By Kendra Gravelle
Engines revved and “Mustang Sally” blared through large speakers as antique cars spanning the decades of 1950 through 1990 slowly filed into the parking lot of A&W of Smithfield on a Tuesday night in April.
Bruce Palmer and his fellow antique car enthusiasts were there to kick off “Cruisin’ Bruce’s” 20th year at A&W of Smithfield. The cruise will take place every Tuesday evening through October.
“I’ve always been a car guy,” said Palmer, who currently owns 12 cars. “I had three cars by the time I was 18.”
With no hesitation, Palmer said his favorite of his cars is his ’69 Ford Torino Fastback.
“There are Ford people, there are Chevrolet people, there are Chrysler people,” said Frank Gambuto, who has been attending these cruises for years. “I tend to be a Chevrolet person, but it doesn’t take anything away from the other manufacturers. It’s just what you’re familiar with and what you like.”
The event has grown since it began 20 years ago, Palmer said, adding that in the peak of the summer as many as 140 cars coming from all over New England will fill multiple parking lots around A&W.
“Sometimes we’ll get people who like to make a longer ride to come here, just because this is such a classic location,” he said. “A&W has a history of being the hamburger hangout joint. In the ’50s and ’60s, A&Ws were just the place to go and hang out with your buddies and get a malt and a burger, hang out in cars and talk all night long. That’s a tradition that’s kind of stayed with A&W.”
The fast food outlet opened its Smithfield location in 1959 and was sold in 1993, becoming Bill’s Old Time Root Beer. The new business, however, was not so successful, and was sold two years after opening to its current owner, Smithfield-native and Johnson and Wales graduate Stephanie Mosca, who reopened it as A&W. Under its new ownership, Palmer began his Tuesday night cruise at the establishment, the longest running single-site cruise in Rhode Island.
Gambuto, who lives in North Providence, has been hanging out at A&W Smithfield since he was in high school in 1964, he said. He brought his ’57 Chevy, which he has owned for 20 years, to kickoff this “Cruisin’ Bruce” season. He said he’s been looking forward to seeing the work other cruisers have put into their cars since last season.
“It’s nice to see what kinds of ideas they have customizing or painting them,” he said. “You get ideas for your own cars.”
He added that he has made a lot of friends at the cruise over the years.
“You’ve got people of all walks of life,” he said. “Some are doctors or lawyers who have more factory cars, and then you have people who work on them themselves and devote a lot of time working on the engines and looking for parts.”
Dave Williams, who was born and raised in Smithfield but now lives in Chepachet, sat in a lawn chair in front of his ’74 Caprice Classic. Williams has been attending this cruise for 20 years, and has owned this car as long. He said in the 20 years he’s had the car, he’s only lowered the roof three times.
“I put it down once for a funeral and once for a wedding,” he said. “I don’t like it when it’s down, so I don’t put it down.”
He said he owns a few cars, adding that most of the attendees own multiple cars.
“You have to have more than one,” he laughed, “in case one breaks.”
Williams’ friend, Dan Belcher, from North Smithfield, brought his ’55 Chevy. He and Williams have both been coming to A&W of Smithfield since it first opened over 50 years ago. In fact, Williams said he was the second customer to ever patronize the establishment.
Williams kept the hood of his car raised and, with a stuffed Tasmanian Devil perched on the engine, spoke about the theme of his car.
“And if you look inside the car, you’ll see stickers, and I’ve got the mud flaps with the Tasmanian on ’em,” he said. “The kids love it. It’s just something I like.”
Dave Neri and his son Luciano stopped by to check out the Tasmanian Devil car after Luciano’s karate class. Luciano said his favorite thing about the antique cars is “the way they look,” because they resemble the Mustang and the Dodge Charger in the 1968 movie Bullitt.
Ron and Marie Curtis of Johnston brought their ’88 Mercedes-Benz convertible to the cruise.
“I get to sit in the passenger seat,” Marie said. “Even though he wants a 20-year-old sitting there, I’m the lucky one that gets to sit there.”
Ron said he looks forward to this season to meet with friends he has made over the 15 years he’s been attending these cruises.
Despite sharing a last name, Ron and Richard Curtis met at the event years ago and share no relation. Ron said on the day they met, they’d been parked next to each other for two hours before he noticed the “RC” initials on Richard’s license plate.
“Finally I said, ‘What’s your last name?’ and I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s mine, too,’” Ron said. “It was weird.”
Richard Curtis, who lives in Woonsocket, brought his ’67 Cadillac convertible. He said he’s had the car for about five years, and has completely restored everything, including repainting the car himself.
“This is the first time I’ve brought it out this season,” he said. “But I plan on being out four or five nights a week driving around with it.”
Between April and mid-October, Palmer will hold 170 events. In addition to his A&W Smithfield cruise, Palmer hosts regular events at Gillette Stadium and McDonalds in Cumberland.
“It’s my second full-time job after my first full-time job,” said Palmer, who resides in Coventry and hosts a morning show playing classic rock on 100 FM The Pike in Worcester, Mass. “I do a show every morning, and I have just enough time to race home, switch cars, load up gear and get up here.”
The wintertime is Palmer’s chance to recuperate after a long season, he said.
“It’s really a merry-go-round this time of year, I will admit, but if you have passion for what you do it’s not a bad thing. You find what you like to do and you never work,” he said. “My dad always knew I’d never work, so at least I’m making him happy.”
Palmer added that there is a lot of preparation that goes into each event.
“It really keeps my wife happy because it keeps me out of her hair,” he joked. “That’s how we’ve stayed married 30 years.”
Mosca said there will be surprises each week, and various prizes given out to commemorate 20 years of “Cruisin’ Bruce”. She added that hosting the cruise at A&W Smithfield has been a great experience.
“It’s always interesting to see what each individual brings to the event and how times have changed,” Mosca said. “It’s just a fun family night.”