200 ragtops cruise through north country
The Daily Press
Monday, August 21st, 2006 10:38:30 AM
Rick Olivo
A 1968 Camaro 350 SS driven by Bill and Helen Denison was one of 200 cars taking part in the first ever Open Air Classic convertible car tour Friday.

"Wind blowing in my hair
I feel like a millionaire
Radio is blasting strong
We're breaking out in song
Blazing trails both near and far
Park my car behind a star
Life is full of possibilities..."

— The Beach Boys
"In My Car"

It is a uniquely American dream.

Rolling down the endless highway, ragtop down and the radio cranked up, pushing a ton of good American steel down the highway at well over the speed limit (and not a cop in sight) on a perfect summer day.

Nowadays, of course, with gas and speeding ticket prices being what they are, it's a lot more prudent to keep the speed down under 55, but the sense of freedom that comes from cruising through the countryside in a convertible car is still among the ultimate highs available to humankind.

For the drivers and passengers of some 200 vehicles parked next to the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center Friday, that thrill was unleashed as drivers were green-flagged through an improvised starting gate for the first running of the Open Air Classic convertible car tour.

The event is an offshoot of the Wisconsin Convertible Classic, which came to an end this year after 13 years.

The new event is co-directed by Gary Knowles and Mike Peroutka of Madison.

"We had 13 great years of touring Wisconsin — lots of people loved it — and so when that ended, a lot of our friends said, 'We can't not have a convertible tour,'” Knowles said. “So Mike — who had been on eight or nine of the tours — and I and our wives said, 'Let's put this together.'"

For the participants of the event, the appeal of driving with the top down was simple.

"It's just the feel of the wind in your hair; it's a lot of fun — these are great people to hang out with," said Andy Mixell of Menomonee Falls. Mixell said he had been going to convertible rallies for the past five years and they are now a fixture in his life.

"I'll keep coming as long as the ignition holds together," he said of his older-model car. "We had a breakdown in Stevens Point, so we now have two ignitions," he said, showing a hastily wired ignition switch that allowed he and his wife to get back on the road.

"Now I am wearing this to keep the good mojo going," he laughed, fingering a necklace braided from ignition wire.

John Guiselman of Wautoma was making his 13th tour in a breathtakingly beautiful 1955 Ford Thunderbird, fire engine red, equipped with a continental rear bumper extension that held a chromed spare tire holder.

"It is one of three that were ever made," Guiselman explained. "It's a gorgeous car. We were really honored when we found out that Ford only made three prototypes and then went to a different design. They made three, then they scrapped the design and started over."

Among the cars’ more unique features is a trim package generally found on Ford Fairlanes of the era. The spare tire pivots to allow the car to be fueled and to give access to the trunk, and each of the hundreds of spokes in the tires is individually tunable with a special tool, much like a bike tire.

Guiselman admitted that, despite the unique character of the vintage T-Bird, it wasn't the most practical car for northern Wisconsin.

"It's just the fun of owning a special car," he said.

Guiselman said the Open Air Classic was a gathering of kindred spirits.

"It's great to see your old friends, to see them coming back from all over," he said.

It wasn't just classic cars taking part. World-class BMWs, Mercedes-Benz and other foreign road cars were well represented. One characteristic they all shared was that it was apparent their owners lavished care on them. Most of the cars gleamed as if they were showroom-new.

Erik Moser of Menomonee Falls was at the show, checking the oil on his Honda S-2000 before his flight of vehicles hit the tour trail.

"It has a two-liter engine and develops 240-horsepower. It's a very high-stress, high-performing engine, almost a racing engine," he said. "It's a lot of fun; they only come with a six-speed manual transmission; it's just a fun car to have."

With the enthusiasm of the participants, it is easy to see why the event sold out in its first year. Knowles said the selection of the Chequamegon Bay region for the initial Open Air Classic was simple.

"We figured we had to start at the top, so we came up to Ashland and the Bayfield area," he said.

Knowles noted that the event is largely social- and touring-oriented, as opposed to a competitive rally.

"It’s really just people who have cars that the tops go down on them. They love to drive around and wave at each other and people sitting on the porches," Knowles said.

Knowles also had some thoughts on the enduring attraction of convertible cars.

"If you live in Wisconsin, you appreciate the sunny days all the more. You have to be a little crazy to live in a state where the temperature can go to 20 below and still have a car where the top comes down,” he said. “No sane person does that. But if you look at these people, they are optimistic. If you have a car where the top comes down, you believe the sun is going to come out. They love having a good time with each other; they are a real social group."

With a heavy gray overcast, it looked like a questionable day when the group drove out of the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center parking lot at 15-second intervals. However, by noon, the sun was peeking through the clouds, and temperatures were up to around 80 degrees.

A great day to drive around with the top down.

The Daily Press - Ashland
Reprinted with Permission