A Publication of WTVP

Cruising Peoria’s Main Street

by Steve Tarter |

The good ol’ days or just good riddance?

Depending on your point of view (and maybe your age), it was either a motorized rite of passage for central Illinois youth or an aimless exercise that tied up traffic and aggravated local businesses.

We’re talking about the cruising that took place on Main Street, a weekend exercise that spanned the 1960s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s in Peoria. Steak ‘n Shake, otherwise known as the Beefer, had it going on, man. It was the place.

Want to show off your car? Go to the Beefer. Want to drag down Main? Go to the Beefer on Friday or Saturday night.

‘I was there every weekend … I thought I was something’ — Christi Smith

“The hot rods were there. The ’57 Chevys were there. The ‘Vettes were there,” said Christi Smith, now 72.

“(Main Street) was a fun place to be when you were 16. I was there every weekend,” she said. “I was a lucky girl who had a boyfriend who worked on Friday nights. He would give me his car … He had a blue metallic ‘57 Chevy with ‘Baby Moon’ hubcaps. He had the dice hanging from the mirror. I thought I was something. The guys at Steak ‘n Shake all thought it was my car.”

Peoria was no different than a hundred other towns across the country where youth cruised back and forth to see and be seen, to meet and greet, to show off their wheels or just show off.

American Graffiti on steroids

“In Peoria it was American Graffiti on steroids,” said Brian O’Leary, a 1970 Peoria High School graduate, referring to the 1973 movie that paid tribute to the cruising phenomena.

“This area was known for hot cars. The first annual meeting of the National Street Rod Association was held in Peoria in 1970,” he said. While the association moved its annual get-together around after that — it’s now held annually in Louisville, Kentucky — there are plenty of photographs online of the many hot rods that gathered in Peoria that year.

The attachment to hot rods runs deep, said O’Leary. “I’ve got a friend who has a street rod converted from a 1931 Model A Ford. He got it redone in 1973 and it’s still sitting in a garage in Bartonville. He won’t even talk about selling it.

“I was a car guy. I had a 1963 Impala back in high school,” said O’Leary, now 71. As the owner of O’Leary’s Truck Service in Fort Collins, Colorado, O’Leary said his specialty is trucking vintage automobiles around the country.

“I’ve hauled for Jay Leno,” he said. “I just got back from a trip where I transported two cars from Naples, Florida to Minneapolis. The two cars were valued at $19 million.”

O’Leary owns special memories of the Main Street cruising that went on in Peoria. “I remember riding around on Main Street in a friend’s 1966 Corvette on my graduation day,” he said.

The end of a bumper-to-bumper era

Steve Spain, owner of the Costume Trunk, 710 W. Main St., worked as a projectionist for Kerasotes Theatres in Peoria in the 1970s.

‘Gordon Hunt … He wasn’t happy with people cruising through his restaurant and not buying anything’ — Steve Spain

“I remember that in the mid-1970s, my boss, Frank Larkin, the district supervisor, expressed displeasure with the cruising traffic on Main on Saturday nights when cars tied up Main Street around the Varsity Theater,” where the Campustown Shopping Center is now located, said Spain. “People had trouble getting into the movies.”

Spain also recalled another area business that had a problem with the cruising.

“Gordon Hunt, owner of the Hunt’s Drive-In on Farmington Road, got tired of it. He wasn’t happy with people cruising through his restaurant and not buying anything,” he said.

Hunt finally installed a toll gate in his parking lot that required tokens that were available free to restaurant customers, said Spain. “That ended the cruising at Hunt’s,” he said.

The cruising became a media issue, as well. In an Aug. 30, 1970 Journal Star article, reporter Janet Cross wrote: “The teenagers who congregate on the streets and at drive-ins along the thoroughfares are concerned with their common plight — boredom. Area residents face interrupted sleep as teenagers speed by at night in their noisy and speedy cars, litter from surrounding drive-ins and a fear of walking in the neighborhood at night.”

In a July 11, 1984 article in the North Peoria Observer, Julie Noble reported that “many of the kids complain that police have been unduly cracking down on their cruising activities.”

The crackdown continued, effectively wiping out the Main Street cruisers by the end of the 1980s.

But the memories live on. The “Cruisin’ Main Street in Peoria” Facebook page has 1,007 members, with contributors posting pictures of their rides back in the day along with comments like this one: “Main Street went downhill for me when they put that center turn lane in back in 1982.”

Steve Tarter

Steve Tarter

is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations