AUBURN – Cruiz Nite in New Auburn. There is Barry Billings of Durham with his 1917 Model T. It’s got a 22-horsepower motor, wooden spokes and even a horn that goes, “Awoooga!” This is the kind of classic car that turns heads.

“It’s just a little buggy to ride around in,” Billings says.

Nearby is Mike Smith with his 1933 Ford. It’s a five-window coupe with parts from a variety of eras. The suspension is from a Pinto, half the seat is from a Hyundai and the other, from a Ford Escort. It’s a mutt, all right, but to look at it, it’s pure vintage hot rod.

“I built it from scratch,” Smith says.

Over here, we have a 1976 Gamma Cycle. Only nine were made that year so this bright yellow beast is a rarity. It’s also a little strange. At first glance, it appears to be another classic car. But lift the “trunk” in back and things get weird. This ride is powered by a Honda motorcycle, nearly completely intact but hidden from sight.

“People really stare at it,” says the owner of this automobile. “I almost caused a couple of accidents over on Center Street.”

The aroma of hot dogs and cigarette smoke hangs in the air. Wolfman Jack is on the radio and he’s spinning hits from the 1950s. In this corner of New Auburn, with all those classic cars, a person could almost convince himself that it’s the era of “Happy Days.” A sock hop could break out at any moment.

But the Rev. Joseph Mallozzi is there to make sure nobody gets lost in time. He has a flashy car, too, but this one is modern. A 2001, to be exact. It’s a Chevy Corvette, deep black with chrome and stainless steel, and it’s about as flashy as a car can get before it becomes classified as a spaceship.

“It was a plain Jane when I got it,” the pastor says. “It’s a good ministry tool.”

Sure it is. People want to talk to Joe about his car. Complete strangers will stop him with questions. It’s a good chance for him to steer lost souls to the Auburn Baptist Church.

But mostly, it’s just a dazzling ride. The chrome came from California. Pastor Joe did most of the work himself. Wouldn’t you know it? Before he joined the church in 1985, he ran an auto body shop in Rhode Island.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” he says. “When I came on board I told them, if you want me as your pastor, I’m still going to customize cars.”

He is a rangy man with cool black hair and Elvis-era duds. He also has a 1951 Ford named Betty Lou, left at home tonight.

“That one,” he says, “is more my personality.”

It’s a good story and a good time. Dozens of people come to Cruiz Nite two Fridays a month, to mingle, listen to nostalgic music and talk about cars.

The event was the brainchild of Leroy Walker and Stephen J. Martelli, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the United New Auburn Association.

The pair love New Auburn. They feel it is distinct from the rest of the city and that it should be celebrated for those differences. With sponsors like Andy’s Baked Beans, they set out to get things started.

“We just want to see more events in New Auburn,” Martelli says. “We’re tired of everything happening at Festival Plaza and other spots in that area.”

So far, mission accomplished. With Cruiz Nite and coming events, such as the hot-air balloon moon glow gathering (Aug. 19) and Battle of the Deejays (Aug. 17) the people of this charismatic section of the city are coming around. Almost everybody at Cruiz Nite seems to know everybody else. They have been living together for years – even decades – but don’t always get outside to socialize.

“The whole idea,” says Walker, “is to try to bring the whole neighborhood together. To get people out of their houses.”

New Auburn is the kind of place where you will still find a barber pole. The restaurants are Mom & Pop, as are the corner stores. All those classic cars look appropriate parked there in a lot between Rolly’s and the Happy Days diners. Leroy says the lot is almost always full on Cruiz Nite.

“We’ll usually get 30 cars or so,” he says.

No surprise, really. When a person invests that much time and passion into restoring or rebuilding, who wants to leave the final product at home?

“I don’t believe in leaving them in the garage,” says Pastor Joe.

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.