‘Gangster era’ classic cars were a popular attraction at Leesburg Bikefest.
The movie industry has always been fascinated with gangsters, and the 1930s were the “golden age” for actors playing bad guys: Jimmy Cagney in “The Public Enemy,” Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar,” Paul Muni in “Scarface,” and so many more.
That era may be gone, but the fascination continues. Owners of “gangster era” cars from the 1920s and ’30s drove in from around the state in late April for the Ma Barker Gangster Car Run staged at Leesburg Bikefest. The collection included 15 classic cars, such as a 1921 Ford convertible, a 1931 LaSalle, and a variety of antique sedans.
To complete the theme, car owners dressed in gangster costumes and “armed” themselves with wooden Tommy guns provided as gifts by organizer Kent Thall, and the Paul De Ritter Quintet played music of the era.
Gangster lore added local flavor. “Public enemies” Ma Barker and her son Fred were shot and killed by FBI agents in January 1935 at a house overlooking Lake Weir in Ocklawaha in nearby Marion County, according to mabarkerhouse.org. The shootout reportedly lasted four hours and is considered the FBI’s longest-ever gun battle. The Barker-Karpis gang was notorious for a string of bank robberies and murders during the 1930s, though historians dispute whether Ma had a criminal role other than caretaker of the gang.
But there’s no disputing that the gang drove in style in cars similar to those at the festival.
“It just fits what Ma Barker drove and what her gang drove,” says Kent, of Fruitland Park. “The cars that they had, generally speaking, were four-door sedans that gangsters with Tommy guns would ride in (and) rob banks in.”
Kent says his goal was to create, rather than a routine car show, an attraction that would stop Bikefest fans dead in their tracks and make them want to take photos of the cars and the “gangsters.”
“The gangster costumes really are what makes it,” he says. “When you look at them holding a Tommy gun, you really believe that they are from the ’20s and that they are bad people.”
The car owners provided their own costumes because they typically know what to expect from one of Kent’s concepts. He sets up attractions at various shows, including Bikefest the past several years, and creates a different theme each time. One year, for example, his wife dressed like Mae West and posed in front of the late actress’ 1931 Auburn 8-98-A coupe along with current owner Nick Bauer, who was dressed as a gangster.
“They have found that Kent Thrall is crazy and he does this all the time; have people dress up and the music and everything,” Kent says. “Everything has to take a theme and make it an attraction.”
He travels around the state looking for cars and owners that fit the themes of his events. With just 15 cars at Bikefest, it was a select group of well-restored, good-looking antique vehicles. The owners volunteered their time, which was considerable as they posed with their cars for an entire day at the festival.
“I call them crazy people,” Kent says. “They’re crazy like me: they like the old days, they like to celebrate what happened in the past and be revisiting that time, that era.”
Kent also organized two other car displays at Bikefest. The Rats Around the Bugs included 11 “rat rods” circling four Volkswagen vehicles. Rat rods are like jalopy hot rods built by the owners. The VWs included a 1960s flowered bus and one designed like the No. 53 VW from “The Love Bug” movie. The other display, Drop-Tops Through the Years, showed how convertibles evolved with a large collection ranging from a 1912 Ford Model T to 2005 vehicles.
As for the appeal of “bad guys,” festival fans may love ’em or hate ’em, but pop culture, films, and books certainly help their legends live on.
“We give notoriety to some pretty bad people in movies and attractions,” Kent says. “(Like) Bonnie and Clyde. That’s part of that same type of story where bad people doing bad things are famous. Everybody knows who Bonnie and Clyde was.”
Ma Barker may be a little less known than some of her contemporaries, but she will always hold a place in local history. The house where she was killed, now known as the Bradford-Ma Barker House, was relocated in 2016 to Carney Island Recreation and Conservation Area in Marion County. Guided tours are available; see mabarkerhouse.org.
Kent says her story and the Gangster Car Run were an ideal fit for Bikefest, billed as the world’s largest three-day motorcycle and music festival. Motorcycle fans are often car fans and vice versa.
“It’s historical, and if you like old cars and just the memories that come from old cars, it’s a trip back in another era,” he says.