To the custom car cognoscenti, one says it all: "Paso." Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the small California wine-country town of Paso Robles hosts what is widely viewed as the best custom car show in the world each Memorial Day weekend.
The Cruisin' Nationals, as the event is officially titled, was conceived by Rich Pichette in 1982. Pichette had recently founded the West Coast Kustoms car club as an outlet for fans of 1950s customs in Southern California. Though there were plenty of street rod shows at the time, Pichette decided custom fans deserved a get-together of their own.
The news of an upcoming event spread quickly to Northern California car guys, who said they wanted to be included, too. So, Pichette and West Coast Kustoms looked for a spot between Los Angeles and San Francisco to host the inaugural event.
The town of Paso Robles was amenable, and the first Cruisin' Nationals was held on Sept. 18-19, 1982, at Lake Nacimiento, just outside Paso Robles. A total of 82 cars showed up for the initial gathering, including just one hot rod.
Over the years, the annual Cruisin' Nationals has become a mecca of sorts for more than just California custom fans. Hot rod and custom car lovers from all parts of the country and abroad make it a point to travel to California for this annual celebration of the artistic side of the car culture.
For the 2005 event, two Japanese custom enthusiasts shipped their cars all the way across the Pacific to take part in the fun. Registration is limited to 850 cars, but more than 1000 show up consistently, and many more attend without a car to show.
The highlights of the three-day event are the Friday-night cruise and the Saturday car show, which is centered on the lawn at City Park but spills out onto the surrounding streets. The event offers plenty of other activities as well: a Friday-night dance, a model car show, a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a Saturday-night concert, the Sunday awards ceremony, and a bustling vendor market rife with airbrush artists, pinstripers, T-shirt and magazine sellers, and plenty of rockabilly kitsch.
All of these elements mix with the cars themselves to make Paso Robles a full-blown experience. The car show takes over the town. For the rod and custom fan, it borders on sensory overload.
The Friday-night cruise features rods and customs of every stripe cruising up and down Spring Street to the delight of the crowds that pack the sidewalks. Custom car legends cruise with little-known newcomers. Historic customs mix with ground-scraping lowriders, vintage hot rods follow modern street machines, and billet beauties share the spotlight with grungy rat rods. Everyone is welcome.
A walk through the park on Saturday afternoon reveals a who's who of custom heroes. At any point, you might see a magazine cover car, stumble across a legendary builder, or venture into the stable of a dedicated custom car club.
All of those experiences are great, but the cars displayed by average Joes are often just as exciting. Unknowns do some great work, too, and Paso Robles is where many rod and custom movers and shakers are discovered.
Look deeper and you'll see the true allure of the Cruisin' Nationals. Each car is, in its own way, a work of art. Every panel that has been cut, color chosen, part used, and detail added represents a choice by the owner and/or builder. The customs at Paso are among the most creative cars in the world, and each depicts the vision of its creator.
To attend Paso Robles is to reset your parameters for what a custom can be. It is also proof positive that automotive creativity and the rod and custom scene are alive and well. Shown here is just a smattering of the types of cars that can be seen each year at the Crusin' Nationals.