The Dream of the 80s & 90s are alive at Sonoma - My encounter with Radwood
No matter what everyone has been through, pandemic/political strife or not, the end of the year always presents an opportunity for us to reflect on what we are thankful for. Being grateful doesn’t strictly have to be related to cars; more importantly, we al should be grateful within our own lives. It varies between us all: ranging from the obvious like family, to the seemingly insignificant things we take for granted, like being alive.
I especially want to bring attention to those times when you might have been struggling; lost, confused, or in a position where you needed that extra hand to help you through. Even the smallest actions can mean a lot to another, which can then lead to some life-changing or major opportunities you probably wouldn’t have learned of, had it not been for that small act of kindness.
So in light of the traditional spirit at this time of year for many, let me take you back to a time when I was thankful for a particular car community; which led me to one of the best things I ever could be part of. It starts with myself, as a visitor on one of my many Bay Area Spring Break trips. Full disclosure: while it was Spring Break for my university, the weather in Northern California was anything but ‘spring break’.
Sunshine and warmth like many college students were soaking up in Cabo or Mexico? My inexperienced cold-snap self was instead, wrapped in multiple layers and using heated seats for once between San Francisco and Sacramento; sipping a mint Mojito from one of the many local Philz Coffees.
So why would a college student as myself, pass up partying in Mexico for spending a week in the Bay? As with most of the things I do out of school and for vacations: cars and car friends. In between catching up with my Honda pals on San Francisco side, checking in with my cousin when he’s not working for a certain social media firm in Silicon Valley, and stocking up on Traders’ Joes (or other stuff not readily available in Hawaii), I happily call the Bay Area my ‘third home’ to this day. It might not have as much car action as in Southern California, but I’ve built up a good network there over the years and always look forward to catching up with old friends and family every time.
It was last year (2019): my last full day in Norcal before my flight back to the island. I had a late night shoot planned that evening, but aside from that, nothing else to do before I returned my Turo rental car (and exchanged it for another to use for the night). I had already splurged my savings at Japantown, along with a day trip out to the coast of Santa Cruz , but I did not want to spend my last full day doing nothing. After all, my Turo rental had no restrictions on mileage.
A quick search on the internet of car events happening in the area that day, led me to learn of the ‘Lemons Hooptie-Con’, taking place across the Golden Gate Bridge at Sonoma Raceway. I had never heard about ‘Hooptie-Con’ prior to that random search online, nor even knew what it was all about (other than being about cars). But having driven Sonoma Raceway virtually on Forza multiple times, I decided to make the drive across; to finally visit one of many racetracks video games exposed me to, and spend one last chilly morning getting some car action in Norcal wine country.
To provide some background, the ‘HooptieCon’ is an automotive festival centered around the ‘ 24 Hours of Lemons’, a touring “celebration of not-yet-automotive-classics, never-will-be-vehicular-classics, and classic car blunders”. As the name suggests, it is a competitive race running for 24 hours, like the famous one at the Le Mans circuit, except no expensive prototypes are racing here. All the competing cars have been bought and made race-ready, for no more than $500 (USD).
So it was a no-brainer that I would have an excuse to make it out to Sonoma Raceway for a good half of the day: getting to see a bunch of cheap, somewhat roadworthy Craigslist beaters race around for twenty-four hours? Beats a solo picnic out on the beach.
Honestly, it's such a unique and strange event, for someone who comes from a part of a world where we seldom have these opportunities, that I'll have to write a whole separate feature about the '24 Hours of Lemons.' (More on that later.)
Running simultaneously as the race progresses, like Pandora's Box, the HooptieCon plays host to ‘shows within the show’: including ‘Concours D’Lemons’ (a "celebration of odd, mundane, and simply awful from the automotive world"), Billetproof (for everything pre-1965 & custom hot-rod), and the focus for this feature: Radwood.
Stepping onto Sonoma Raceway that morning would be my first ever time encountering Radwood, and the entire movement it speaks for. I remember hearing the word mentioned on a Jalopnik article in the past, but aside from briefly remembering the word pop up before, I had no prior knowledge of what RadWood entailed. Aside from that it sounded like a project Rutledge Wood would be part of.
Not that being quirky and an automotive hipster would be far off from the definition of Radwood.
The premise of Radwood is simple: Feel nostalgic about the 80s and 90s? Always preferred playing music from cassettes over MP3s? Wish every day was like an episode of Miami Vice or Knight Rider? Miss boasting your car was turbo & fuel-injected, when they were the latest in automotive innovations? Yearn for the return of pop-up headlights, LED instrument clusters, and singlet-aerobics classes? Radwood’s calling.
As Brad Brownell from the team behind Radwood puts it: “ We want to celebrate the era of cars which we grew up driving and still have massive respect for. Our events have developed a sense of camaraderie among 80s and 90s car enthusiasts because they've been told for years that their cars were undesirable or slow or weird.”
Every avenue of cars from the 80s and 90s is welcome to participate: whether it be American domestic motors from General Motors’s heydays, examples of the first Japanese imports stateside as the likes of Nissan/Toyota/Honda entered the foreign markets, or European exotics that served as the bedroom posters for many kids growing up before Y2K.
The key thing at any Radwood show is: “the more obscure, or unknown the car, the better.” There were cars present that I didn’t even know existed, let alone available for customers in the United States. Did you know that Renault and Peugeot had a stint selling their cars to Americans?
Or that AMC sold, what most in the car industry consider to be the first 'crossover' model, that would go on to set the trend for the car market now?
The great thing about Radwood, unlike your typical car show, is that there is no pressure: from attendees or the hosts, to limit participating cars to those that have been modified or are ‘built’ in some fashion. Radwood shows are the entire opposite of a major national show like Hot Import Nights; you can join in the fun, even with a clean or unmodified 80s/90s era car.
No doubt there were some modified cars parked in the muddy fields of Sonoma when I attended: from a Subaru Impreza GC coupe with meaty fitment, to a W140 on Fifteen52 wheels (Ken Block-spec), but many only had subtle changes done to them. Wheels, body kits, maybe a slight drop in ride height or small changes under the hood, but aside from that, you would be hard pressed to find someone widebody-ing a Foxbody Mustang here.
A perfect case in point: when was the last time you saw a 240SX that hadn’t been turned into a drift missile, but instead was kept largely OEM; even keeping the original paint and motor?
Or even know that out there, there are those who have not gone down to buy a SUV or truck, and are keeping the family estate body-style alive.
There's also a 'Radwood' approach to modifying you'll notice around each show; an interesting mix of rebadging, period-correct mods, and automotive trivia. Almost like a live Easter Egg only the eagle-eyed will know. Like this spin-off of the 1st gen Ford Explorer Sport: the Mazda Navajo, sold between 1991 and 1994. The fact models like this Ford-Mazda venture, have been shrouded in obscurity and relatively unknown, makes the process of learning all about them exciting to do.
In some ways, the cleaner and boxier the car, the better. Better yet, some of the booths that usually tag along with RadWood, such as car auction website ‘Bring A Trailer’, rely upon bringing the best of tasteful and untouched examples of motoring legends from the 80s through the 90s.
This was one of my few chances to be able to get up close to two legends respectively: a Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini Countach, out in the open. Did I mind being out in a muddy, damp field whilst my fingers felt like getting frostbite? I would do it all over again, just to see these legends in the flesh. Especially when Monterey Car Week, which is full of rare exotics of this generation, is out of reach for myself; at the moment.
A local BMW E30 club was in attendance that day, hence the many fine examples of this gen at the event. No E30 M3s for any Cactus Jack hypebeasts in the room; just 3 Series sedans and coupes, but all had good taste and were well maintained.
The rally legends were definite head-turners: this is probably one of the few times I have seen a Lancia Delta Integrale in person, let alone in the States. You can't go wrong with an Audi Quattro either.
It might surprise you to know that RadWood itself is a fairly new addition. “We were all hanging out together at Monterey Car Week in 2016 when the seeds began to be planted. “ Brownell explains.
“The conversation basically began as: "What kind of event would you want to run if you could run one?" The answer most of us came up with was a combination of the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival, but set in the U.S. and covering a more modern span of time."
“It took us another year before we had our first show in June of 2017. Mostly it just took us badgering each other to make it happen until we finally decided on a date and location. “
It’s not just the cars here that make up the theme of taking it back and getting into the ‘Rad’ spirit: attendees are welcomed, and in fact encouraged, to dress the part too. It's what makes this event stand out from the rest too: being half Eighties themed party, half automotive exhibition (and a quarter karaoke night)
Have a pastel suit like Crockett of the Miami PD? Wear it, even if you don’t have a white Testarossa-replica. Wanted to release your inner Gene Simmons? Bring it, along with your Suzuki Vitara with a ‘jazz’ cup design on the sides.
Got a thrift-store look to go along with the wood paneling on your Jeep Grand Cherokee? Or do you have a Motley Crue impression you want to showcase, complete with the Pontiac Fiero that played host to the many mixtapes from college? Radwood is the place to bring it.
You can even, or are encouraged so to speak, to live out your Marty McFly fantasies at an event like this. Some attendee displays will even go out their way to find and match as many period-correct props to set the mood by which their cars were sold in: TV guides, pagers, snack boxes, music from the period playing off Walkmans; as well as the original advertisements and brochures.
Even if you own a family barge, such as a Volvo estate or as shown here, an Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan, there is no car Radwood will not pass up. Provided it was made between the early 1980s to the late 1990s.
“It's something of an "island of misfit toys" vibe where all of us weirdos come together to have a really fun time. Obviously the dressing up and partying is part of the fun, as it shows we have a sense of humor and can take a bit of a joke. “
Case in point.
This is probably one of Radwood’s most iconic characteristics: no drama, no squabbling over awards or who has the most ‘clout’, or sponsorship stickers to boast on their car. Radwood is not intended to be taken seriously as a car show; in the same way the Eric Andre Show on AdultSwim is the ‘anti-talk show’ versus the likes of its formal counterparts over at NBC. Everyone, participants and spectators, are here to let their hair down, while reminiscing on what many consider the peak of automotive culture and design.
And that is what leads me onto what made me fall in love with Radwood as a whole. While trying to take everything in, I realized that my phone was no longer where it was meant to be. Considering I was not local to the area and therefore relied on my navigation apps to make my way back to San Francisco side, along with the process to return my rental car, being phoneless would be a disaster. But a breather, along with retracing my steps towards the DJ booth, I asked the person behind the turntables if someone had reported a misplaced phone. Luck was on my side that day: he pulled out my Huawei (with my unique phone case: a rendering of the old Nismo Van) that someone reported to him.
The fact that a fellow attendee of the Radwood show, along with one of the booth managers holding onto said device, had done such an act of kindness, fully illustrated the community atmosphere central to this entire ‘Rad’ movement. So much so that in gratitude, I sent a care package from Hawaii to the Radwood office in Nevada as a thank you, for them hosting such a hospitable event.
“The cars are just part of what brings the community together; it's more about the shared humanity and the new friends made. We can’t host our shows without a seriously dedicated fanbase, and the things that people have done in the name of Radwood have been truly astonishing."
With a Facebook group of more than 20,000 members, supporters hailing from all around the United States & even, multiple countries, the Radwood movement is growing each and every day; with no signs of stopping anytime soon (apart from a pandemic cancelling the 2020 tour schedule).It goes without saying: there are plenty who do dream for the 90s; and they don't even need to be in Portland to do so.
“People will travel from all over the country to attend multiple shows every year, bringing cars specifically to fit the show's aesthetic. The enthusiasm always existed, we just gave them an outlet where it was okay to let your weird out for a while. “
RadWood aims to resume shows once more in the coming year, providing its safe to do so. And when such a welcoming and passionate community help out someone in a heart-stopping moment as I experienced, you know I will be looking to attend one, when their schedule is back to normal.
In the meantime, give their Instagram and Facebook pages a follow. Convinced to become part of the RadWood movement? Apply to join their ever-growing Facebook group. And keep up-to-date on event announcements, or get your Rad merch; a gift for yourself or your friend who's hooked on Retrowave songs from their website.
The team is also preparing to launch a dedicated auction platform for Rad-era cars and related items at 'Rad For Sale' , so there is no better time to join the movement than now!
Special thanks to Brad Brownell for providing quotes for this feature.