Cruisin’ with the classics

09/16/2010 12:00 AM |

The increasingly popular cruise nights on the Peconic Riverfront will continue every Thursday through October.

Judging by the look of Robert Nardi’s shiny blue 1930 Model A Ford roadster, one might think this was 80 years ago — and that the car’s owner had just driven it off the dealership lot.

“I just had it refinished,” Mr. Nardi, 78, of Flanders, said while sitting in a lawn chair and smoking a cigar on the banks of the Peconic River on a recent Thursday. “When people look at it, they can’t believe how old it is.” He said the car contains all original parts, right down to the wooden luggage rack.

Mr. Nardi counts himself among the hundreds of people who have been flocking to the Peconic riverfront to show off classic convertibles, roadsters and coupes at a weekly Thursday night car show, called a cruise night.

Autos dating from the 1930s, muscle cars from the 1960s and even late-model sports cars sat side by side along the riverfront that day as a DJ played doo-wop music and children lined up to have their faces painted. Many say they linger after the car show, which is free to the public, to grab a drink or a bite to eat at local restaurants. The event will run through October and resume next spring.

But Thursdays on the Peconic River did not always look this way.

For the past six years, Thursday cruise nights were held in a shopping center parking lot on Route 25A in Wading River.

But after the Riverhead News-Review ran a feature story on cruise night in May, the owner of the Wading River King Kullen shopping center told participants they were no longer welcome to host their impromptu classic car shows in his parking lot. Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter then invited the car enthusiasts to showcase their wheels in his downtown.

The Riverhead Business Improvement District agreed to take on the responsibility of organizing and advertising the event. They have also invited businesses within the district to sell food there.

The first week, only a handful of people showed up, according to car enthusiast John Kleedorfer. Mr. Kleedorfer said he and his friends, who had enjoyed the weekly cruise night since its inception, were dismayed when they were asked to leave Wading River.

“I was annoyed,” he said. “We had something that was nice. It was quiet, it was low-key.”

But he said he never worried they would find an alternative location.

“We’re used to it,” he said. “Car guys, we roll with the punches.”

And though the weekly event in Riverhead got off to a slow start, it has since grown even bigger than the Wading River gatherings.

“We’ve had upwards of 300 cars,” said Ray Pickersgill, president of the Riverhead Business Improvement District. “On average, we get at least 200.”

Organizers of the Wading River cruise night said that on a good night, that event only drew about 100 people.

“This actually turned out to be a better spot,” said Dan Russo of Mattituck, who used to travel to the Wading River location. Mr. Russo, who was showing off the 1970 Plymouth Road Runner he’d dreamed of owning since he was a kid, said he’s made many friends over the years attending car shows like the one in Riverhead. “Not only do you get to show your car off,” he said. “You meet a lot of people.”

A few cars down, Laura Dickerson and her husband, Jim, of Southold, were showing off her hot pink 1968 Dodge Dart, appropriately named “The Pink Panther.” The couple bought the car for just $400 and Mr. Dickerson and their son worked together to restore it.

“Everybody looks at it,” she said. “I feel like a big shot.”

That “big shot” feeling is precisely what draws people out Thursday evenings to exchange car-related stories and take a trip down memory lane.

“We enjoy it,” Ms. Dickerson said. “It’s a night out.”

What has been good for local car lovers has certainly been great for downtown business. Many of those in attendance said they picked up a slice from Julia’s Pizzeria on East Main Street or planned to visit Digger O’Dell’s after the event.

“It’s people who have disposable money and that’s great,” Mr. Pickersgill said. “Out of all the things we’ve done downtown, cruise night has been one of our most successful.”

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