Radwood Cleveland: Unsung car culture hub knows how to party

Cam VanDerHorst

Nostalgia drives car culture. Neon-soaked nostalgia for an idealized vision of the 1980s and 1990s that never actually existed has been stoked, in large part, by the RADwood movement, started on the West Coast in 2017. I was at those first two shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Both were overwhelmingly fun, positive environments filled with smiles, laughter, great tunes, wild clothes, and, most importantly, the cars I’ve spent my whole life dreaming about. RADwood shows are a far cry from the regimented, folding-chairs-in-parking-lots affairs with which you’re likely familiar. Each is a party that just so happens to revolve around the cars on the posters you bought from the Scholastic Book Fair in the third grade.

Recently, Hagerty purchased RADwood and brought it under its ever-growing umbrella of car culture events. When I found out that the first RADwood event under Hagerty’s stewardship was going to happen in my backyard, I knew I had to attend. I was eager to see the bright colors, sharp angles, and synth-driven soundtrack of RADwood juxtaposed with the pockmarked, postindustrial milieu of Cleveland, Ohio.

2022 RADwood Cleveland
Cam VanDerHorst

Cleveland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable, thanks in no small part to its proximity to Lake Erie. The climate ping-pongs between biting chill and oppressive humidity. Sometimes, you get both on the same day. Unfortunately, the Saturday of the show was no different, with the May temperatures in the 40-degree range and brutal wind whipping between the man-made corridors of now-dormant brick factories. Thankfully, a younger generation of Clevelanders have taken charge, revitalizing their city by reimagining these vast, open spaces into venues for weddings, parties, or, in this case, a car show.

The former Twist Drill Factory lent its parking lot, courtyard, and second floor to RADwood for the day. The worn, cratered parking lot, typical of the area, drew a great many cars and their owners, the latter eager to experience the first car show of the season. Dozens upon dozens of incredible cars showed up, although most didn’t stay long. Spectators were directed along a side street, lined block party–style by a diverse selection of 1980s and 1990s cars, then into the Twist Drill Factory’s courtyard, temporary home to an impressive display of rally cars that included a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI and a Ford Escort Cosworth.

From there, you entered the building proper, climbing a wide metal staircase to the building’s second floor. Here, you’ll find the original hardwood floors and white-painted brick walls, an expansive room broken only by the steel columns holding the place together. Even the windows are original to the location; the people who rehabilitated this building were careful to preserve its working-class roots while making it a suitable—and stylish—gathering place. Equal credit goes to the organizers, who opted to host the RADwood Royalty display in this space.

Instead of packing in as many cars as possible, the RADwood team hand-selected roughly a dozen significant cars that best represented the era, strategically placing them far enough apart to allow for reflection and appreciation of each car on an individual basis. The effect was similar to the way in which art galleries use neutral spaces to allow for contemplation of each piece. The open spaces left behind by the organizers’ admirable restraint provided room for friends new and old to gather and socialize while era-appropriate pop music played at a reasonable volume.

RADwood was, in part, born out of an urge to overcome the negative car show tropes: tightly packed cars, limited scope, the aforementioned folding chairs, the same six Beach Boys songs playing at 120dB from blown-out PA speakers. In this, the movement has been an overwhelming success. The world has changed a lot since our parents called the shots. The designated hitter rule applies to both leagues, NASCAR races have stage breaks instead of artificial debris cautions, and we don’t zip our chairs into polyester sleeves after car shows.

The RADwood Royalty display certainly had its share of poster-worthy hero cars, such as a Porsche 930, a BMW E30 M3, and both a Corvette ZR-1 and a Callaway C12. However, there were a fair share of the more attainable dream cars as well, such as a tastefully modified Volkswagen Corrado, an impeccable Infiniti M30, and even a total time-capsule Dodge Neon, complete with pastel pink and electric blue stripes. Many 1980s and 1990s Japanese dream cars, once considered forbidden fruit, have now surpassed the mandatory 25-year waiting period for importation and were well-represented as RADwood Royalty as well. Myron Vernis’ stellar Autech Zagato Stelvio, a previous RADwood award winner, was present, as well as a AE86 Corolla Levin in the familiar black-and-white paint scheme, complete with gunmetal eight-spoke wheels.

Also on display was a selection of 1980s and 1990s BMX bikes, the kind many of us yearned to own before we got our driver’s licenses. A local collector curated an incredible display that featured some high-dollar hardware from the likes of Hutch and Haro. A DeLorean, complete with requisite Back to the Future movie props, was displayed with a For Sale sign—and an invitation for attendees to sit inside one of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s most famous creations. Once again, a far cry from your average car show.

Unsurprisingly, Doug Tabbutt’s Callaway C12 was the hero of RADwood Cleveland, winning the coveted Raddest In Show award, while the trademark Best Dressed award was won by an attendee in chunky white sneakers, baggy acid-washed jeans, a Cleveland Indians World Series shirt, and a ’96 Atlanta Olympics jacket. He even went so far as to get frosted tips for the occasion. I admire his commitment.

Car culture in Northeast Ohio doesn’t get the recognition it deserves on a national level. Southern California may be more glamorous, and Detroit may be connected, but as a lifelong Clevelander and Akronite, I’ve long believed that we do it better than anyone else. The sheer variety of unusual cars that braved the cold to come out to RADwood Cleveland is a testament to how much we love cars in this part of the country. Our winters may be long, but when the rain washes away the road salt and the sun eventually appears, we go twice as hard to make up for lost time.

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