In the 1985 hit movie, Back to the Future, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd, converts a 1985 DMC DeLorean into a time machine that transports teenager, Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, back to the 1950s in the fictional town of Hill Valley, California.
The premise of the film requires viewers to suspend disbelief for a couple hours and accept the idea that a car could be transformed into a time machine, but for a select group of long-time Guelph residents it’s a familiar concept.
Every autumn since 1983, the surviving members of the Roamers Car Club have used a customized 1958 Ford Edsel convertible to help them travel back to the late 1950s in the very real town of Guelph where the average price of a home was $14,000, the sticker price of a new family car was about $3,000 and the price at the pump was less than 10 cent a litre.
“That was back when a Rocky’s hot dog was a quarter,” said club founder Lefty Higgins. “We had the club for a while on Clearview Avenue behind Rockies. It’s now a used car lot. It was there that we cut the roof off my old man’s truck.”
Higgins started the Roamers Car Club in 1958 with friends Roy Mason and Brian Whitehead before inviting local grocer and fellow grease monkey Jack Upsdell to join.
“We agreed we were going to start a car club and I pushed to get it going,” said Higgins. “I knew Jack, and Jack was all in so, boom, we were all in and our first meeting was on Watson Road in a farmer’s field.
The club quickly grew to 15 members, and they soon found a garage where they could build dragsters and customize their cars.
“We had a garage near the Ontario Reformatory then we ended up in the back lane near Five Points,” said Higgins. “There’s a big garage back there where we had the clubhouse and the cars. Then we ended up over where Harvey’s is, by the cop shop. We had a 14-car garage with a pit and a club room.”
Higgins was club president for the first four years when most of the rules were established.
“We had very strict rules,” he said. “We would fine members if they were squealing their tires. There was a 10-cent fine for swearing. You would have to throw it in the pot.”
They maintained a good relationship with local police and any member charged with impaired or careless driving risked being kicked out.
“We never allowed the club to have more than 30 members at any one time and there was always a waiting list,” said Higgins. “To get in you had to be approved by everybody.”
The Roamers held weekly dances at the YMCA and the former John McCrae Memorial Hall on Elizabeth Street where admission was a dollar and couples paid $1.50. The dress code discouraged people from showing up in jeans.
They always brought in live bands and among the many regular performers was Order of Canada Award recipient, Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and his band The Hawks, that consisted of members from the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, The Band.
“We had a lot of fun,” said Ken Kuenzig, as he sorted through a folder of old club photos, posters and letters.
Kuenzig joined the club in 1963 and had developed a love of dragsters and custom cars while working at the Royal City Turf Club Speedway on Woodlawn Road. The half-mile track was established by Guelph Sports Hall of Famer George Lasby in the early 1950s. It was closed in 1953 to allow for the construction of the General Electric plant, presently occupied by Skyjack.
“I used to sell popcorn in the grandstand there,” said Kuenzig. “My brother raced there.”
Roamers rarely missed an opportunity to show what their cars could do and Kuenzig found a letter in the folder from the Central Saddle Club in Galt dated May 13, 1962, describing an event where club member Andy Janosik raced a quarter horse with his 1933 Ford Five Window Coupe.
“It was in a dirt field and there was a guy standing between us,” Janoski recalled. “He held a cowboy hat up and as soon as he dropped it the horse took off. He was almost three quarters of the way down. It wasn’t until I slowed the tires down and got moving that I was able to catch up and pass him at the end of the line.”
Roughly 120 members transitioned through the club during the 20 years it was in operation, each with enough stories to launch a movie franchise.
The club officially disbanded in 1978, but the members stayed in touch and in 1983 they got together at the Rod and Gun Club in Eden Mills for what would become an annual reunion that continues to this day.
They have met at a variety of locations over the past 40 years, including Niagara Falls in 1993 for the 45th anniversary, but for the last 10 years the reunions have been held at the Stampede Ranch.
Reunion organizer, Marlene Hawkins, has been attending Roamer events since 1960 when her late husband, Fred Hawkins joined the club. His custom 1958 Ford Edsel convertible is now owned by his daughter Barb who makes sure it arrives every year to take surviving members on a trip down memory lane.
Marlene was hesitant to predict the future of the annual reunion, but she is aware that some are suggesting this might be the last.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just thought we’ve got to have something to celebrate the past 65 years. It’s great that we get together to have a laugh or two and remember.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Higgins.
“It’s an opportunity for these people go back to their youth,” he said. “They get together annually because it was the best time of their life.”