends the Cars & Coffee event in Shoreline, where people ride in and park for two hours Sunday mornings.
“You can go there, kick some tires, meet some friends, go home at 10 o’clock, and you have the rest of your day,” Lambert said. “It is one of the reasons they are so popular, and they are free.”
Tip: If you’re visiting a car show for the first time, don’t touch the car. This is considered poor etiquette. Plus, car owners tend to be wary of dogs, baby strollers and bicycles, which have been known to scratch cars at events.
Take your love of classic cars on the road
Car shows are a great way to meet fellow car enthusiasts. The car clubs are looking for new members to take an interest in classic cars and get into the hobby.
Nielsen, for one, is optimistic that car enthusiasts will keep up the tradition. He points out that Fenders on Front Street, a big show held on Father’s Day in Issaquah in June, draws people of all ages.
“There’s a thousand people walking up and down the street with their kids,” Nielsen said. “The kids are enjoying it. You just hear the stories and see the smiles, that is what it is all about.”
Road trip-worthy classic car shows
Car collectors have countless options to show off their vehicle. For spectators, certain shows are more accessible than others.
Some shows specialize in certain vehicles, such as shows dedicated to Mustangs, Corvettes or foreign models. Many shows, especially big shows, tend to be open to all types of vehicles.
Here’s a sampling of road trip-worthy classic car shows to explore. All are free for spectators.
This big show is always held on Father’s Day in June at the Triple XXX Drive-In and surrounding properties. Hundreds of classic and vintage car owners participate, with live music, vendors and an awards ceremony.
This an annual summer show is billed as the biggest and best one-day show in the Pacific Northwest. Typically, there are 800 to 1,200 cars or more, and thousands of spectators attend.
This weekly show is held every Saturday (weather permitting) from 9-11 a.m. at the Redmond Town Center from April to October. (While the meet up is billed as informal, the organizers point out that there are rules on who can display vehicles.)
This annual summer event is in downtown Sumner. This year, it’s 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Aug. 6 on Main Street. Spectators can vote for their favorite car.
This is a big show that is held on the Saturday in Eastmont Park in May during Wenatchee’s Apple Blossom Weekend.
Want to grow your child’s interest in cars and potentially inspire a future mechanical engineer? Consider a visit to LeMay America’s Car Museum in Tacoma and use your AAA Washington membership to get a discount. Plus, the museum offers hands-on programs where kids and families can learn about cars and even tinker with them.
—Written by AAA Washington staff
—Top photo: Marcus Badgley/AAA Washington