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Adams Avenue Donuts Car Show in Huntington Beach

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. ' Michelangelo had the lively streets of renaissance Rome. Vincent Van Gogh gazed upon the pastoral fields of southern France. Paul Gauguin escaped to exotic Tahiti.

So where do Southern California's auto designers go for artistic inspiration'

If you're Joel Piaskowski, Hyundai's chief U.S. designer, you get up at dawn on a Saturday to stroll through an impromptu car show in an aging shopping center.

There, in front of Adams Avenue Donuts and an Ace Hardware store, he can admire the gentle curve of a gear-shift knob or flare of a tailpipe from among dozens of cars ' from Model A hot rods to late 1960s Shelby Cobras ' that their bleary-eyed owners drive in from across the region.

"Designers are attracted to all sorts of cars," says Piaskowski, 36, as he looks for things to like in a beat-up 1959 turquoise-and-white Chevy Biscayne.

He goes to the weekly event, which is more or less organized by a group of friends who call themselves the Donut Derelicts. Anybody can simply park in the lot and show off their classic ' or what they think qualifies as a classic. The casual, come-as-you-are car show has been around for nearly 20 years in Huntington Beach, which bills itself as Surf City.

The show, which starts about 6 a.m., usually breaks up by 9 a.m., only to be replaced by another one a few miles deeper into Orange County in a coastal shopping center called Crystal Cove. It attracts more exotic sports cars.

Both underscore California's love of cars. New or old. Sober or wacky. If it's somehow different and on four wheels, heads will turn.

Many major automakers, both foreign and domestic, maintain design houses in Southern California, making the shows natural gathering places for stylists. Last Saturday alone, Piaskowski encountered two of his own workers and an old engineering friend from his 12 years at General Motors.

One of them, contract designer Terry Han, 36, was busily snapping photos of the cars on display at the Crystal Cove show. Taking aim at a Ferrari 246 Dino, he says he prefers classic oldsters to the latest ones.

The two displays are great places for carmakers to gauge interest in new designs. Piaskowski once brought the HCD8 concept car that Hyundai showed off at the North America International Auto Show in Detroit to the coastal shopping center display.

In Huntington Beach, Piaskowski walks among mostly middle-age men holding steaming cups of coffee in the morning chill. He focuses on details ' sometimes the smallest things, particularly on late-1950s or early '60s cars. There's the jewel-like trim on the back of a Cadillac, the tilt-out seats of a Chrysler New Yorker. Eyeing the chrome jet-plane motif on the side of an old Chevy Impala, Piaskowski says, "This car is getting a little bit overboard."

He turns away from cars with boring gray or beige interiors, but the tan paint on a 1930s Ford catches his eye. It's a shade that has long since been chased off the palette. "This color won't work (today), but there's a lot of beauty to it."

Asked if he knows the year of a metallic green Chevy Bel Air on display, he runs back to the round taillights, takes a quick look and declares, "It's a '62."

Piaskowski clearly knows his cars. His father was a designer for Chrysler. He recalls the time as a boy when his father brought home a Dodge Daytona muscle car with a huge rear spoiler. "I remember standing underneath looking up at the wing. It was so impressive," he says.

Piaskowski isn't a mere bystander at the shows. He participates, wheeling in his 1965 Cadillac DeVille convertible ' a chrome-dripping delight to the designer's eye. He bought the 18-foot land yacht about 11 years ago, the $6,200 price apparently reflecting the fact that it was covered with bird droppings at the time.

Today, the inspiration he draws from the old cars is starting to show up in some of Hyundai's models. The new Sonata, flagship of the South Korean carmaker's lineup, has a few more touches of chrome inside as well.

"It's the exterior that captures you, the interior that keeps you," Piaskowski says.

He treats the old cars with reverence. "There's a reason why they are classics," he says admiringly. "You look at the classics, and they find ways to get noticed."