“So, yeah. That’s it. Thanks to everyone for coming out,” said a reluctant Dave Tormey, the Events Coordinator of Canibeat—and Front Street contributor—after he presented the last award at the 10th and final First Class Fitment (FCF) show.
There was just dead silence.
Nobody cheered. There was only a palpable lull in excitement.
Attendees of the unique car show at Princeton Airport started looking around at each other in bewilderment as if they were confused about what happens next. This was usually the time when the CiB staff announced to the crowd that they would see them next year. People would rush to their cars to take photos on the runway in the setting sun. But this year, nobody moved.
I think half of them were waiting for him to say, “Just kidding, we’re doing another show next year,” but it didn’t happen. Dave had left the microphone lonesome on the barren award table and stepped away from the crowd.
Thirty seconds passed that felt like an eternity. Chatter began again, and the crowd very slowly reported back to their cars to take the runway sunset photos that have made FCF so renowned over the last decade.
That was it. The enthusiasts who anticipated this elite showcase wouldn’t just be waiting 365 days until the next occurrence, they were waiting indefinitely for what is now unknown.
There is no more First Class Fitment. There is no more fall gathering at Princeton Airport of the Northeast’s leading builds. While those two facts now describe a memory, what a collection of memories it has amassed over the years!
As I’ve mentioned in previous years’ FCF coverage, this is a unique event for me. By this, I mean that I am not only a member of the media reporting on the event but also a Canibeat staff member and attendee. It’s a tiring day, but each anniversary over the years is grouped among my favorite experiences to date.
First Class Fitment has become profoundly life-altering for me. I can’t help but look back at the unforgettable people I’ve met. The relentlessly detailed builds I’ve gotten to see up close, or even the organic growth I’ve witnessed.
But before I dwell on what is lost, let’s relive what made this year’s 10th and final FCF such a perfect sendoff.
The Morning Of
Just like every FCF held previously, the day began cold and dark, even though several 90-degree days led up to the Saturday in question. Somehow Mother Nature always knows FCF is coming and throws in a cold front for good measure. We (the staff) arrived at the airport before sunrise for the usual setup—assembling and laying out flags, placing trashcans, banners, and the like. We had mapped out the parking lots with vendor information and aligned our imaginary rows of cars the day before, which makes the morning a little easier.
By the time the ancillaries were set up around the grounds, the first wave of show cars had begun to flood the driveway. The parking starts closest to the hangar and finishes in the furthest reaches of a plane storage lot on the runway. Each wave allows the proper timing to park over 400 vehicles at the airport. With no threats of inclement weather, the warm sunlight baked the atmosphere and perfected the ambiance surrounding the start of the last event.
Before I realized it, several other staff members and I had parked cars for a few hours, and all show entries were now organized in their designated spots.
Just as noon approached, the gates opened wide, and attendees engulfed the show area in droves. Now, the attendance at FCF has never been mediocre, but this year’s participation was on another level. In the area outside the hangar, there were times the crowd was almost shoulder-to-shoulder in an outdoor setting, which is remarkable for a car show.
I think because it was the final year, fans of the culture came out of the woodwork. Many planned to attend for years, but it took the announcement of it ending for most to cave…
… Which leads me into the brand’s merchandise. Canibeat offered longtime fans of the brand the golden opportunity to purchase relics from its previous releases over the years. It was like a time capsule of stickers, jackets, and license plate frames. Oh, and the 2019 event merch? That sold out before the gates even opened! After parking cars, I took a trip inside to check out the booth before the chaos, but it had already commenced. There was a line of people stretched out of the hangar patiently waiting for their chance to purchase the discontinued merchandise.
Covering The Show
It was time to grab my camera and embark on my final loop of recording the vehicles inhabiting these grounds, but it just wasn’t that simple.
Similar to the SEMA Show, photographers waited for gaps in shuffling humans before taking the image of the desired vehicle. I found myself crouched on the ground for minutes at a time, waiting for the sea of people to part before recording my shot of whatever entranced me. I was on borrowed time, counting the minutes until mid-afternoon when the downside of an outdoor show presents itself: show cars leaving before the end.
I managed a few laps, grabbed some images I could be proud of, and before I noticed, the clock was encroaching on award ceremony time. I’m not sure if it was because I was rushing to do more than I could handle. Or maybe I finally realized that my time with FCF was dwindling, but there was so much more that I wanted to do.
Throughout the day, I’d caught up with countless old friends from other regions. Some friends I’d met strictly through this very event. Some of them I’ve known for years from various other automotive events. Reuniting with these friends was an occurrence I’ve looked forward to each year. However, this time it was different because I’m not sure when I’ll see them again. It made for a strange ending to almost every conversation I had. So we did that whole, “we’ll have to get together,” thing that adults do, but you and I know life gets in the way of that. Needless to say, there were a lot of bittersweet conversations had.
There were so many great people I didn’t get to talk to, so many standout cars I didn’t get to photograph. No matter how many laps I did, my brain didn’t think it was enough. I kept taking pictures and kept looking for acquaintances right up until the final hour when awards began.
In The End
I listened to the entirety of the awards ceremony and its somber conclusion next to Dave’s dad and other friends/staff of the show. Discussing our favorite moments of prior years, and whether or not we thought Dave would cry during his final speech. Not in an emasculating way, but because we knew how passionate he was about this event, so it tugs on the heartstrings to realize it was ending.
I kept taking photos of the core members of Canibeat (Cristian, Dave, and Roy) together throughout the awards until it dawned on me. I was frantic all day trying to squeeze in whatever I could, and missing out on the experience of the final event.
Unfortunately, it was a little late to have such a big revelation. I took a deep breath, planted my feet, and just looked around at the crowd gradually vacating the final award ceremony. I’ve mentioned in past years how this next period of the day is my favorite of the event. The way the organized chaos erupts in conjunction with the dying moments of daylight cresting across the runway. I decided to pause everything else momentarily, and enjoy this unique experience one last time.
The memorable sights included a wide array of vehicle lights emitting varying colors and brightness as they illuminated the darkened ground. Contrasting the artificial fluorescence were the intense, vibrant sunset colors filling the sky around buzzing helicopters.
The captivating vehicle sounds combined to create a chorus of engines roaring to life and idling at the same time. As with any symphony, various solo performances barked above the rest as they eagerly awaited their opportunity to inch toward the runway.
I watched as dozens of photographers spread across the runway to photograph their favorite car next to the iconic airplanes beneath the fading sunlight. It would be the last time they would have the opportunity to shoot these cars against this background.
Ten years prior, in the same hangar location at Princeton Airport, the show’s humble beginnings held only a small fraction of its present-day expanse. What started as a comprehensive gathering blossomed into a prominent automotive event. It advocated the union of different styles into one show. It adhered to a level of quality without falter. And lastly, it established a new standard to which future car shows should be held. It will be sorely missed.
With that said, I am grateful I had the opportunity to be involved for so long and wish the Canibeat crew luck in their future endeavors outside of First Class Fitment. On behalf of the automotive enthusiasts who routinely assigned our builds that October deadline in the hopes of being a part of First Class Fitment, thank you for all of the great years!