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The Garage: Focus on autos

Motor heads finding their Mecca at Ricky & Ronnie's

The '50s-style drive-in diner in Torrance is drawing automotive connoisseurs of many makes and models.

July 14, 2007|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

The rumbling of engines starts in the late afternoon.

Gleaming hot rods, vintage Corvettes and pristinely preserved Cadillacs converge at a busy street corner in Torrance and file into a parking lot. Overhead, speakers belt out Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman."

It is Cruisin' 50s night at Ricky & Ronnie's Cruise-In Diner, and it transports 64-year-old Sam Fine back in time.

"It creates an atmosphere that makes you feel younger," said the Harbor City car buff, a regular at the event, held every first Friday of the month.

In car-worshipping Southern California, meeting spots for motor heads are a dime a dozen. Ruby's Diner in Redondo Beach has regular cruising nights during the summer, and Bob's Big Boy in Burbank attracts classic car owners on Fridays. Many are impromptu events. A restaurant may welcome them on a slow night or strip malls may look the other way as enthusiasts turn their parking lots into auto shows.

But Ricky & Ronnie's, at the corner of Normandie and Sepulveda boulevards, was built specifically to attract car fanatics and their machines.

"Most of the time, a restaurant might say, why don't you guys come Tuesday nights, it is usually slow then," said Fine, who belongs to a number of car clubs, including the Cruisin' 50s Car Club, one of the biggest in the region with 225 members. "But Ricky & Ronnie's is unique that way."

The restaurant is actually two buildings, a 1950s-style diner in the back and a "clubhouse" in the front.

With its neon sign, the clubhouse has become a Torrance landmark since Ricky & Ronnie's opened almost three years ago. The owners commissioned a building with an auto-inspired fin and an analog clock on the roof. The place looks so authentically 1950s that it has been featured in commercials, including a recent Mercedes-Benz spot complete with roller-skating waitresses.

The restaurant is open regular hours, but the clubhouse is reserved for special events, mostly car-club meetings. The first and third Wednesdays of each month are reserved for Mustangs. The Chevelles roll in on the second Saturday, and Porsche lovers can feast their eyes every first Saturday of the month. Thursday nights are reserved for motorcycles.

During Cruisin' 50s night, the place is filled with grizzled veterans in satin or leather jackets and their wives, but Ricky & Ronnie's attracts a mix of period pieces and modern machines. There are rebuilt roadsters and PT Cruisers, classic Mustangs as well as the latest souped-up model.

"I just wanted to create a place where all of our buddies could come and meet and talk about their cars," said Rick Smith, the 59-year-old co-owner. The place is named after Smith, an avid car collector, and Ron Shaver, a legendary South Bay-based racing-engine builder and a regular at the restaurant.

The other co-owner is Smith's friend and business partner, Dave Albert, a former contractor and one-time mayor of neighboring Lomita who admits he is more of a "truck guy."

"I am not a real car buff, Rick is, but this is a real neat place," Albert, 54, said while giving a tour of the 2-acre site recently. "My wife calls it Rick and mine's mid-life crisis."

The pair, who have other businesses, won't say how much they spent building the diner -- "a lot," Albert said -- but the investment is slowly paying off.

On event nights, the parking lot is jam-packed with more than 200 cars, and the restaurant, which serves classic fare such as hamburgers and ice cream malts, gets a regular stream of customers.

"It is a much-needed place," said 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones, a Rolling Hills resident who has a VIP parking spot at Ricky & Ronnie's.

"There used to be a lot more places like this," said the 73-year-old racing icon, whose son P.J. Jones races in NASCAR. "But you would have to go years and years back."

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