It's pop quiz time. If I were to ask you what the Commonwealth of Kentucky has contributed to the automotive world without so much as whispering the names "Chevrolet Corvette" or "Toyota Camry," what could you come up with? I'll give you a few moments.
Drawing a blank? That's alright because I can't say I don't understand. Typically, common knowledge will tell you Kentucky is only a part of the Union you'd want to visit if you are an equestrian gambling enthusiast or have a taste for really good whiskey. It's likely next to the last place on earth you'd think of when it comes to cars. But the truth is that Kentucky's contributions to the automotive industry and car culture go beyond building America's Sports Car and the nation's best-selling mobile toaster oven.
Ten miles away from a place called Penile, the original Ford Explorer — the sports-utility vehicle an entire generation grew up with back in the '90s — was built at Ford's aptly named Louisville Assembly Plant in Louisville, Kentucky. As a matter of fact, Ford has maintained a massive manufacturing presence in Louisville for over 100 years, after it started building the Model T here in 1913. And today, Ford builds the Ford Escape and the Lincoln MKC at the Explorer's former home, in addition to its successful Super Duty pickups and the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator at its nearby Kentucky Truck Plant.
So that's five cars in addition to the Corvette and the Camry that can trace their origins to Kentucky. But that's not all. At the Georgetown, Kentucky plant where Toyota builds the Camry, they also build the Avalon flagship sedan and the Venza crossover. And, scaling the picture down a bit, many automotive suppliers are also based out of the Bluegrass state. For example, Harrodsburg and Berea both harbor Hitachi Automotive who, among their various accolades, make the electric motors used in the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.
Speaking of Berea and electric cars, Mr. Jack Roush, a well versed name in the automotive industry who is currently assisting Google on making its future self-driving disembodied head, was born in Covington and attended Berea College. However, Roush isn't the only automotive personality to hail from Corvette country. NASCAR racing drivers Michael and Darrell Waldrip both hail from Owensboro.
The dean of automotive journalism himself, the revered Mr. David E. Davis, was born in Burnside. Arguably, if it wasn't for Davis's influential affinity for irreverence and story-telling, automotive journalism as we know it today would be a radically different thing. Bit players and the biggest names in the business all owe something to Mr. Davis.
I bet you think I'm finished, right? Oh no. Not just yet. There's still a small corner of ground we have left to cover before we reach the event we'll be looking at.
Sparta, Kentucky is home to the Kentucky Speedway, which hosts everything from NASCAR to IndyCar racing. Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky — which is better associated with those four-legged animals the car was designed to replace — hosts a fully-fledged annual Concours d'Elegance. And right across the street (sort of) from the Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is the National Corvette Museum.
And then there's the event that I'll be covering today: the Somernites Cruise in Somerset, Kentucky. One of the largest automotive events the entire Commonwealth has to offer, this three-day motorfest attracts over a thousand cars and spectators not just annually, but monthly. (Obviously, it isn't held at any time of the year where it could get cold and snowy.) It's such a big deal, downtown Somerset is shut down for most of an entire day just to host all of the cars that show up.
It might not be the Woodward Dream Cruise, but it's still enough of a big deal that I thought I should go out one Saturday and do some snooping around. I also didn't want to depict Somernites as a mecca only for muscle car enthusiasts, as I've seen a handful of other outlets do. There really is something here for everyone, so I made it a goal to highlight every unique or strange vehicle that crossed my path.
Kentucky's automotive scene really is every bit as rich and interesting as any other state in the US. With that said, I hope you enjoy this decidedly different look at a significant part of Kentucky's car culture.
Note: This article wraps up an unnecessarily long three-day series covering the Somernites Cruise. To read a brief narrative that was written as part of this series, check out Part One here. To read more about what goes on at the Somernites Cruise from start to end, check out Part Two here.
The first car to greet my arrival at the Somernites Cruise was this lovely Don Knotts-era Volkswagen Beetle. What a great way to kick things off.
Coming in at about the size of a living room sofa was this late '60s Honda N600, neatly tucked away down an alleyway. If Honda decides it wants to build interesting cars again and compete against the Fiat 500 in the process, well, this is the car they'll have to bring back, near lock, stock and barrel.
Second-generation Javelins are starting to become one of my favorite classic automotive designs. There's just something about that long hood and those bulging fenders and big hips that's just so tastefully vulgar.
Of course, I couldn't showcase that sweet Javelin without sharing the amazing Walter Mitty Corvette sitting directly next to it. You could almost see this thing sitting out in front of an AMC dealer in 1968, it was that well restored.
Let me just say, it's about damn time someone brought an old American sedan to a classic car show. This American Ambassador appeared as if it could've been an honest survivor car judging by the surface rust on the radiator support.
This last-generation Barracuda didn't deserve to look so ignored, so I decided I would at least snap a quick pic of it.
When's the last time you spotted a Dodge Rampage in decent nick, let alone one with an original camper shell? I almost have to wonder if the camper shell cost almost as much as the actual truck itself.
To whoever owns this Dodge Charger, from the very bottom of my heart, thank you for building a tasteful restomod car and not another General Lee clone. Far too many second-generation Dodge Chargers have been wasted on that goddamned nonsense.
The second-generation Corvair is the best Corvair. I just felt like pointing that out. Also, I sort of want the coupe version.
This Chevy Vega really sums up what the Vega is good for: building a cheap kick-ass drag car.
This last-generation RX-7 was probably the best and most tasteful car the tuner crowd had to offer. Two thumbs up.
I think this VW Bus gave me a bit of a contact buzz...
...I mean, just check out that door, for Christsake. Jerry Garcia would certainly approve.
Here's a VW Thing for no good reason except it's a VW Thing painted in nuclear green paint.
Like, zoinks! It's an honest-to-god Mystery Machine. Well, except I think this old Chevy Van's mostly retired from its mystery solving days. Still neat, though.
Here's another under-appreciated classic car: the GM colonnade coupe. Early examples like this '73 LeMans are quite uncommon to see.
It was around the time I swiped this photo of this excellent '68 Barracuda I noticed my camera's battery was just about trashed. I loved this Barracuda to death, not only because it's probably one my favorite American cars of all time, but because it was very photogenic. If you observed this old Mopar up close, you could tell it was an honest driver's car and not just a show piece.
This old Chevy truck was quite LUV-ly, if I do say so myself. The wheels, well, those were more Courtney Love, but that doesn't make this old fella any less charming.
Speaking of charming, this antique GMC truck was a very quaint piece of machinery.
Here's a car that I hoped I would see here. It's because of this '69 Olds 442, the '72 Cutlass Supreme that has been in my family since 2008 now proudly wears a shade of black cherry paint.
And speaking of Cutlass Supremes, this '70 Cutlass Supreme SX was a real treat.
Right after I snapped this shot of... um, well, I suppose in its former life, it used to be a Chevy Advance Design pickup, my camera decided that it had had enough. But what a great vehicle to conclude our offbeat tour of the Somernites Cruise with. I hope you enjoyed it.
Photo credits: Blake Noble