Every fall, more than ten thousand classic cars, and their owners, descend on the Mississippi gulf coast for America’s largest block party – Cruisin’ the Coast. Event locations stretch across more than thirty miles, from Bay St. Louis to Pascagoula, and bring together car aficionados and spectators young and old to marvel at antique vehicles in a festive atmosphere with food and music. Exhaust and smoke fill the air, and engines rev, as cars make their way slowly down Highway 90 and into quaint downtown centers, full to the brim with innumerable makes and models on display and tents set up to shade event patrons as they watch cars, and people, passing.
“I’ve been to Cruisin’ the Coast every year, and participated for the last ten, and the growth I’ve seen has been tremendous,” says Mark Scariono, president of the Antique Auto and Engine Club of Mississippi (AAECM), and Cruisin’ the Coast volunteer. “It’s a weeklong event, and it has become the largest special event in Mississippi. Twelve car clubs host, and provide more than 700 volunteers. Most of us try to take a day or two out of the week to also do some cruising.”
Participants cruise along a beachside highway with stops in Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, D’Iberville, Gulfport, Pass Christian, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. Each venue’s setup mimics a mini festival, with stages featuring performances and vendors selling food and merchandise. Activities like sock hops and live music from 1950s cover bands harken back an era when cars represented an important part of mainstream American culture. “Back in the 50s and 60s cars were king,” Scariono says. “They represented a lot more than just transportation, and a lot of people my age have strong memories associated with certain cars.”
Other activities include a drawing for a raffle car as well as a three day auction organized by Vicari Auctions in Biloxi that featured more than 700 vehicles in 2017. There’s also a swap meet – where more than 250 vendors sell all manner of products including auto parts, car accessories, clothing, jewelry, sunglasses, wooden sculptures, and fine art. The variety of activities brings a wide range of people to the event, from all over the country.
“This year we registered 8,308 vehicles, and that was another record breaking year,” says Craig Grisoli, Cruisin’ the Coast registration director. “We had participants from 40 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Germany. In addition to registered participants, volunteers estimate that thousands more people bring their vehicles but don’t register. “We think we have in the neighborhood of 12,000 people who bring cars to the event, and thousands more who don’t bring a vehicle, but want to look at the cars and check out food and merchandise,” says Scariono. “The hotels and casinos are booked, and the traffic gets terrible.”
A 2016 economic impact study showed that Cruisin’ the Coast added $26.1 million to the Mississippi gulf coast’s economy and an additional $2.5 million to the state overall. “Part of the reason this event started 21 years ago was to bring a positive economic impact to the gulf coast,” says Grisoli. “This used to be a relatively slow time of year,and we wanted to change that with a fantastic automobile event, and it’s doing what it’s designed to do.”
Part of the event’s draw is the craftsmanship and creativity visible in the cars on display. Participants spend significant amounts of money, and time, repairing and restoring vehicles. Tens of thousands of dollars and decades of work go into some of the cars.
“I’ve been working on cars since I was thirteen years old, when the first Corvette came out. That’s what got me interested,” says Andy Switzer, Cruisin’ volunteer and member of the AAECM and British Car Club. “It’s pretty much been a trial and error thing since I started, and I don’t just like Corvettes. I took a ‘58 Corvette to Cruisin’ this year, but I like the whole spectrum, and own several different vehicles I try to drive at least once a month.”
Many cars on display at the event are daily drivers, but there are also pristine, showroom ready antique vehicles. Some cars resemble an antique car on the outside, but with contemporary interiors and engine parts. Others have been restored to faithfully appear as they did in factory condition, with painstaking attention to detail. Jeeps with giant tires lifted five feet high sit next to impossibly long Cadillacs painted pastel with their chrome bumpers gleaming.
“It’s really a talent to be able to restore these things and most people spend their whole lives learning,” says Scariono. “It makes sense that they like to have an opportunity to show off that hard work. Nowadays cars are designed for safety and efficiency, and that’s a good thing, but I like looking at the old cars, because they were built for personality. The big fins, the dramatic two tone paint jobs…they were for appearance, not functionality.”
At next year’s Cruisin’ event, one lucky raffle winner will receive a 1968 RS Camaro Coupe. The rally green paint job and white deck stripes testify to Mark’s claim that for many aficionados, old cars have personality that comes from something unique about their appearance. That’s also what makes Cruisin’ the Coast special – it gives participants and visitors a chance to relive memories associated with their favorite classic cars, and make new ones alongside the beautiful Mississippi coast.