The Drifters Car Club: The Early Years

The year was 1970. The Beatles broke up, and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix both died of drug overdoses. Richard Nixon was president, “Vietnam” was still in the headlines and Al Unser won the Indy 500. “Patton” was an Academy Award winning film and “Let It Be” by the Beatles topped the charts. Gas was $0.35 a gallon, minimum wage was $1.60 an hour, and $9,600 was median family income. The Mustang was only 5 years old and the “Early Years” of the Drifters Car Club began.

In the spring of 1970, two hot rodders, Jim Ashenmacher and Bill Lawler, who knew each other since High School, met Don Hyke who had a “cool” 34 Ford street rod. Jim was building a ’32 Ford and Bill was working on a ’40 Ford. All three rodders had been looking at a ’32 Ford Roadster and they hit if off great talking about old cars, and street rods in particular. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, street rodding was still in its infancy and not many guys were cutting up “perfectly good” old iron and making “Hot Rods” out of them.

Jim and Bill thought there might be enough interest in SE Minnesota to form a club, so in early summer of 1970, Jim ran an ad in the local Rochester Post Bulletin newspaper. “Street Rodders, Unite. New Club forming, meet Saturday at 7:00 p.m., 2514 18th Ave NW, Rochester.” On Saturday, a nice appropriate sign made of cardboard and Chevy orange engine paint was stuck in Jim’s lawn.

Jim and Bill parked their street rods on Jim’s lawn and waited to see what kind of response the ad would bring. We had 8 hot rodders that first night, Jim Ashenmacher (32 Ford), Bill Lawler (40 Ford), Dick Hanson (40 Ford), Jack Applen (37 Ford), and 4 more names that have been lost to time.

The Car Club formed that summer night and was called “Vintage Wheels.” We had fun that summer, taking the hot rods to local towns for picnics and parades, and in winter, spent our time hunting for “early iron.” Jim was the first “president” and Bill took over the next year. Some of the early members included Jim Stiller and Ed Lawrence from Red Wing, Steve Peterson, Steve Teske, Tom Ashton, Dick Hanson, Don Hyke, Jack Applen, Ray Sutton, Ron Felt, Duane Jacobson, Marty Kirkham, and others.

In late 1973 or early 1974 Tom Ashton had the foresight to expand our small club and formalize it with rules/regulations/charter, etc. The new Car Club was called “Hiawathaland Street Scene” and Tom Ashton was its President. It was only about a year or two later when we changed the name again. This time to “Hiawathaland Street Rods” so we didn’t sound like a periodical/car club newsletter. The mid 70’s were a boom time for Street Rodding with the birth of the Street Rod Nationals, Street Rod magazines, etc. Interest in the hobby was growing and our club grew with it. Cities actually paid us to bring our cars to town to be in their local parades, and even Rochester had “cruise nights.” We went to the “1974 Nationals” in St. Paul and we all felt we were part of a bigger brotherhood; Street Rodding was on its way. We continued to cruise, go to car shows, have picnics and go canoeing and tubing. We even got to watch the moon rise at some of our camp out events. We’re still having fun as a club, and take group tours to places such as the Amish Community, a dinner cruise on the Mississippi River Paddle wheeler, car museums and even trips to Las Vegas.

In the early 1980’s we had our last name change and became “The Drifters”, however we’ve never drifted from our original mission, which is to have family fun, with good fellowship. Our scope has expanded as we’re no longer a “hot rod” club and today’s members have everything from the traditional hot rod, to prewar classics, 50’s, 60’s cars and even exotics like, yes, an Avanti.

At the time this is being written (2013) we’ve been having fun for over 40 years. We also have a cherished history of helping others, as 2013 will see us host our “38th Annual Fall Foliage Cruise, Chili Feed and Fun Run.” Being a non-profit organization, our proceeds go to local charities, including Channel One Food Shelf of Southeast Minnesota, Eagles Cancer Telethon, Hiawatha Children’s Home, Salvation Army, and others.

This is a proud history for a small club such as ours. We’ve had many great members over the years and we’ve all made lasting and meaningful friendships. We’re now seeing 2nd generations coming into the club and our typical monthly meeting has kids, grand kids, and old timers all in happy disharmony in the same room. Pictures of kids and grand kids are being exchanged and the “centerfold” being drooled over is from a car magazine.

If you’re interested in cars, good times, and good fellowship, give us a try. Any member will be glad to mail you a copy of last years meeting minutes so you can get a “feel” for the club and we’d be happy to see your family join ours. Don’t be intimidated by trying to remember names/faces. Our club “Points Book” is passed around at each meeting. The points book has pictures of the members with their names and ALSO their cars…You may not remember our names but I’ll bet after a couple of meetings, you can tie that cool ’33 Ford Tudor to Ron and Judy Felt.

The “Points Book” is used to determine the club “member of the year” who gets a plaque to keep and also gets their name(s) attached to a very impressive traveling trophy that they get to keep and guard for a year. It’s a real honor to have your name on the trophy and to be recognized by the club for your involvement and contribution to the club, its membership, and our charities.

If you have a picture of your car on your desk at work, wear a T shirt with a car on it, know the difference between a flathead and a mouse motor, and spend your time at the magazine rack looking at “Auto Trader” when you’re supposed to be grocery shopping, you’re a confirmed car enthusiast and we welcome you to join us.

The Drifters, 2013

By Jim Ashenmacher and Bill Lawler