Special Reports

Road's heart is an engine

Car culture along South Tacoma Way ranges from vintage rides to tuner pride. It's a rich mix of the old and the new and everything in between.

From the Nalley Valley to Steilacoom Boulevard, automotive passions are arranged almost chronologically. There are exceptions, but for the most part it's vintage dream cars in the south, used and current models in the middle, and after-market racing projects in the north.

Cruise with us along this venerable strip and take in some of the sights.

Vintage visions

In recent years, classic-car showrooms have materialized on South Tacoma Way. For some visitors, ogling the sleeping beauties through the shops' plate-glass windows is akin to eyeballing donuts at Krispy Kreme.

Many beauties slumber in Jim Marsh's brick-and-glass temple in the Nalley Valley.

"We were excited about moving to South Tacoma Way," said Marsh, owner of Premium Motors. A few years ago, his shop was in downtown Tacoma. "We love the exposure and being part of the car culture here."

He sells boomer dream cars and notes that the Mustang or Camaro you couldn't afford as a young driver in 1968 - "maybe you can now."

His shop is more than just a collection of dreams for sale, though. Marsh collects pieces of car culture, Americana at its oiliest, grittiest and perhaps best. Old gas cans and oil cans line the walls. Vintage signs - including an old Pike Place Market sign - hang all over the place. Old toys, tools, metal and neon in the shop's museumlike public area hide state-of-the-art workshops in back.

"We've had Scout troops come in and take tours," Marsh said. "It's fun to show them some of that old stuff."

A little ways north of Premium Motors is the old Osborne-McCann Cadillac building. Celebrated local drag racer Bucky Austin keeps his restored classic dragsters stashed there and plans to open a drag-racing museum at that location to the public this fall.

Austin said he and his older brother Walt were lucky to turn their passion for cars into careers. Chances are, if you've had work done on your car in Tacoma, you might have had it done at one of Walt's or Bucky's many shops, some of which are on South Tacoma Way.

"South Tacoma Way has been kind of a kid-and-car district since the 1940s," Austin said. "My brother would take me cruising when I was in junior high. We'd cruise between the old Busch's Drive-In in the north and King's Drive-In to the south. It was no problem to have 200 or 300 cars cruising. You'd get a chance to see some of our local hotrod and sprint car and motorcycle culture."

Austin is mostly retired from racing these days, but he does compete on occasion, and he said he enjoys showing off his restored beauties. He compares his new venture - and the recent regeneration of retail hot spots along South Tacoma Way - with his passion for cars.

"Restoring a car is like restoring a building," he said, "especially when there's some history to it. You want to bring that feeling back that all the kids remember. Well, now they're grown up, but you want them to come back to South Tacoma Way to look and shop and live and have fun."

New and used

The big boys - Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevy, et al. - have a big presence along South Tacoma Way, and have for many years. Giant lots hold acres of new and used cars, and islands of smaller used-car dealerships sit among them.

Lewey Mawrence, the general manager for Robert Larson's Chrysler/Jeep lot, has only worked on South Tacoma Way for a few months but said he's impressed with the range of customers drawn to the area.

"It welcomes a conglomeration of demographics," he said. "We get military and local clientele, and we also do a nice job of pulling people from across the Sound and from Seattle."

He's had some time to look around and take in some of the road's many interesting sights, such as the B&I store.

"What's really impressed me is the activity of South Tacoma Way in general," Mawrence said. "There's always something fun going on."

Preston Glaude, sales manager at South Tacoma Honda, is a rarity in the car business, having spent almost 20 years in one place. He's seen ups and downs in the economy and weathered many changes along South Tacoma Way, or "the Ave.," as he calls it.

The outlook has seemed bleak at times, as it did about 15 years ago when some dealers were moving off the road and out of the community.

It's been the "old-timers," business owners and residents with long ties to South Tacoma Way, that have kept things going, Glaude said.

"They kept beautifying things and putting money back into facilities on the road instead of just letting it waste way," Glaude said. "It's the people who have grown up in this area that are putting money back into the avenue and still doing business on the strip. There's a lot of love for South Tacoma Way."

Over the years, the street has cleaned up, and some of the stigma of owning or patronizing businesses on the road has diminished, Glaude said. Not only are the drug dealers and the prostitutes going away, but the impression of what it means to be a car salesman has improved, he said.

"The business has gone through metamorphoses over the years," Glaude said. "We're all getting better at customer service and satisfaction."

It additionally helps that so many kinds of service centers and aftermarket car shops have opened, he said. There is a ready-made network of car shops up and down the road. Chances are, one car person can direct you to another for whatever type of service or part you're looking for, Glaude said.

Among the best of the changes on South Tacoma Way, outside of the car business?

"We no longer feel like we have to drive all the way across town to get lunch," Glaude said. "There are a lot more good places to eat."

built for speed

For as much shiny paint and chrome as you'll find on South Tacoma Way, the road also boasts shops for gritty, always-in-progress tuner cars, "whips" built for speed as much as style.

Stop by the Fast Lane 2 store near the B&I to check out the projects, many of them parked outside the store. Some aren't as pretty as others. Primered side panels and bolted-on aero kits might give them a rough-hewn look, but their young owners find beauty in the smoothly working power plants under the hoods.

In almost 10 years at the location, the store has seen a lot of ups and downs, said manager Frank Meza.

"Everything depends on the economy," Meza said. "We're an aftermarket store, so (customers) usually come to us last. The car market has to be doing well in order for us to do well."

The original Fast Lane Performance store, way out on Pacific Highway, recently closed and consolidated with the store near the B&I. There was never a pointed search for space along South Tacoma Way, Meza said. The owners got lucky to find an open space on the busy road.

"It's the big dealerships," Meza said when asked what makes car culture so prominent along South Tacoma Way. "They come in, and everything else follows."

Customers hungry for speed and style congregate at Fast Lane 2. Their cars sit outside the store, lined up like a row of science projects at a school fair.

These guys scoff at the flashy high-end "trailer queen" show cars in movies like "The Fast & the Furious." They're after speed, and speed doesn't have to be pretty. - - - Bill Hutchens: 253-597-8460 bill.hutchens@thenewstribune.com

South Tacoma Way: Through the Years

1931 South Union Avenue is renamed and joined to South Tacoma Way.

1938 Buses replace streetcars on South Tacoma Way.

1940s Busch's Drive-In restaurant delights Tacoma teens and families. Car hops serve zombie sundaes, sodas and 10-cent hamburgers.

1941 Steve's Gay '90s Restaurant opens. The eatery, with its historic theme and can-can dancers, will grow over the years from a small coffee shop to a restaurant seating more than 700 people.

1942 A USO center opens to serve the recreation needs of soldiers during World War II.

1944 The USO center is given to the city Parks Department. Today, it's the South Park Community Center.

1946 The B&I store opens. In time, it will become a landmark featuring a circus theme and live animals - including Ivan the gorilla.

1948 The Star-Lite Drive-in opens.

1952 A sparkling Roller Bowl skating rink opens, with what it claims is the largest pipe organ in the Northwest. The rink replaces one that had burned down.

1957 A sunrise Easter service takes place at the Star-Lite. Worshippers need never leave their cars.

1958 Heavyweight boxing champs Joe Louis and Max Baer sign autographs at the B&I.

1959 The South Tacoma Business Club hangs flower baskets along South Tacoma Way.

1961 The Realart movie theater becomes the Realart Square Dance Hall.

1963-64 Interstate 5 opens, drawing traffic away from what had been the main north-south thoroughfare. One businessman predicts: "After 90 days, when most drivers have had an opportunity to drive on the freeway for a while, traffic will actually increase on South Tacoma Way."

1964 A baby gorilla, soon to be named Ivan, arrives at the B&I.

1967 Ivan moves into a concrete-and-steel cage inside the B&I.

1971 The Golden Dragon Restaurant, located next to the Realart Theater building since 1951, takes over the theater space.

1974 Northern Pacific Shops close. Within a year, most of the facility's red brick buildings will be demolished.

1977 Steve's Gay '90s Restaurant closes.

1979 The South Tacoma Business Club opens a business incubator office on South Tacoma Way, hoping to revitalize commerce.

- - -

Debbie Cafazzo, The News Tribune

Sources: The News Tribune, the Tacoma Daily Ledger, the South Tacoma Star, "Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders," by Herbert Hunt, the Tacoma Daily Index, the Pierce County Business Examiner, the Tacoma Historical Society, the Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room

South Tacoma Way by the numbers


Route number of the main Pierce Transit bus along South Tacoma Way


Number of News Tribune subscribers with addresses on South Tacoma Way


Number of members of the Gold Seal Chinchilla Association who met at the group's headquarters at 8610 South Tacoma way in June 1956 for the cooperative's first-anniversary celebration


Number of years Bob's Java Jive has been in operation (though it wasn't always called that)


Estimated number of gangs operating in the South Tacoma Way area


Estimated number of circuits of South Tacoma Way a police officer patrolling the street makes in the course of a night shift

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune