LONDON, Ontario – The Fleetwood Country Cruize-in, which has become the largest outdoor car show in Canada – some say the largest on the planet – has held its final production. After 17 years organizing and staging the event on his 45-hectare country estate just west of London, philanthropist and respected car collector Steve Plunkett says it’s time to shut it down.
“It’s time to retire,” said Plunkett, who turns 64 in July. “I am sorry to let it go and I’ll miss it. It’s a bittersweet decision.”
The 3-day event, dubbed “an automotive extravaganza like no other,” typically attracts more than 5,000 vehicles and 20,000-plus spectators. All proceeds from the show go to area charities and Plunkett expects once this year’s contributions are tallied, the annual fundraiser will have generated more than $1.75 million overall since it started in 2003.
While the decision to end the Fleetwood Country Cruize-in has surprised many, Plunkett has been considering closing down the event for a few years but has been encouraged by others to keep it rolling. This time, however, he’s definitely calling it quits.
“It takes at least a couple of months every spring for me to put this show together – months when I can’t enjoy other things, such as attending other shows with my cars or simply spending time at my cottage,” he said, conceding he’s not getting any younger. He has a collection of nearly 100 cars, including 50 Cadillacs. As an expert on the history of the premiere General Motors brand, Plunkett’s passion for the nameplate has prompted him to collect several priceless classic models. Now he wants to spend more time showing those cars at concours d’elegance events.
“I’m always being invited to those shows in the US, but I don’t have the time to attend, so now I’m going to concentrate on taking my cars there,” he said as he showed me his latest project, a rare 1930 Cadillac Town Car. He’s already laying out those plans, heading to the US next weekend for a concours d’elegance show, and then onto the prestigious Eyes on Design show June 16 in Grosse Point Shores, Michigan, where he will be an honoured collector, displaying five of the jewels from his collection on display.
For this year’s grand finale of the Fleetwood shows, Plunkett brought back the huge big top tent and two nights of concerts. During the cruise-in’s first decade, a highlight was the concerts and dinner shows, held in a massive 30x90-metre tent, said to be the largest big top ever erected in Canada. The format had several bands playing on the opening night, followed Saturday evening by a sit-down dinner and concert for up to 2,400 patrons.
The names of artists who’ve performed at the event read like a list of legends from the ‘60s rock-and-roll era — Bobby Curtola, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Tommy James and the Shondells, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys, Lighthouse, Bobby Vinton and more. Plunkett said these nostalgia performances and the cruise-in cars were a natural fit. However, with the costs of staging the concerts soaring – and good nostalgia musicians becoming harder to find – Plunkett folded up the big top in 2013.
Feedback from attendees in recent years, however, suggested they missed the fun and music, so Plunkett decided to bring back the tent concerts one more time. The final playbill featured four bands – Paul Revere’s Raiders, Mitch Ryder, Rare Earth lead singer Peter Rivera and Gary Lewis and the Playboys – for the Friday night concert and Tony Orlando in concert at Saturday’s dinner show. The performances lived up to expectations, some saying the shows were perhaps the best ever.
Reflecting on the memories his Fleetwood event has created, Plunkett says the opportunity to present the nostalgia shows and meet many of “musician heroes” over the years will remain a highlight. “I was able to meet and spend time with so many wonderful, talented people over the years,” he said, adding that he continues to stay in touch with many of them.
Still, the eclectic mix of vehicles that have rolled onto his estate each year have been the star attraction for most visitors. In addition to Plunkett’s own collection, including his most prized vehicles on display in the unique auto salon, the thousands of enthusiasts’ vehicles filling the lush grounds of the sprawling estate have created a sea of amazing colours and glistening chrome. Regardless of your particular interest, you’re likely to find vehicles that fit that bill was you wander among them – classics, vintage cars and trucks, hot rods, customs, exotics, virtually anything with wheels. The price to attend was just $10.
To boost the event’s appeal even more, Plunkett has brought in celebrities and special guests each year. One of the early guests was Hollywood custom car builder George Barris. The ”King of the Car Customizers,” who became a fixture at the event until his passing in 2015, would bring along several of the machines he’d built for the movies and television series, including his signature creation, the original Batmobile, as well as the Munsters Koach and the Monkee Mobile.
Fellow customizer Gene Winfield also became a fixture on the guest list – and was on hand for this year’s finale. Another guest who made multiple visits was Linda Vaughn, who became famous as an ambassador for the Hurst performance parts maker – and ultimately was considered the First Lady of the automotive world.
The guest list also included TV and movie stars such as Adam West and Burt Ward (the original Batman and Robin), who arrived in spectacular fashion in the original Bat-Copter, and American Graffiti actors Candy Clark and Cindy Williams, who also had a leading role in the classic TV series Laverne and Shirley.
In 2010, Plunkett had a façade of Mel’s Diner, a central feature of American Graffiti, built as a backdrop for a reunion of the movie cast. Five actors attended, including Clark, Williams, Paul Le Mat, Bo Hopkins and Lynne Marie Stewart. As part of the festivities, Plunkett had a huge inflatable screen erected to create a drive-in theatre and showed the movie classic.
A similar cast reunion was a big draw for the 2015 cruise-in, bringing together several of the stars of the classic TV series, The Dukes of Hazzard. On hand to meet and sign autographs for show-goers were John Schneider (Bo), Tom Wopat (Luke), Rick Hurst (Cletus) and Sonny Shroyer (Enos.) Tom Sarmento, the lead mechanic and builder of the show’s iconic orange Dodge Chargers, shared fascinating “inside” stories about the cars that seemed to spend as much time flying through the air as they did stirring up dust on the ground. The Dukes group had such a great time at the Fleetwood show, they returned in 2017 – and brought along Catherine Bach, who had played the role of Daisy Duke in the series.
TV car show host Barry Meguiar attended in 2009 and featured the event in one of his Car Crazy segments, then returned in 2017 as the show’s grand marshal. Other TV car show hosts followed, including Dennis Gage of My Classic Car in 2015, and Courtney Hansen of PowerNation and Overhaulin’ (2014-15).
The event’s attractions weren’t limited to the ground – for several years, flyovers and aerobatic displays by vintage aircraft thrilled the crowds below. A contingent of Amphicars showed up one year and started splashing about in a pond on the estate. They became an ongoing attraction that continued through this year as show-goers were invited to climb aboard these unique vehicles and go for a spin on the water. It was a huge hit for young and old alike. There were also several visits by the square-dancing Team Farmall tractors, which entertained visitors with their performances in a horse corral.
“There is nothing in North America that comes close to this,” Plunkett says of his Fleetwood Country Cruize-in. Unfortunately, the curtain has dropped on the event for the last time, but there will be lasting memories for the tens of thousands of folks who were able to enjoy it over its 17-year run.
Many of the cars on display this year had a simple sign attached to the windshield: Thank you Steve. Those three words say it all.