Tacoma car club polishes vintage rides for custom car show

Logic would suggest that Joe Hammerschmith’s customized ’57 Chevy Nomad would be a car show magnet. Fat, shiny chrome. Sparkling blue finish. A real attention-grabber.

But what West Coast folks mention most often is his jacket.

“I still wear mine when I go to shows, and it’s unbelievable the number of people who still remember the club,” said Hammerschmith.

The garment was standard apparel among members of the Toppers, Tacoma’s premier custom car club in the ’50s and ’60s. Once you were admitted, of course.

“You had to work hard to get in,” said member Ron Norman, 73, of Tacoma. “They had strict rules and regulations; your car had to have three modifications custom-wise to get in. And you had to be a pretty nice guy. Some guys had the car, but their reputation wasn’t quite there.”

Club participation has waned over the years, but members still get together occasionally, including at this weekend’s Northwest Rodarama show at the Washington State Fair Event Center Showplex in Puyallup. Over 200 hot rods and custom vehicles will be on display, four of which belong to the Toppers — a ’62 Corvette, ’56 Ford pickup, ’47 Chevy convertible and the Nomad.

Those vintage cars aren’t what the members drove during the club’s peak. Tough to say where the cars from their younger days are now. Sometimes, as in the case of Chuck Johnson’s first car, he would rather not know.

“My first car was a ’52 Ford Victoria that I customized,” said Johnson, 75, of University place. “I believe it was sold to a military family and was totaled. It hurts. You ask yourself, ‘Why did I get rid of it?’ But it was a necessity at the time; I needed the money.”

Toppers member Lance Lambert said there were about a dozen bigger, active car clubs in the ’60s. They would put on dances and car shows, often to raise money for charities.

“The Toppers were Lincoln High School, The Steeds were Stadium and Wilson,” said Lambert, who added that cruising was popular and legal. “All we did was cruise between Frisko Freeze and Kings Drive-In. It was see and be seen. Frisko was Stadium’s hangout, Kings was Wilson’s territory.”

Verne LaCoursiere, 77, of Puyallup, joked that he drove (actually he rode) a school bus in high school and couldn’t wait to buy his first car after graduation so he could join the Toppers.

“I had so much respect for the Toppers, they were the club,” LaCoursiere said.

And girls noticed, too. Hard to resist a nice guy with a cool car and a stylish letterman’s jacket.

Question is, does the magic still work to pick up chicks?

“At my age I’m lucky to pick myself up,” said Hammerschmith, grinning broadly. “And don’t ask me what I did yesterday because I can’t remember.”