Ever since the first gas powered autos emerged on streets in North America, there grew a love relationship between men and cars. A few women also became smitten by the power and prestige of owning and driving their cars, but mostly it’s been a “guy thing.” Maybe it was because early on car ownership always was associated with smelly exhaust, and dirty hands and finger nails.
Following WWII, with servicemen back from the war, Southern California became the hotbed for transforming cars from the 1930s especially into hot rods where power and speed were “king.” Then, some desired to have their cars restyled to suit their own taste, and so the “custom car” craze emerged. Then, as so often occurs, what starts in California soon spreads to the rest of the USA and northward into Canada.
Information about the beginning of car clubs in Alberta and Ponoka is somewhat sketchy. In Ponoka, best estimates indicate that around 1954-55 a talented young man named Allan Erickson may have provided the “spark” to get the local hobby underway.
Working as a “lone wolf” in his parent’s garage, he created a “hot rod” from scratch. Using what seems to have been a 1932-34 Ford three-window coupe as the base, he made a host of mechanical and body work modifications including a lowered (chopped) roof and up-sized wheels driven by a “souped-up” flat head V-8 engine. To the admiring young boys and men, it was a “moving marvel in metal” and the envy of many who dreamed of having their own set of wheels.
Soon others with the means to own their own cars or trucks caught the fever and started the original Piston Poppers car club. Typically, this club was started by those who wanted to modify their engines and drive train, body work, paint and interior finishes. Not all were set on creating a hot rod. In most cases, members were interested in customizing their cars, transforming the look of their stock vehicle into an attractive and unique statement. Strutting their wheels around town gave them a certain status and was sure to attract the ladies.
The Piston Poppers car club started in the mid-1950s. Like most car clubs in Canada and the USA at that time, it was a hobby club that was formed for the purpose of sharing a love of cars with like-minded enthusiasts. Knowledge was exchanged, help on projects was offered, fun times were shared and good friendships were established. For some, it helped to forge their interest in developing a life-long career in auto mechanics, bodywork, restoration and custom car building. Clubs to this day exist for the same reasons.
The president of this club in 1956 was Thomas Hughes, who demonstrated a special talent and true enthusiasm for the craft of repairing, restoring and builidng special car and truck projects. With over 60 years to his credit in applying his skills to numerous vehicles, he remains active in the craft and the club to this day. Custom work for select clients now keeps his local shop busy. However, he is always willing to share his knowledge and experience with those who have been smitten by their love of cars and their desire to make them stand out from the crowd.
The original club continued on into the 1970s, with membership in the range of eight to 10 enthusiasts. As years passed and some members moved away, got married, had other demands on their spare money, the club became somewhat dormant. A few, however, kept working on their cars.
New life was breathed into the club in the 1980s. Today it is alive and well with 10 to 15 members including a number of semi or fully retired enthusiasts in the mix. Regular monthly meetings are held where stories and tips related to their vehicles are shared. Additionally, plans are made for the club’s annual July Pig Roast combined with a Show and Shine at the Stampede grounds to which the public is invited. Each year there is also a club weekend camp out that provides an outing for members’ families.
During the 1960 to 1963 period another club called the “Injectors” was formed. While the Piston Poppers had a group that was generally older, with some even having started real jobs, the Injectors was basically an organization of boys in their mid-to-late teens. Aside from this writer who was an original member, another eight to 10 gathered each month to discuss their car projects with each other. The “clubhouse” was in the basement of the late Oliver Mickey’s home. Being president also meant that we tended to frequently congregate on weekend evenings at his parent’s garage. We were truly grateful for his parents who were always patient and kind to these youthful “gear heads” who invaded their place regularly. Oliver was our one “go-to” guy.
Plans were made for social events, and at one point there were enough musically talented members to form a small country band. Additionally, this club acquired a Chevy coupe project car for the purpose of remodeling and entering into car shows. It qualified to show in Red Deer on one occasion, but while no trophy was won, it was considered a real winner in the minds of its teen-aged creators.
Whether a member of the Piston Poppers or the Injectors, wearing the leather and melton club jacket with your name and crossed, checkered flags on each sleeve with the club crest on the back, made a status statement around school or in town. You belonged to something important and you really did count. This was definitely not a “nickel and dime” hobby. Added to this was the coloured, metal plaque mounted on the rear bumper or hanging from the license plate that told other motorists that you were a true car guy.
Such is the mindset of young men in groups.
The lifespan of this club was short-lived, however. As members finished school and got a job, moved away to pursue a trade or get further education, or got married early and changed their spending habits, the club faded away. The Injectors never was resurrected, and now is a distant memory to be dredged up to reflect upon or record the good times once had.
Happily, for those who still desire to have a car hobby, especially if it relates to hot rods, street rods, rat rods, custom, cars or restorations, the Piston Poppers is still here and active. Great camaraderie is a key part of their organization, with automotive knowledge willingly shared.
As cars in general become increasingly sophisticated with amazing electronic and computer operated systems, and with the emerging presence of electric cars on the roadways, one wonders how long the gas guzzling vehicles we have had for so many decades will survive.
The enduring relationship between “man and machine” will likely ensure that the “personal car” will always be here. In significant ways they will be different. The throaty rumble from dual exhausts may be a computer-generated sound as opposed to engine produced, but the fascination with power, speed and style will still be here.
It may well be that auto enthusiasts, such as the members of these two clubs, will keep our long-established car club culture alive. Every time they roar or cruise down the street, or simply display the engineering, sculpture and artwork in the form of their hot rods and custom cars, we will reflect on the time when even a teenager with a few bucks, a few tools and a dream could make some changes that would transform his or her own “ride” into a “personal statement” on wheels.