‘Back to the 50’s’ celebrates hot rod culture’s golden age

45 years on, what started as the Minnesota Street Rod Association's show-and-shine has become like no other such event in the Midwest, drawing more than 12,000 vehicles

In 1968, Terry Nystrom was serving in Vietnam and the country was embroiled in all sorts of issues. But even while separated from family, friends and his community back in Minnesota, Nystrom was still thinking about cars.

When a letter came from his mother that contained an ad she found in the local newspaper looking for members of a new hot rod club, Nystrom fired a letter right back telling his mother to send the $5 membership fee — immediately. The Minnesota Street Rod Association was being born and he wanted to make sure and be a part of the action.

Half a century later, Nystrom has continued his membership in the organization, which has grown to thousands of members and hosts one of the largest gatherings of vintage vehicles in the country, the “Back to the 50’s” extravaganza, an event that happens every June like clockwork and pulls together a community of over 12,000 rods, customs, restored vehicles, and survivors celebrating the golden age of hot rod culture.

This is just one of the multiple avenues packed with vehicles and spectators

For 45 years the MSRA has organized a show-and-shine like no other in the Midwest. As you approach the gates before the 6 a.m. opening, you can sense the excitement of the participants. There are lines of thousands of cars in parking lots, along residential streets and most anywhere that positions those wanting to get that premier spot on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul.

Once the gates open, the flood begins and for the next two to three hours a steady flow of traffic is directed in several directions at once. 

Linda Lucas, who has been a member with her husband since 1986, remarks that over 2,000 volunteers man the show, and she is still awed by the numbers even though she has been part of the marketing committee, serves as a visitor guide and serves on several committees such as liaison to the Ladies Showcase, the First Aid team, Cruise N Art Craft Fair and the Bloodmobile. Yup, this is a big one.

The first “Back to the 50’s” happened in 1974. Nystrom had safely returned home at that point and was heavily involved in the local street rod scene with his 1938 Ford sedan he named Sunkist. He still owns that car, along with others. 

Terry Nystrom’s 1950 Ford coupe is one of several cars he owns including the 1938 Ford sedan he built while in high school which he still owns. The Nystrom family is one of many multi-generation families heavily involved in the old car hobby

Originally the event was more a cruise than a show, gathering cars at the local Midway Shopping Center and heading over to Porky’s Drive-In, the local hangout for car people. Some 125-150 cars showed up for that first event and an annual celebration was concocted by those in attendance.

MSRA began to build its membership starting in 1967, creating a logo identity that reflected the times. But as the years went by, the organization became even more structured and focused on not only its premier event, but the surrounding community, hosting events that not only brought together their own membership, but heralded the creation of a scholarship foundation, a safety inspection team (with coordination through the National Street Rod Association, a legislative committee and a 100+ page monthly magazine, The Linechaser, which keeps everyone fully informed on the workings of one of the largest state organizations devoted to car culture.

The “Back to the 50’s” event quickly outgrew its humble beginnings and was moved to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, drawing larger and larger groups of car enthusiasts and thousands of spectators. By 1976 the organizing group had tried several different venues for activities including some “heads up” drag racing at Twin City Speedway and cruise “parades” from the fairgrounds to locations in St. Paul, which brought out street lining spectators to cheer on the participants and visit with car owners at the venerable Porky’s Drive In and at the former Midway Shopping Center parking which couldn’t hold the influx of vehicles, spilling cars out into the neighboring streets.

It was obvious the group was onto something big. A dance was hosted at Brook’s Dance Hall in nearby Inver Grove Heights featuring, what else, but greasy hair and poodle skirted participants rocking to bands The Rockin’ Hollywoods and Teen King and the Princes.

The early logo for MSRA was updated in 1971 to better reflect that the organization was all about and featured a C-cab truck the organization had built and given away at the Memphis, Tennessee, Street Rod Nationals, providing  more nationwide attention for what was happening in Minnesota.

In 1974 the MSRA logo was changed again, drawn by early MSRA member Dave Bell and featuring a venerable ’32 Ford roadster front and center. That theme continued to 1980 when the roadster image was changed to a more contemporary front view of the ’32. That design continues to this day with some tweaks as the organization has marked milestones for both the association and the annual June event.

Conner Kujak is from Plankinton, South Dakota, population 700. He admits he’s obsessed with ’50s and ’60s vehicles and began restoring a 1960 Buick Invicta Custom when he was 15 years old as part of a senior capstone project. He has since graduated high school and is attending college for pre-med and biology. So will he finish the Buick? ‘You bet,’ he said. ‘I’m excited to get it here next year!’

As with any gathering of car enthusiasts, you’ll find hundreds of stories about who owns what and why. The “Back to the 50’s” event is the perfect venue to not only view vehicles of all shapes, colors and sizes pre-1964, but to visit owners who are more than eager to talk about their own history.

Conner Kujak, 17, can provide an inside view of discovering the joys of ’50s and ’60s era automobilia with his own story of restoring a 1960 Buick Invicta Custom (one of only 700 produced) while Steve Stone will happily share his history with his one-owner 1963 Corvette convertible that he’s driven over 500,000 miles since new, traveling to 48 states and nine Canadian provinces in the process, and loving every single moment.

And, of course, there are the stories from multi-generational families like the Nystroms, who can trace their automotive roots back to a starting point in the family which continues with the same gusto and enthusiasm today as it was when cruising the local drive-ins and teen hang-outs was back in the day.

The “Back to the 50’s” event continues to amaze not only participants, but spectators and organizers as well. The 12,000+ vehicle count has held steady for many years and participants will tell you they see this event as their primary destination each year.

Sharing car stories, wandering the huge 400 vendor market area, eating a broad mix of incredible foods… it’s a feast of automotive wonders and provides an encouraging note that the car hobby is indeed alive and well in the heartland and shows no sign of dying off any time soon.

Jim Volgarino
CONTRIBUTOR
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