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Fast cars led Baccala to put his foot down

It’s not as famous as some of the other artifacts of our storied past — like Lyman Byce’s incubator, or Fred Wiseman’s historic airplane — but comparatively, Louie Baccala’s 1932 Ford three-window Coupe, a significant piece of Petaluma’s car culture obsession of the 1960s, may deserve equal recognition.

Among the many high performance cars in Petaluma during that era, none of them could beat Baccala’s powerful ’32 Ford, which set the gold standard for impromptu street racing. We’re reminded of those carefree, car-crazed days of the ’60s at this time every year as Cruisin’ the Boulevard’s annual salute to “American Graffiti” revs up for its nostalgic classic car show.

Events depicted in “American Graffiti” so closely parallel what life was like here that many moviegoers believed writer-director George Lucas based his script on actual Petalumans. Coincidentally, there are no closer similarities than that of the fictional John Milner — cool and brash and always ready to race his intimidating yellow deuce coupe — to Baccala’s confident belief that his fuel-injected powerhouse, equipped with racing slicks, was unbeatable. Of course, street racing was strictly illegal, but just over a half-century ago, some young drivers, even in Petaluma, expressed a rebellious interpretation of the law.

Baccala’s local roots date back to 1912 when his grandfather, Gaetano Baccala, arrived in Petaluma from Locarno, Switzerland, to start a new life with his wife, Josephine, and their son, Aldo, who arrived here in 1922 when he was 15. About one year later, Gaetano Baccala opened G. Baccala & Son, a small grocery business at 316 Western Ave. Around 1937, Baccala replaced a little grocery store that sat on his property at 400 Western Ave. with a modern 2,700-square-foot building and, together with his son, opened Western Avenue Market. At its peak, the market employed eight workers and made 150 home deliveries a day, free of charge.

Aldo and Marian Baccala married in 1939 and together they reared two sons, Aldo J., and Louie, who was born in 1943. Both boys began working at the store at an early age. Louie was about 8 when he first started sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store and stocking vegetables. After school, he’d help wait on customers before sweeping the sidewalk again.

Always infatuated by jack-rabbit starts, squealing tires and high performance cars, Louie owned an assortment of them while in school and while dating Anita Collins, to whom he’s been married for 55 of their 57 years together. In 1964, Baccala bought his first ’32 Ford, a beast with six two-barrel carburetors. He’s bought, sold and traded 211 cars over the years, including his prized ‘32 Ford, which he still owns.

“There was always someone around who wanted to race,” Baccala said recently from the comfort of an easy chair. “I’d race anyone. I just loved to race. One night I was at the movies and someone came in and said there was a guy outside who wanted to race me. I left the show, beat him and then went back to the theater. Those were good days back then. It was great. We were just having a good time.”

When work and family became more important, Louie and Anita took over the Valley Ford Market, which has been in his family since 1947. That meant storing the ’32 Ford in a garage, hopefully until the day a family member could appreciate it. Fast-forward to the recent marriage of Baccala’s granddaughter Ashley Miller to Brian Azevedo, an extremely talented mechanic and restorative detailer at A & A Automotive, whose interest in the car’s historical status ignited a thorough renovation. He went over the car bumper to bumper, bringing the pristine beige and sable machine back to life, and returning it to its original racing condition, while painstakingly preserving the 85-year-old relic’s classic stance.

“I’ve owned the car for a long time and it still only has about 3,000 miles on it,” noted Baccala, with a smile, “and most of those came in quarter-mile bursts.”

The best news is that Baccala’s totally refreshed coupe — the one that etched its signature into Petaluma’s pavement and holds a spot in our 1960s museum of memories — is ready for its close-up. During this year’s “American Graffiti” celebration, on Saturday, May 20, the car can be viewed at the Pacer’s of Petaluma display in the A Street parking lot.

(Harlan Osborne’s column ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ appears every two wkks. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net)