PPN assembled four small-block muscle cars for a day’s drive in the West New Jersey countryside
By Richard Truesdell
Unlike Los Angeles, with its history as the birthplace of the hot rod, or Detroit with its Woodward Cruise, New Jersey, where I grew up, doesn’t have the same style of muscle car traditions.
New Jersey, especially in the eyes of those who live outside the Garden State, is best known for mobsters, toxic waste dumps, and its glorious super highways, the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. As a native New Jerseyan, it is easy to understand these mindsets, but if you go beyond the surface stereotypes, there is plenty of cool car culture hidden within. As keeper of the road trip flame at PPN, it fell on my shoulders to develop an itinerary for a follow-up tour to our Route 66 one.
Despite its reputation, New Jersey is so much more than the six densely populated counties in the northeastern corner of the state. It’s also the famous Jersey Shore, Bruce Springsteen, and Highway 9, which goes past Englishtown’s Raceway Park, lush farmlands in the Southern part of the state and, for our collection of small-block muscle cars, it’s the historic backroads bordering the Delaware River and chock full of interesting and quirky locations.
If New Jersey is known by out-of-staters for anything worthwhile, it’s our diner culture that spans more than a century. Our Saturday journey through western New Jersey’s Warren and Hunterdon counties started with what is now a PPN tradition, breakfast at a period-correct eatery. In this case, the Key Diner on the westbound side of Route 22 in Phillipsburg, along the Delaware River — which came through with flying colors.
The Key Diner served as the rendezvous point for an eclectic collection of four muscle cars that can still be called affordable: Larry and Wendy Ring’s 1968 Chevy II Nova SS, Tom Olewine’s 1970 Dodge Dart Swinger, Blaine Hertzog’s 1971 AMC Hornet SC/360, and Chris Matlaga’s 1972 Ford Mustang Mach 1, each of the four displacing no more than 360c.i. Also in attendance was Ford/Shelby enthusiast Dan Reiter, who helped secure the Mach 1, and Larry Blatt, who had volunteered to serve as the camera car driver.
On the road
For our next stop, we headed south a few miles to the hamlet of Alpha, Delaware. A magazine article in Weird N.J. tipped us off that someone had metal dinosaurs on their property. Given that Alpha is so tiny, once we arrived, it wasn’t hard to find the metal beasts on Industrial Drive. The sight gave us pause, thinking about how such similar creatures gave their bodies so that millions of years later, we would have the petroleum necessary to feed and lubricate our cherished muscle cars. Since the dinosaurs were on private property, we quickly grabbed some shots and departed with haste.
Pulling in for gas, we immediately caused a stir at the pumps. As we had experienced at the diner, other patrons cleared the area for our group shots. The station manager quickly produced a stepladder to facilitate getting high-angle photos of all four cars. After topping off the tanks, we headed east toward New Jersey, back across the Delaware River over the narrow two-lane bridge leading into the town of Belvidere.
As lunchtime rolled around, we headed to Buttzville — yes, Buttzville — and another Garden State institution, Hot Dog Johnny’s, where the menu was dominated by, of course…hot dogs. Here, it’s still possible to get a premium frank, fries, and drink and get change back from three dollars. In an era of homogenized fast food, Hot Dog Johnny’s instantly returns you to a simpler time. The roadside stand has continuously served up great food at reasonable prices since 1944, and the proof of its enduring success is that no matter what the time, weather, or season, it’s almost always packed and standing room only.
At Hot Dog Johnny’s, our caravan competed for patrons’ attention with a beautiful copper-hued, four-door Tri-Five Chevy post station wagon. With Nomads always stealing the limelight, it was a pleasure to take in the clean, simple lines of this under-appreciated classic.
Next stop, not far from Hot Dog Johnny’s, was Island Dragway, another throwback to a time when muscle cars dominated the street and strip. A small family-operated drag strip, Island Dragway is Blaine Hertzog’s home track, and he quickly led us around the facility. While we would have liked to put our cars through their paces, given our tight schedule, it wasn’t possible. Blaine still proudly showed us several time slips from recent runs, all well below 14 seconds. (It should be noted that Hertzog’s best time is a very respectable 13.539 seconds at 101.22 mph with full exhaust, street tires, and stock AMC exhaust manifolds.).
From the track, we headed south on County Road 519, which runs side-by-side with the Delaware River, just a few miles to the west of Pennsylvania. I used the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the Mustang and was reminded of how similar it felt to my own Mercury Cougar. The experience transported me back 30 years to my college days.
Matlaga’s 351 was strong, willing, and could still easily light the tires. As we approached our original starting point of Phillipsburg, we came upon Sweet Treats and Eats and pulled in to enjoy their famous frozen custard confections. Like elsewhere along the route, our collection of classic muscle attracted the admiring glances and comments of other customers.
It should be noted that western New Jersey is home to several local wineries, and Sweet Treat and Eats is located between two: Alba Vineyards to the south in Milford and Four Sisters to the north in Belvidere. Just when you thought you knew everything about New Jersey, you find out there are actually 20 wineries that dot the state.
The journey south continued as we picked up Interstate 78 east to NJ 31 South in Clinton. Constructed in the ’60s and completed in the ’70s, Interstate 78 made it possible to traverse New Jersey east to west in less than an hour without hitting a single traffic light. The new route replaced the notorious US Route 22, known in many parts of the state as Death’s Highway.
Approaching Flemington from the north, we made our way to the center of town and the historic Union Hotel. Situated just across the street from the original Hunterdon County Courthouse, it was the infamous site of 1935’s Lindbergh Kidnapping Trail. At the time of the kidnapping, it was considered the crime of the century.
End of the road
Before we said our farewells and gave thanks for a great day – and an even better drive – we stopped at the Citgo Quik Mart on 31 North, just south of the Flemington Circle. Normally, this wouldn’t rate a mention, but the unassuming gas stop carries one of the most eclectic selections of magazines to be found anywhere, with all the expected domestic titles, as well as motoring titles from England, Australia, and even France. As a certifiable magazine junkie, I can tell you it’s worth the trip.
During our tour of New Jersey, we saw cows, not chemical plants, and lush farmlands, rather than mafia burial grounds. It was a far cry from what you’d imagine if your perception of the Garden State is formed from the impressions provided by TV, movies, and news broadcasts. Best of all, in this part of the state, the roads are pretty much as they were 30-plus years ago, both good and bad. If it’s the road less traveled that gets your engine revving, then the backroads of the most densely populated state in the union are there for the taking — a hidden gem not to be missed, regardless of what you are driving.
Flemington’s Historic Union Hotel
Having grown up about 25 miles away, I wanted to end the day’s tour at a place of historical importance, as many of the traditional speed shops of the muscle car era have faded into history. While planning the route at the height of the sensational Michael Jackson trial, it dawned on me — I would end the tour at the Union Hotel in Flemington, New Jersey.
For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the so-called Garden State, Flemington was the site of the first “trial of the century” where Bruno Hauptmann was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in New Jersey’s electric chair for the kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Lindberg Jr., infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindberg.
The Union Hotel, whose original tavern dates back to 1772, remains situated across the street from the original Hunterdon County Courthouse, where the trial was held. During the trial, it served as the base of operations for both the prosecutors and news media, primarily newspapers, but some radio broadcasters, as well.
None of the tour participants realized we were sipping iced teas on the hotel’s front porch until I pointed out the sign on the front of the building. (The Union Hotel currently houses one of the area’s finest eateries, but it’s been some years since it’s hosted any paying overnight guests, unless you count the ghosts who are reputed to still inhabit the rooms upstairs).
Photos from the era show the daily mob scene out in front of the courthouse. With the exception of the missing satellite dishes, the scene was eerily familiar to the circus out in front of the courthouse in Santa Maria, California, 80 years later.
Driving Impressions From Mustang Owner Chris Matlaga
Having been born well after the end of the muscle car era, Chris Matlaga had a unique perspective on the four cars, which comprised the New Jersey muscle car tour. Being a Blue Oval guy, it goes without saying he likes his Mach 1 the best of the four cars, but his impressions of the other three are illuminating. Through a combination of circumstances, he was the only one of four participants to have driven all four cars.
“The Nova felt very different,” he says. “It sat very high. I didn’t have any problems driving it, but it would take me a while to get used to manual steering. It was still a very beautiful car.
“The Swinger was completely different from the others,” he continues. “I had some trouble with the shifter. The clutch let out right near the top. It would take me a little time to get used to these things. I liked the small aftermarket steering wheel. The exhaust was very loud inside, but that’s not a bad thing.
“I liked the SC/360 the best. It had the most comfortable ride. Since it also had power steering and brakes, it made it a lot better car for street driving. I also like that the car is rare. You don’t see them very often. It felt like a very fast car, too. Out of all the cars, this is the one that I would enjoy driving around the most.”