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On the night of June 21, 1974, charter members of the Minnesota Street Rod Association gathered in the former Midway Shopping Center parking lot to show off their street rods and custom cars and cruise to the old Porky's drive-in restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul.

Never in their wildest dreams did the founders think their small "Back to the Fifties" event featuring about 150 vehicles would grow into one of the nation's largest and premier car shows of its kind. The extravaganza now held on the State Fairgrounds is still going strong and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

"It's been a fun run," said Tom Vollbrecht, the association's treasurer. "People all over the world know about our show. I'm not sure what we do different [than others], but we try to have fun and welcome families."

While the shiny chrome, white sidewall tires and thousands of restored Edsels, Hudsons, Corvettes and vehicles from 1964 and older are the main attraction, the extravaganza is far more than a stroll down the memory lane of motoring. From Friday through Sunday, attendees can take in a swap meet, craft fair and concerts. There are tractor pulls and inflatables for kids, a marketplace for adults and a vintage airplane flyover at 11 a.m. Saturday. On Friday, stock car racing legend Richard Petty will stop by to pose for photographs and sign autographs.

Gene Sonnen, who came up with the idea for the first "Back to the Fifties," has another theory as to why the event has been voted the best car show in the country by USA Today Reader's Choice.

"It's the State Fair food," said Sonnen, 77, who will display his 1940 Ford sedans and a restored wooden station wagon near the WCCO-TV booth. "It's really like the fair, and there is always something to see, even for people not interested in cars."

Though hardly the state's oldest event — the St. Paul Winter Carnival has been going since 1886 — reaching a half-century is quite a feat, said Jake Juliot, a spokesman for Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism division.

"It's great to see that the 'Back to the Fifties' is turning 50," he said. "It's always a special milestone when an event turns 50. Minnesota is very lucky to have amazing festivals and events that have been around a long time and are part of many Minnesotans' traditions, as well as great activities for visiting guests to enjoy."

Vollbrecht, who will show off his 1934 two-door black Pontiac, attributes the show's staying power to its cheap admission of $15 for adults and no charge for children 15 and younger.

"It's a reasonable thing for a family to do," Vollbrecht said.

Tom Vollbrecht will display his 1934 Pontiac at this year's "Back to the Fifties" car show at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Tom Vollbrecht will display his 1934 Pontiac at this year's "Back to the Fifties" car show at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

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