Cars & Guitars

The Origin Story of the Much-Anticipated Annual Event in Downtown Kirkwood

The classic cars were confirmed, and the musical acts were booked. After months of planning, everyone was ready, but no one knew what to expect.  

"We didn't know how many people were going to show," said Art McDonnell, former Kirkwood mayor and co-chair of Cars & Guitars, recalling the evening of the first Cars & Guitars in 2017. 

The idea for Cars & Guitars originated after some key learnings from the Route 66 Festival featuring the 2015 Great Race Classic Car Rally. Donna Poe, executive director of the Downtown Kirkwood Special Business District and co-chair of Cars & Guitars, explained, "In 2015, The History Channel chose Kirkwood to launch The Great Race. We were all excited about the thought of having a festival celebrating classic cars arriving from around the region to start The Great Race." Despite the torrential rainstorm the day before, people did gather the next morning in Kirkwood to see the classic cars line up to start the race. "But when the cars left, the people left," said Donna.  

"We learned a lot after that event," noted Donna. "We learned how cool the cars looked in Downtown Kirkwood, and we learned that people came from beyond Kirkwood to see the cars. And we learned that even on a hot, steamy day after a huge storm, many people still showed up to see the cars. We knew there was an attraction to cars; we just didn't know what to do with it." 

Art and Donna met with Jim Wright, president of the Kirkwood – Des Peres Area Chamber of Commerce at that time. They wanted to take everything good about the Route 66 Festival and create a similar event that supported the businesses downtown and included live music. The trio came up with the name Cars & Guitars and planned to launch the first event in downtown Kirkwood in June 2017 as an evening festival.

The first order of business was confirming the classic cars. "Kirk Hutchison of Royal Banks introduced us to Herb Clark. Herb had connections to the classic car community," said Donna. Cars? Check. Now on to the guitars. With many years of experience running the Downtown Kirkwood Special Business District’s Summer Concert Series at Station Plaza, Donna had no problem sourcing the music acts. Art said, "Positioning one stage at each end of Jefferson Avenue required specific electrical expertise." Mark Petty of Kirkwood Electric jumped at the chance to be involved in the event. 

"Kirkwood Water supplied a water bottle filler machine. The Masons made funnel cakes. The Lions brought ice cream cones. The Optimists cooked hot dogs. And the Kirkwood Arts Commission handed out colorful beads," said Art. "We couldn't have pulled it off without the help of everyone on our committee," said Donna.

The day before the event, Donna was finalizing some last-minute details. As she walked across Jefferson Avenue, no one could have predicted what happened next. "I was going to ask the Street Department to remove a trip hazard, and I tripped and fell myself," recalled Donna. Twenty-four hours before the inaugural Cars & Guitars, Donna went home from the orthopedic surgeon's office with her fractured leg in a brace. After months and months of planning, it seemed unlikely that Donna would be able to attend the event.  

Art remembered Cars & Guitars' first night. "The streets were pretty quiet the morning of the event. Then suddenly, that night, people started pouring in. We must have had 8,000 people or more. I called Donna and said, 'You won't believe this; people are everywhere. I don't know how many people there are, but it's a lot. The restaurants are packed. This is a phenomenal success.'" 

Donna was determined to see for herself. "I got my daughter to pick me up," said Donna. "We put my wheelchair in her convertible, and she drove me to the event." 

"There have been many great moments at Cars & Guitars over the years, but that was magic when Donna showed up in her daughter's convertible. That has been my favorite story so far," Art said with a smile. 

"My favorite moments over the years are when I have the chance to step to the side for a minute and watch everyone having fun. I like the moments when I can see and hear how much fun everyone is having," said Donna. 

"I'm delighted that people of all ages attend this event," said Art. "We have something for all different groups of people." There is something for everyone, with about 100 cars on display and music from every genre.

Come join us this year Saturday, June 11, in Downtown Kirkwood.

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