Last Friday afternoon, Hector Palafox had left work in a Palm Desert, Calif., pizza restaurant and was headed for his 2005 Honda S2000 when he found himself surrounded. There was a dune buggy, Volkswagen Single Cab truck, Austin-Healey 3000, Oldsmobile Toronado and maybe 150 other cars—none particularly threatening.
Palafox was on the upper east-level parking lot of the Gardens on El Paseo. This outdoor mall served as the show-and shine site before El Paseo Cruise Night’s annual Christmas Cruise. Because Palafox’s S2000 was trimmed with a red nose and reindeer horns for the holiday season, it fit right in. But the 22-year-old Palafox was one-third the age of many cruise-night participants. Some of the cars were much, much older.
“It’s nice to see what was in the ‘60s and all that, and then some modern tastes,” said Palafox, who professed himself an enthusiast of the Japanese Domestic Market performance scene long popular in California. Among the “modern tastes” he thought appealing were a Cadillac XLR, Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat and new Corvette.
Palafox wasn’t really surprised by the throng. He was used to mixing with the participants in this unique cruising scene. Palm Desert is a special place. Set against the San Jacinto Mountains, the city of approximately 50,000 residents abounds with retirees and seasonal residents, not all of whom are interested in golf. There are loads of cars here and in the surrounding Desert Cities: Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, La Quinta and Palm Springs.
El Paseo—which in Spanish means “the stroll”—is the name for Palm Desert’s central commercial boulevard and the surrounding, glitzy shopping district. The island splitting the wide road is an attraction unto itself, being groomed to a fare-thee-well and festooned with modernist sculptures. El Paseo’s boutiques, galleries and showrooms are filled with glittering and costly wares. And very little restraint is shown with the seasonal decorations.
“It’s the Rodeo Drive of the Desert,” said Jerry Martin, who co-founded the cruise with his wife Judy. “The aesthetics of El Paseo, it’s always maintained and landscaped and has a beautiful flowers, and the shops always look terrific.”
The Martins launched El Paseo Cruise Night five years ago after attending a local showing of the area’s automotive treasures. Palm Desert, they agreed, seemed natural as the place to get those cars moving in a regular cruising event.
“The reason we own the cars is we like to drive them,” said Jerry, a 67-year-old golf pro who has a 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon. “We wanted to create an event that actually showcased the cars. The Gardens on El Paseo stepped up and allowed us to use their parking lot. Everybody’s welcome—and all kinds of cars. We wanted to make it a free event so that people didn’t have register, all they had to do is show up.”
Local merchants sponsor El Paseo Cruise Night, which is a for-profit undertaking, and help ensure its survival. Nine more Friday-evening cruises are scheduled until the current season ends on May 5, 2017. By then, the daytime temperatures start to reach and exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and snowbirds disperse to cooler climes.
For instance, Bert and Dora Tobia will have flown by then. During the summertime, they live at the Jersey Shore; then they winter in the Desert. For the Christmas cruise, they dressed like elves and drove their 1949 MGTC. Bert’s parents had bought him a 1952 MGTD when he was 17 years old, but he eventually sold it in order to buy an engagement ring for his first marriage. After retiring a couple of years ago, he found his current TC.
“The car stays here,” he said, noting that their Indian Wells home has a three-bay garage.
Sunset comes early in Palm Desert during December. Officially, it happened at 4:37, but the tall mountains had already cast deep shadows across the boulevard for at least 30 minutes. Cruisers naturally sought to ward off the darkness. Jerry and Judy Martin’s wagon wore a strand of Christmas lights around the roof rack. A vintage Ford fire truck was alight from front clapper bell to rear step. Meanwhile, the jewelry stores and galleries—even the Tesla showroom—glowed from within.
Silhouettes of tall palms remained visible, too, as candy-colored Chevys and gaudy street rods rumbled along El Paseo like mobile Christmas ornaments in the season’s best cruising scene.
If you’re interested in joining the event, check out all the info here.