BigView – Late 1940s Modesto – The Birth Of Cruising

The Birth of Cruising
By Chris Murphy

During World War II, gas was rationed, rubber was rationed, food was rationed, metal was rationed and recycled to build planes, tanks and ammunition. In 1945 and 1946, soldiers would return home, the cars of the 30s and 40s now had plentiful tires, fuel and many of them needed new paint jobs and people had the time on their hands. Across the USA, the highways that were built during the 1930s were now hosting families on vacation, goods and services and along the way, gas stations and hotels were built, and one of the most innovative were the drive-ins. These were flashy with neon lights, round shapes and served filling dinners and burgers. These highways like US66 and US99 ran through the downtowns across America. US 99 was Modesto’s 9th St and featured not only the circular Burge’s Drive In, opening at O Street in 1947, but also a railroad running right down the middle, adjacent to car dealerships, hardware stores, feed stores and other diners. Burge’s on 9th was the main hangout for the Modesto High kids and there were others like Warren’s on Maze, Felix Drive In and Al’s on McHenry. These drive-ins would become show places and hangouts for the new custom cars in the evenings when young Modestans would drive up and down 10th Street. Cruising was born.

1947 Burge’s: Carhop: Gerry Ramirez is serving a group that cruised in to Burge’s in a convertible Plymouth Driver: Jack Floyd, RF-Mimi Cox Draper, LR- Leroy Cunningham, MR-Pat Michaels Laird, RR-Dick Hardy, RF Shadow-Sarah Jane Paradis, Coupe-Ben Gragg (Photo from McHenry Museum)

Custom Cars were born in Modesto
After WWII, Modesto High Alumni Gene Winfield would take his hobby of fixing up and selling used cars, and start to create radical modifications that would lead the way for car customization, starting Windy’s Custom Shop in a converted chicken coop in back of his mom’s house. New tailfins, chopped tops, hammer welding, and innovative glossy and frosty paint jobs called Candy Apple and lowering were Gene’s specialties and attracted a lot of attention, precisely what the car owners wanted. Gene’s creations were much sought after up and down the west coast and they were on display as they were cruised up and down Modesto’s streets.

The Century Toppers Auto Club, founded in 1947, was the first hot rod club formed in Modesto. It was started by a handful of local hot rodders, with Gene Winfield as one of the founders and Robert Bryant as first secretary and early member Bart Bartoni. The club’s objectives were to promote auto safety and to improve the image of the sport of hot rodding. In 1949 they put on one of the first auto shows held in northern California. This show was at the local Ford garage, “Griswold & Wight”, December 10-11, 1949 and featured custom cars hot rods and motorcycles. The club also worked very closely with the California Highway Patrol. The clubs early meetings were held at the MJC Machine Shop. As the name implies, Century Topper cars were able to exceed the 100 MPH century mark. Club members Pete Hischier, Bart Bartoni, Dennis Wilson, Charlie Bell and Bobby Gaines were inducted individually to the Cruise Route Walk of Fame

Learn more at and

About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.