MIDDLESEX - For a hot rod enthusiast, the names don’t get much bigger than Donald “Don” Garlits, the drag racing legend who shattered numerous top speed records during a Hall of Fame career.
So when Reading resident Harold “Reggie” Bolivar Jr., one of the founding members of Massachusetts’ Street Rod Association (MSRA), fielded a phone call from a person pretending to be Garlits in 1976, he knew he was dealing with a crank caller.
As it turns out, the joke was actually on Bolivar, who had just listed for sale a 1932 Ford Roadster that he had painstakingly rebuilt.
“There’s a magazine called Hemmings Motor News and I had listed it in there,” recalled the car enthusiast. “He said, ‘Hi, this is Don Garlits’, and I said, ‘Yeah, sure it is.’ I didn’t even believe it was him until he got off the plane. You just don’t expect someone like that to just drop in.”
As it turns out, Bolivar not only spent the day watching Garlits on the track, he also sold that 1932 Ford Roadster to the Hall of Fame racer, who has since put the hot rod on display at the Don Garlits Museum in Florida.
It’s an encounter that Bolivar would have never experienced, had he and nine others not started the MSRA years earlier. And according to the local car enthusiast, his encounter with Garlits hardly compares with the memories he’s made with fellow MSRA members and their families over the past 50 years.
In fact, he remembers with a laugh, before enjoying the honor of selling his meticulously restored classic, his fellow MSRA members had on several of their regular “cruise nights” and runs to the New England Dragway bestowed him with the fun club’s “Toilet Seat” award.
Hardly a distinction awarded for mechanical know-how, the playful trophy is given out to members whose vehicles break down during treks to special events. Helping build the club’s reputation as a family-oriented organization looking for some good old-fashioned fun, the Toilet Seat award is used to this day to have some light-hearted fun at the expense of hapless member’s misfortunes.
“Yeah, I got it a couple of times,” recalled Bolivar. “When you break down in the middle of a run to an event [and make everyone else late], it’s really the last thing you want. But we’re all about having a good time. It goes back to having fun, and we’ll do anything we can think of that helps [build that camaraderie].”
This year, the MSRA is celebrating that long tradition by commemorating its 50th Anniversary. According to Bolivar and MSRA president Ed Reinecker, the club is one of New England’s original street rod associations and helped bring mainstream the concepts of hosting cruise nights, car shows, and other special gatherings.
Besides capping membership at 40 people, the MSRA also stands out in that the character of its core members is just as important as the cars they drive. And by focusing on family-friendly get togethers, the MSRA has never experienced a sharp drop in interest.
Instead, the MSRA finds itself returning year-after-year to places like the New England Dragway in Epping, N.H., where members’ cars are featured in a ‘Draggin-in-the-50s’ show that has been held every year since 1972. In another classic partnership that has lasted for some 43 years, the MSRA is also hosted at Canobie Lake Park for an annual show that has featured as many as 150 classic street rods and drag racers.
“It’s a fun hobby. You get to meet people from all walks of life,” said Bolivar. “A lot of clubs today, they’ll just let anyone in. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to grade the person with the car just as much as the car itself.”
“It’s a way for us to get together with our hot rods as a club. As the club grew, we started doing things like picnics. Now we have grandkids of members in here who are carrying on the tradition,” later remarked Reinecker in a separate interview.
Catching the “hot rod” bug by following stars like Garlits as an adolescent in California, Reinecker was in high school when he purchased a 1929 Model A Ford pickup in 1966.
But soon after joining the US Air Force and serving for 8.5 years in the military, the classic truck would sit idle on the West Coast for two decades before Reinecker, who had since married and moved to his wife’s hometown of Billerica, would be able to revisit that childhood dream by towing the dilapidated vehicle back to Massachusetts.
“First I had the money and no time, and then I had the time but no money,” laughed Reinecker, explaining his vehicle sat in his driveway for another 10 years before he got serious about making it roadworthy again.
By fate, in the late 90s, the current club president happened to be working on the vehicle in his driveway one day just as MSRA member was passing by and stopped to comment about the old pickup.
Soon, Reinecker, who was invited to join the club as a result that chance encounter, found himself making dozens of new close friends — who also just happened to know all the ins-and-outs about how to scrounge up old parts and avoid common car restoration pitfalls.
“I remember when I first saw Reggie’s car,” said Reinecker, referencing Garlits’ old museum-quality display. “It looks like a hot rod, but it’s not outlandish. You just think to yourself, ‘ Wow, what a nice car. I’d love to cruise around in that.”
“It’s a great hobby. A lot of the guys’ cars, they’re just never finished [because they just keep on modifying and improving them]. Nowadays, there’s so many companies that make custom parts. But you also sometimes just happen to run across somebody who has [spare parts]. Then you get to play the old haggle game. It’s a great way to meet people.”
After a half-century, Bolivar and Lynnfield resident Vito Venuti are only pair of the MSRA’s 10 original founding members left at the fraternal organization they established a half-century earlier.
According to the Reading resident, besides seeing plenty of new faces around these days — including the grandchildren of active and former members — the biggest change to come to the club probably involves the types of vehicles allowed.
Specifically, back in the early 1970s, when Bolivar and current MSRA President Ed Reinecker were working on recently acquired 1930’s era Fords, club members had to own a vehicle manufactured before 1948.
As both MSRA longtimers explained, in order to give newcomers a fighting chance at being able to find eligible vehicles to repair — never mind the parts needed to fix them — the old guard eventually had to lift the eligibility bar to allow cars from 1959 and earlier.
Though happy with the new blood and vigor drawn to the club as a result, Reinecker and Bolivar nonetheless joked that it feels odd to stand around “antique” vehicles that are now younger than they are.
“A lot of the guys from the 60’s and 70’s, they’ve owned their cars for years. But it was too hard for the younger guys to get involved. If you want something like a 1930’s Roadster today, you need a lot of money,” explained Reinecker.
“There’s multiple generations [of members involved now],” later said Bolivar. “50 years is a long time, so it’s kind of nice to see the interest following through some families…Just don’t ask me where all that time went. I can’t tell you that.”