Members of the Platinum Knights gather around a hot rod at the Westbrook barn that served as their clubhouse in the 1950s and 1960s. From left to right are Jim McClure, Dick Boulanger, Bill Lavigne, Bruce Violette, Gene Tanguay and Ron Lavigne. Chance Viles/American Journal

WESTBROOK — Imagine the year is 1958. You are walking down Saco Street on your way to a sock hop when you hear roaring engines and ripping tires coming over the horizon.

A group of five to six guys with greased-back hair and matching jackets races by in their loud, brightly colored hotrods, speeding, playing chicken and swerving lanes.

That common scene is what prompted local police to organize the Platinum Knights, a hotrod club that rounded up a number of Westbrook’s teenage speed demons in the 1950s and 60s to keep tabs on them.

“We were riding, hell-raising, and a Westbrook police officer got tired of seeing us around, and wanted to get us out of trouble,” former member Dick Boulanger said.

Boulanger and other Former Platinum Knights members gathered at their old clubhouse recently to relive some of their memories from those glory days.

The club thrived in a time when working on a hotrod from the 30s and 40s was a project in which a young man could take pride in, and best of all, drive around in.

Composed of no more than 30 members as written in their bylaws, the group met to work on their cars, hold fundraisers, spread awareness and education about car safety, and of course, get together and ride with an accountability they didn’t have riding alone.

Former club member Robert Gagne drives his 1957 Chevy Bel-Air. In the back closest to the camera is Albert Francouer, with Dick Boulanger seated to his right. Courtesy photo

“It was different then than now,” said member Ron Lavigne. “It’s just how we were. It’s the era we were brought up in, we could ride without too much trouble then.”

Member Jim McClure, who still drives his hotrods but is retired from professional stock car racing, brought his 1932 Chevrolet 350, painted in “hot rod black,” to the group’s informal reunion. He rebuilt it over the past couple of years.

“The body was in rough shape. Chevys had the wood frame on the inside that would rot, so I got this body and basically built it from scratch,” McClure said.”I get the parts from junkyards and places, but there aren’t too many yards that have these kinds of cars anymore so I sometimes have to go way up north for it. I built everything here myself.”

“Which is how hotrods should be,” Boulanger added.

While none of the former members race anymore, many still work on and build their own cars, sometimes taking them to car shows.

“I drive everywhere in this (Chevy),” McClure said. “It drives just like any normal car, and I love it.”

The Platinum Knights were at full-force in the 50s’. Members stood out, aside from their hot rods, with their matching club jackets. Each had a club plaque on his car.

For a bunch of young guys into racing, the club was surprisingly organized, with a board of directors and officers. Members were expected to attend every group event, which ranged from free tire pressure checking to fundraiser dances called “crash hops.”

“We had fundraisers where we would get a junk car, and for a quarter you got two or three whacks at it with a sledgehammer,” Boulanger said. “We’d have the dances and would have pictures shown on the wall of accidents to raise awareness on safe driving.”

A poster for a “crash hop,” a dance hosted by the Platinum Knights that would spread awareness about safe driving.

According to Lavigne, car crashes were a big fear for youth at the time. Despite fewer cars on the road, accidents could often be fatal due to the weight of the old cars, which were entirely metal as opposed to the lighter fiberglass used today. “They were a big deal then, which is why we held those dances and things,” he said.

Members were required to have their cars regularly inspected for safety, and, under their written bylaws, driving violations or convictions would bear additional fines and possibly cause expulsion.

Getting together brought back memories of the old days, with the members sharing stories about car jobs gone wrong, races and crashes.

“I remember my first rear-end rebuild. I worked on it two nights in a row, I was so proud of my work,” Bill Lavigne said. “I got in and drove it out of the barn and around the corner and boom, the whole thing blew to pieces, I was so embarrassed.”

The barn at 76 Sawyer Road was owned by then-Mayor Phil Spiller Sr., who offered it up for club use. It’s  now owned by Phil Spiller Jr. who is renovating it.

“About five years ago I learned about the club when I was at the hardware store in line. I was paying for something and a man behind me asked if I was Spiller Jr., Mayor Spiller’s son,” Spiller said. “I said yes, and he started telling me about the club and told me he used to work on his car at the barn, and it took me until around now to reach out and actually hear these stories.”

Spiller remembers playing in his yard as a child near the barn, finding car parts scattered and buried.

“Knowing about the Knights, that all makes sense now,” he said.

The club disbanded in the mid 1960s.

“People have kids and families, many of us joined the service,” member and former club president Bill Lavigne said.

The club served its purpose, members said.

Said “Boulanger, “It did keep us out of trouble – in Westbrook anyways.”

 

The rear of McClures 1932 Chevrolet 350, outfitted with the Platinum Knights plaque and a fitting vanity license plate. Chance Viles/American Journal

Jim McClure shows off the engine of his 1932 Chevy 350, which he built. Chance Viles/American Journal


Comments are not available on this story.