Crusin' the gut in Lansing 60s style


On a warm night in the summer of 1960, the black two door coupe inched north on Washington Avenue at idle speed with a slight jostling due to the dense brown paver bricks laid down on the roadbed a century before. On the journey the coup had recently passed the Grand Trunk Western railroad depot, Dog 'n Suds, and The Trio. Located within the procession of many cars, the coupe came to a stop at a red light with Arbaugh's on the starboard side. The distinctive odor of burned high octane gas laden with lead tetraethyl was prominent in the air. On this night, it was going to take some time getting to the other end of Washington Avenue.

After a commercial, Erik-O punctuated the airwaves with a vinyl of Jack Scott's ballad "What In The World's Come Over You." Three minutes later the platter was spinning with the Everly Brothers singing "Cathy's Clown." Erik O. Furseth was the local DJ. He played all the top songs of the current generation in prime time as well as hosting the NTC dance at the Civic Center on Saturday nights. Most radio dials were tuned to WILS 1320 AM. In fact, the WILS office was on Washington Avenue so there was no static in the transmission.

There seemed to be two themes prevalent on the strip; show up - or show up to show off. On a nice Friday or Saturday night, there were hundreds of cars of all varieties. This was the dawn of the muscle car era. The Daytona 500 was won by a 1959 Oldsmobile driven by Lee Petty. Chevy had a 348 cubic inch (ci) engine, with a 409 ci coming in the fall of 1960. Oldsmobile had the 394 ci Rocket engine with three carburetors called the J-2 option. Pontiac offered a tri-power, also with three carbs. And then there were the street rods with all kinds of engine modifications. Glass pack mufflers and cutouts added a 'Va-rooom' clearly audible to nearby cruisers and bystanders. Most of these cars could pass anything but a gas station.

However, the vehicle of choice was most often whatever you could talk mom and dad into borrowing for the evening. If a group of guys or girls were heading to town for this purpose, you worked hardest on the parents that had the coolest ride. If a convertible (yes, I was lucky) was available, it was a high priority. If it wasn't, the newest and most highly equipped (radio a must) hardtop would suffice. More chrome was better than less. Whitewalls were better than blackwalls. And if you were a group of guys, as soon as you were out of the subdivision, off came the hubcaps and out came the towel to clean the dust off the bare rims. This made the car look as if it had been to the dragstrip up the road in Stanton.

Washington Avenue was two lanes going both north and south. And by 8 p.m. it was pretty much solid traffic both ways. This venue was populated by kids from all three Lansing high schools. And you could tell by looking at the license plates, or the selling dealer decals affixed to the back of the car, that many of the cruisers were also from out of town. In a way it became a rite of passage for many mid-Michigan teenagers with a fresh driver's license in their wallet. I guess it was a way to be social within your car group without socializing with other car groups. Not that the latter didn't happen, but it certainly was not the rule.

Since passing Arbaugh's, we've heard "Tom Dooley" (Kingston Trio), "I'm Sorry" (Brenda Lee), "Only The Lonely" (Roy Orbison), "Mack The Knife" (Bobby Darin), "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (The Platters) and a couple of commercials coming from the broadcast tower in downtown Lansing. I think Erik-O, our resident Wolfman Jack, had those 45s all queued up on one player as he organized a second one. On our journey north up Washington Avenue we passed by several businesses: The Michigan Theatre, The Peanut Shoppe (still there), Kwast Bakery, Lieberman's, American Bank & Trust, and the Senate Grill to name a few.

The turnaround point was the old Michigan Historical Museum nearly to Saginaw Street. You had to make a left and then a right onto Capitol and meander clockwise just before Saginaw and take another right to get back on Washington to go south. This point was the most congested of the whole route. Police were always there to catch you making any mistake that would merit a ticket. I once got one for failing to put on my turn signal while I was stopped waiting to turn left. It was a well-known fact that the locals did not take a fancy to all the traffic that cruisers generated.

Once back on the strip and heading south, we pass The Gladmer Theatre, Kositchecks (still there), W.T. Grant, The Bank of Lansing, Knapp's, San Souci, Maurice's, and Penny's (first escalator in town). But rather than noticing the surrounding businesses, one might be more occupied with lip syncing the lyrics to "Save The Last Dance For Me" by The Drifters.

I can't imagine how many gallons of gas were burned during this ritual on any given weekend night. On an inflation basis, gas was more expensive in 1960 than it is today. I don't know how this played out with all the rides, but on our voyage everyone was expected to pony up his fair share. Some parents knew exactly what the gas gauge read when their car left the driveway and they expected the gauge to read the same when it returned. I wondered if some parents realized the lawnmower gas can contained less after cruise night? We tried that stunt sevral times and it worked - or at least 'appeared' to work.

American Graffiti, which was filmed in 1962, was in many ways a parallel snapshot of downtown Lansing during the late '50s and early '60s. And just like the movie, once in awhile a car race emanated from braggart face talk that took place on the "gut." Lots of mini drag races happened on Michigan Avenue about halfway between the Capitol Building and Sears. And a few longer ones ended up on old Lansing Road, which runs off modern day I-69. Some of those had unintended consequences.

Throughout history teenagers have always had their hangouts, whether it's a dance, a party, drive-in or a sporting event. Remember Sully's on West Saginaw? For many cruisers it was a destination that had a cliquish following before or after the cruise. As the dudes might say - be there or be square. It was not cool to park in that drive-in lot in the regular manner. All cars had to be backed into the spaces so the grille was pointing toward the incoming/outgoing traffic. That way, you could check out exactly who was or had been in attendance.

The "gut" was just another outlet for an excuse to gather. Beginning with our generation, cars became a far more important commodity. We cruised in them, we ate in them at drive-in restaurants, and we took them to drive-in movies. Cars used to be a more basic mode of transportation, something to get you from point A to point B with no frills. But starting in the mid '50s, with better styling (that changed each year) and better mechanicals/appointments such as carpeting, automatic transmissions, more reliable engines, radios and heaters - the car became much more than basic transportation. It became an extension of your personality. Many guys even had names for their cars, often emblazoned on the top of the rear fender quarter panel. Rusty Bourquin's car had the sobriquet "Scrap Iron," which was spot on for that ride.

That car era, as we knew it, is gone forever. But nonetheless it was a fun episode in our life for those cultish cruisin' participants.

Before cycling the route again, the black coup and its occupants continued south a bit farther and made a pit stop for a Coney dog and an iced mug of foamy root beer at the A&W. There was no need to shift into second gear upon rejoining the incessant stream of cars. First gear would be just fine.

Now on the trivia side: What do the letters A&W stand for? The "A" stands for Roy Allen and the "W" stands for Frank Wright, the two men who founded the company in 1919. Allen owned a drug store and got the recipe from a retired pharmacist. Wright was an employee of that store. Root Beer was beginning to become popular so these pharma guys decided there was money to be made distributing it en masse. The next guy who got on the bandwagon was named Hires who was more of a snake oil salesman, but cashed in on his namesake in spades.

So now as WILS signs off for the evening, Erik-O spins the signature-ending song, "Goodnight Sweetheart," by The Spaniels, a signal that it's time for our cruising to tone down and think about heading homeward.

Lyrics from a song by Mary Hopkin: "Those were the days my friend. I thought they'd never end." However they did, but the nostalgia still lingers amongst the heretofore participants. The idiom "All Good Things Must come to an End" is perhaps the most appropriate puntuation proffered from those days.


Written by Jerry Blair, who if you didn't know by now was one of those cultists along with fellow mavens Rusty Bourquin and Norris McDowell. We three were regulars on those dark brown pavers. Norris' dad was a bit suspicous, with good cause, about our intentions and thus was not keen on lending out his vehicle. So, Rusty or I drove most of the time. A mentioned earler, my folks had a '60 Olds convertible and I was able to do some smooth talking and score that car for the night quite a few times. Rusty was a little guy, so when he was driving I was at shotgun. When I was driving, Norris was shotgun. That's how the front seat passengers were arranged for our cruises. The black two-door coupe in this story was Bourquin's 1950 Ford stick six - aka "Scrap Iron" as aformentioned. And yes Mary Hopkin - those were the days.

Sadly, Rusty is gone but not forgotten.