Tony Mirra didn't put much work into his wardrobe when he and his pals from Southern Lehigh High School would ride "the circuit" in Allentown. He let his 1961 Chevrolet Impala do the talking.
On those nights between 1966 and 1969, Mirra's red car with white accents would be freshly washed and waxed — ready to challenge any driver who pulled up beside him at a red light.
When the light turned green, the drivers hit the gas and raced down Hamilton Street.
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Between runs down Hamilton and Linden streets, Mirra and his friends, who called themselves the Road Runners Club, would head over for a bite to eat at the A&W Restaurant in Mountainville or Ritz Barbeque on North 17th Street.
From about 6 p.m. until well after midnight, Mirra said, his world revolved around growling engines, inflated egos and pretty girls.
On a recent Thursday, Mirra, of Upper Saucon Township, stood in his packed garage where he regularly tinkers with his eight vehicles, including his beloved '62 Corvette, a '68 Dodge Charger in need of some fresh paint and a 1932 two-door Confederate, his wife's personal favorite. His largest undertaking recently has been rebuilding a 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
He shrugged casually when asked about how often he reminisces about the good old days cruising in Allentown.
Tammy Mirra, his wife of 41 years, interrupted.
"Oh, come on. You talk about it every time you see each other," she said. "We go to the store for milk and we come out two hours later."
This month, Mirra, a retired maintenance worker with the Quakertown School District, and his friends won't need to relive the glory years in a grocery aisle. They can do it on the same street where they watched out for four-wheeled rivals — like the '66 forest green Corvette that was always good for a neck-and-neck run.
On July 21, Hamilton Street will be closed from Sixth to Ninth streets for the city's first Classics & Cruisers on Hamilton car show.
Organizers hope to reignite the nostalgia for cruising in the midst of the city's economic revival.
"Allentown was always the place to go to show off your car," Allentown police Sgt. James Gress said. "This is where it began. Why not bring it back? We need it back on Hamilton Street where it all started."
The practice was a rite of passage for many, though by the 1980s, complaints over noise and traffic peaked and led to its demise with a cruising ban in the downtown that remains on the books today.
Gress, himself a cruiser in the 1980s with his red, black-striped 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle, said car shows in the Lehigh Valley are usually relegated to parking lots or park grounds — not on the streets where illegal racing took place.
He said he wanted to see Allentown celebrate its role in cruising as other towns and boroughs have done — by allowing hot rods to literally take over the downtown for a day.
Inspirations include the Under the Lights Car Show in Lansdale and Doylestown at Dusk, Gress said.
Allentown's event, sponsored by the city, the America On Wheels museum, Friends of the Allentown Parks and the Hamilton District Main Street Program, will take place 4-8 p.m. July 21. Cars registered by July 15 cost $20 to participate in the show while those registered after will be $25.
Cars will stretch along Hamilton Street from Sixth to Ninth as well as around the area of the monument on Seventh Street. There will be judging and awards.
After the show, a police motorcycle escort will lead the classic cars to Ritz Barbecue, 302 N. 17th St.
Christy Alvord, the city's recreation and events coordinator, said she hopes to see Classics & Cruisers become an annual event.
This is where it began. Why not bring it back?
— James Gress, event organizer, Allentown police sergeant
Since it cuts through the heart of the downtown, Hamilton Street became a natural route for drivers eager to flaunt their vehicles. The typical circuit consisted of Linden Street west to 12th Street and then Hamilton Street east to about Sixth Street.
Many of the cruisers would eventually park at the now closed Brass Rail at 12th and Hamilton streets. Parking lots were full of muscle cars — Mustangs, Corvettes, Chevelles and Chargers — with the occasional '55 or '57 Chevy as well, Mirra said.
The drivers came to be called "loopers" — so named after the short circuit they took while parading their vehicles — and as the years went on, their welcome in the city waned.
By the mid-1980s, Allentown police, under the leadership of then Chief David Howells, began cracking down on the phenomenon.
According to a Morning Call story from Sept. 9, 1984, the clampdown included a 57-officer strike force, made up of city and state police officers, who descended on the loop and arrested nearly 100 people.
Neighbors of the famous loop complained about the noise and the traffic, and Howells said at the time that the cruisers were merely the noisy front of more serious issues involving drugs, alcohol and prostitution.
In the story, Howells lamented the "outsiders" who were coming to the city to cruise.
"I arrested four kids from Upper Mount Bethel Township. I agree we live in a country protected by a constitution, but there's no reason why Upper Mount Bethel kids should be roaming our streets and alleys," the chief was quoted as saying.
Despite protests from the "loopers," the city went on to institute a ban on the practice.
According to the city's 1985 ordinance, driving a vehicle through Center City more than three times within any two-hour period from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. constitutes cruising, is prohibited and carries a fine of $25.
Classics and cruisers
Though Mirra said it's a shame that later generations aren't able to enjoy the cruising of yore, he acknowledged that the pastime has grown increasingly impractical.
"Times have changed," he said. "Today, you just couldn't do what we did."
Heavier traffic and denser residential areas are just a few of the changes that made the cruising culture obsolete.
Despite the city's continued stance against cruising, Allentown Mayor Ray O'Connell believes giving classic car owners a way to step into the past presents an excellent opportunity to the city.
For his part, O'Connell will keep his eyes open for the car from his early days that he finds himself wishing he still owned — a white 1968 Chevrolet Camaro. O'Connell traded the car in for a '72 gold Monte Carlo and still regrets not having the presence of mind to keep it.
"I loved those cars," the mayor said. "I'll be looking at every Camaro out there."
Mirra is looking forward to bringing his prized four-wheeled beauty to Hamilton Street: the '62 Corvette he bought on his 21st birthday in 1972.
Mirra spotted the 'vette during a drive home after visiting his sweetheart at the time in Perkasie. The car was on sale for $1,900 and Mirra had to have it.
"I didn't start it until I paid for it because I didn't care what was wrong with it," Mirra said. "It's been my pride and joy since '72."
By then, Mirra's looping days were over — full-time work having replaced the carefree leisure of his high school years.
But, even now, the passion for cars and motorhead swagger remain, and Mirra can't wait to let his '62 Corvette do the talking once again.
Classics & Cruisers on Hamilton
Inaugural car show that will take place in Allentown where cruising was once a nightly pastime.
When: 4 p.m.-8 p.m. July 21.
Where: Allentown's Hamilton Street from Sixth to Ninth streets and along Seventh Street near the Soldiers & Sailors Monument.
Cost: Free to public; $25 registration fee per vehicle after Sunday. Register at fotap.wordpress.com.