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A RAMBLER MAN’S JOURNEY FROM CONNECTICUT TO KENOSHA
By Patrick Foster
AMCRC National Meet
August 8-9, 2003
The Rambler 100th Anniversary Celebration in 2002 was an event every AMC lover looked forward to. All throughout 2001, at every auto show I visited, whenever I heard people saying good-bye to each other their farewell always included the promise of meeting again “Next year- in Kenosha”.
Like most fans I could hardly wait. Although I had traveled to Kenosha just a couple years earlier, for another AMC event, just about everyone believed the 2002 event would be the biggest ever. My plans originally were to drive my 1967 Rambler American Rogue convertible to Kenosha. It’s small but rides well, has plenty of power (232 six with automatic) and is very dependable. Besides that, I’ve always dreamed of driving through Kenosha with the top down, and here was my chance. My Rogue is a pretty car, yellow paint contrasted by a black top.
Pat Fosters 1967 Rambler American Rogue convertible
Lots of preparations. In addition to being a writer I'm also a book vender and each year I travel to as many AMC shows as I can. Books take up quite a bit of space in a car, so careful packing is called for. I wanted to bring as many books as I could, for two very good reasons. A) Because all I sell are AMC-related books and I knew Id have good sales in Kenosha. and B) Because in order to make enough profit to pay for the trip Id have to sell a lot of books. It's simple math.
I figured out that I should bring about 400 books with me. I guessed that would take up all the room in the trunk, along with most of the back seat room. The balance of the rear seat room would hold my vender's canopy, two folding lawn chairs, and two six foot folding tables, all of which are part of my portable book store. Since I would be traveling by myself, I could devote the front passenger seat area to holding my suitcase, cooler, maps, snacks, and all the other assorted junk we carry. I also needed to bring a camcorder and tripod along, because I planned to interview two former Nash dealers on videotape in connection with a project I'm working on for the Nash Club.
MET Club on the Kenosha Show Field
In the months before the show the Metropolitan Club contacted me, asking me to give a talk at their banquet during show week. I agreed and got to work on a speech and slide show. Then Ben Bliss of the Nash Club asked me to give a seminar during the week at the Nash Club's host hotel in Racine, WI just north of Kenosha. I agreed. Before long this was increased to two seminars. Well, okay.
The town I live in, Milford, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, is a two-day drive from Kenosha. Because of the amount of work I had to do; a seminar; banquet speech, vending, and interviewing former AMC people, I decided I had to get to Kenosha early, which meant I needed to begin my trip on Monday July 22nd. Most of the caravans going to Kenosha were leaving on Wednesday. But luckily, just a couple weeks before departing I found a good soul to caravan with, the redoubtable Mark Chenard of West Boylston, Massachusetts. Mark would be traveling with his gracious and lovely wife Linda.
Mark Chenard looking out on the Kenosha show field
Sunday, July 21st finally arrived. After church, I got to work packing my little ‘67 Rambler for the greatest trip that it was likely ever to take. I filled the trunk with books- and still had many cases left over. I decided to leave the spare tire home. After repacking the trunk I found I still didn’t have enough room. I then decided to leave the spare fuel pump, water pump and tools home. Still not enough room. I repacked the books, eliminating one case that I deemed were not absolutely essential. Still not enough room. I began packing books and supplies under the seats, under the rugs, in the glove compartment and even briefly wondered if I could leave my suitcase home. I noticed the Rambler was sitting awfully close to the ground, the combined weight of 400 books putting quite a strain on the springs.
By late afternoon it became obvious to me that
the ‘67 wasn’t going to go to Kenosha unless it was sent in a box truck
that could also carry my supplies. The car was simply too small for all
the things I had to carry. For an hour or so I contemplated taking my pretty
little 1957 Rambler Super, but I haven’t owned it all that long and worried
about taking it on such a long trip. I decided to take my Chevy Lumina.
Even with such a big car, things were tight. I ended up having to take
the rear seat out and leave it home so all the stuff would fit. Like the
Rambler, the Chevy sunk down on its suspension, loaded down like a gold
miner’s pack mule. I worried about busting a spring or overloading the
Although Connecticut and Massachusetts are close to each other, the Chenard’s and I needed to travel separately the first day. We agreed to meet at a hotel in Elyria, Ohio the first evening. Mark called a day or so before leaving. He was just finishing up the 1963 Ambassador he and Linda were taking to the show. It seemed a little odd to me to go on a long trip in a car that only days before had been in a million pieces, but Mark’s a calm, nearly unflappable guy. He wasn’t worried.
I left early on Monday July 22nd. I took the old Merritt Parkway, a very scenic road built during the depression. No trucks are allowed on this road, and it’s notable for the scenery one can spot as it winds through Connecticut and New York. The first sight to see is spotted just as we cross the Housatonic Bridge from Milford to Stratford. Looking from the bridge to the right one can see the largest helicopter factory in the world, the Sikorsky Aircraft plant. Even this has some significance to our journey, because during World War II the Nash plant in Kenosha built Sikorsky helicopters for the army, under license by Sikorsky Aircraft. Nash engineers used to travel to Connecticut to meet with Sikorsky engineers.
The Merritt Parkway goes to New York, just north of the city, and we cross one of the more beautiful bridges you‘ll ever see, the Tappan Zee Bridge which skims over the mighty Hudson River not far from West Point, NY. West Point is home to the famed military academy and, unknown to most people, is the final resting-place for the body of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, killed at the Little Big Horn.
The 4 Season AMCRC and Rambler Club Caravan on the way to Kenosha
From NY we take I-80 west, entering Pennsylvania. At first the road is rather busy, all lanes filled with cars driving like mad to get somewhere, but within an hour or so traffic thins out and we can breath a little easier. Now all we have to do is settle in for the long pull across Pennsylvania. I had traveled this route just a few weeks before on my way to Ypsilanti, Michigan for the Orphan Car Show, so I knew this leg of the journey would take most of the day. Pennsylvania is a large state, and we needed to travel its full width.
I stopped once or twice on the way, for rest breaks, to grab some coffee, and to eat the picnic lunch I brought. Crossing into Ohio I saw many familiar sights. I travel this area fairly often, and as I went along I recalled restaurants my family and I went to the previous year, when we were out here for the Nash Grand Nationals. I continued on to Cleveland where I picked up I-90. Just west of Cleveland is Elyria, where I had booked a hotel room.
It was dark when I pulled into town, and at first I had some trouble finding the hotel but soon enough I was there. This was my first experience with a Howard Johnson’s Express, and I have to say it was pretty disappointing. I won’t say it was the worst hotel I ever stayed in- that would have to be the one in Gettysburg that was such a pigpen I refused to stay and drove home instead- but it wasn‘t a very cheerful place. The Chenard’s weren't there yet. In fact, I didn't hear from them until about 10 pm when Mark called to say they had experienced car trouble several hours from home and had been forced to turn back. Once home they switched to a modern car and were now retracing their route but wouldn't arrive until about 3 am. I went to sleep and when I awoke the next morning the Chenard’s had arrived very tired, having managed to catch only a few hours sleep, but determined to push on to Kenosha.
Chicago in the 60's? No, just Ramblers to Kenosha.
My hotel offered a free continental breakfast but it wasn’t at all appetizing so we decided to go elsewhere. We had a quick breakfast at a highway stop, and moved on. The rest of Ohio was unhurried, if a bit boring, and we skirted the top of Indiana, then crossed the line into Illinois. At Chicago we turned north and before you could say Robert's Racy Red Rambler Rebel three times fast we were entering Wisconsin. I lost sight of the Chenard’s in Chicago’s mad traffic maelstrom, but knew I would see them during show week. Before long I was rolling into the parking lot of my hotel in Racine, Wisconsin.
After unpacking, a quick dip in the pool refreshed me, a short nap rested me, and a nice meal in a local restaurant had me back to normal. I took an evening walk through the hotel parking lot, which was filled with dozens of beautiful Nash and Rambler cars.
Wednesday morning was supposed to be set aside for rest and relaxation but news came that the American Motors Owners Club needed a banquet speaker, because their scheduled speaker was too ill to make it. Retired American Motors designer Bill Reddig and I agreed to do a joint presentation. These things take a certain amount of planning and preparation, so I got up early Wednesday morning, about 5:30 am, and soon I was on my way to Kenosha to meet with Bill.
We discussed several ideas, went through some slides we wanted to show and talked about the length of time and the topics wed cover. We met early, about 6:30 am, and finished up about 8 am. His hotel offered a really nice continental breakfast so we ate there.
1968 AMC Rebel
I returned to my hotel, changed clothes and put on the first of two seminars. They were conducted in a meeting room at the hotel and included a talk illustrated with a slide show. My topic at both was “ Nash Production in World War Two”, which covered the various products Nash built for the war effort. These included trailers, binoculars, refrigeration equipment, bomb fuses, aircraft engines, helicopters and much more. The first seminar was very well attended, with nearly every seat filled. Afterwards we had a book signing in which I sold autographed copies of several of my books. That night I had a very pleasant dinner with Steve Rugens, a fellow Connecticut resident and Nash Club member. Steve's Dad has a really nice AMC Rebel, a 1968 or 69 I think. I don't know if either of these gentlemen are in the Rambler Club but I see them at many AMC meets.
Thursday morning I had the second seminar. This was basically the same as the prior days show but I included a humorous talk accompanied by a set of slides to spice it up a bit. It gave me a chance to try out some material I planned to use for the other shows. Attendance was less at the second seminar because a lot of people were on a trip that morning and the bus was running late. But all in all the shows went well.
1902 Rambler that carries the earliest known serial number for Ramblers
Thursday was vending day in Racine, so in the afternoon I set up my store and sold a lot of books. Although the vender area wasn’t very large the Nash Club members are always enthusiastic buyers, so I did pretty well. Not wishing to be a one-sided vender I also bought a good amount of stuff from other sellers. Later in the afternoon I was given a ride in a 1902 Rambler, a special one that carries the earliest known serial number for these premier Ramblers. It was thrilling, sitting up high on the thickly upholstered seat as we drove round the parking lot in a wide circle that took us completely around the hotel. I also got to see the 1955 Nash Ambassador prototype built by Pininfarina. It's a gorgeous machine, long, low and wide, and very handsome. The owner told me it is for sale but the price tag is unfortunately way out of my range. But one can always dream.
1955 Nash Ambassador prototype built by Pininfarina
There was a good range of cars at the Nash Club hotel, some 1960 Americans, a neat 1963, several early 1950’s Ramblers, and Larry Blatt’s 1967 Rogue.
I also met and interview Richard Boch who once owned Bock Rambler in Massachusetts, one of the largest Rambler dealers in the country. We talked on videotape for close to an hour as he told stories of the early days as a Nash dealer, and all the ins and outs of running a successful Rambler dealership. He and his wife Adele are two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.
Photo Courtesy of Brent Havekost
Thursday night brought an unexpected phone call from my wife. I asked her why she was calling, since we had talked just two days before. “ I just wanted to call you on this special day” she said. While I was trying to figure out how Thursday could ever be considered a special day she added “ To wish you a happy birthday!”. I had forgotten my own birthday.
All that had happened up to this point was but a prelude to the big event. I had come to Kenosha- we all had come- for the big show. And Friday it really began to be historic. The day started early, as all my days did. I got up around 4 am, dressed and headed for Kenosha. I met with Chris Zinn of AMO. I had promised Chris he could share my space and canopy. We ate breakfast at his hotel on the lakefront and drove down to the show field. To illustrate how early we were, we were about the fifth car in line that morning.
Some Rambler fans take a moment away from the show field to enjoy the shore
Kennedy and Penoyer parks are really nice, right on the shores of the great lake, with a wide view of everything. No one was allowed to set up until a specific time but when it came Chris and I swiftly chose a nice spot close to the road, near some shade trees and not far from the rest rooms. A good spot. We set up the awning, chairs, cooler, and got our books out for sale. The weather was cool but sunny and the day promised to be very pleasant. Almost immediately the crowds starting drifting by, left to right, small groups of people checking out each stall on the way. But by mid-morning Chris and I hadn't sold all that much and were beginning to wonder if we had traveled so far for nothing. At the rate people were buying it wouldn't even pay for gasoline for the trip. But around noon the crowds starting drifting back our way and by now they were ready to buy. And what a day I had, meeting and shaking hands with literally hundreds of Rambler and AMC enthusiasts.
It was the single most successful day of vending I've ever had. I was surprised at how many people I saw that I had run into at other meets. And of course, to meet up with a fellow Connecticut man was a special treat. The terrifically funny Bob Majeski of Prospect CT stopped by and he, Chris and I spent the next hour swapping jokes and telling stories. It was one of the best days of my life.
We spent all day vending, with Chris and I taking turns walking the vender field looking for bargains. I spent a lot of money there but I also made a lot so I think some kind of balance was achieved.
Note the Bill Reddig dip in the roof of this 1960 Rambler Wagon
We had several special visitors. Chuck Mashigan, retired AMC designer, stopped by to renew an old friendship. Chuck is the man responsible for designing the original two-seat AMX and worked on most of the AMC products done from 1963-1982. My old friend Bill Reddig showed up with his wife Betty. Bill was assistant manager of the styling department in the 1950’s and is the man who put the dip in the roof of Rambler station wagons. He also designed the beautiful 1956 Rambler. With Bill was another old pal of mine, Jim Alexander, who worked at AMC from about 1958 right up to the ed. Jim worked on a variety of projects and was the lead man in developing a prototype Hornet pick-up truck called the Cowboy. Jim had his beautiful wife Laura with him and it was a treat to see them both again.
AMC Cowboy prototype (front view)
Also there was Ed Bicknell and nephew Eric, current owners of the only surviving AMC Cowboy prototype. Although I had written about this unique prototype pick-up before, I had never actually seen it. To my surprise the Bicknell's not only had the truck with them- they handed me the keys and let me take it for a drive! To those of you who don't know about the Cowboy, it was built on a 1971 Hornet SC360 chassis, with 360 V8 and 4 speed, so it's faster than you would guess. I took it down the lakefront road, burning rubber on every takeoff.
AMC Cowboy prototype (rear view)
At the end of the day we packed up and I headed for my hotel. I had a modest dinner, and got to bed early. With a full day of vending and then two banquet speeches in the evening, Saturday was promising to be one of the busiest days of my career.
Photo Coutousy of the Kenosha News
I got up at 4 am, got ready and drove to Kenosha to meet Chris. We returned to our selling spot, set up again and got ready for the crowds. The day was cooler than before and the sky was threatening. Before very long it began to rain, which ruined some of my books before I could get a protective tarp over them. It rained buckets. But by noon the sky began to clear, the sun came out and all of a sudden it was HOT. People began to cruise the vending area again, cars poured onto the show field and heaven had found its right place again. As before, Chris and I took turns minding the store while the other would tour the area. This time I spent most of my limited travels looking at the hundreds of cars. Really, it was overwhelming. At most meets one sees one or two Marlins- and at Kenosha we had rows of them. Although only 922 1967 Rogue convertibles were built I think most of them were in Kenosha that day. I regretted not bringing my own. Still, its twin was there though I didn't get a chance to meet the owner.
1959 Rambler Interior
Row after row of 1961-1963 Rambler Americans,
another of my favorites, were also on display. Some were as shiny and perfect
as the day they were built, others tarnished but perfectly good ‘drivers’.
Ambassadors, Rebels, were everywhere. Even the 1964 Typhoon wasn’t a rare
thing, as several restored examples were on display.
The meet had a celebrity tent set up in the middle of the field and under its protective canopy were former AMC designers and stylists. Anyone not too awestruck to talk could walk up and shake hands with the men who designed their cars- what an incredible event!
I missed the parade of antique vehicles. The city of Kenosha issued me an invitation but by the time I got it I had already made other plans. Likewise with the museum dedication- Kenosha’s invite came too late for me to attend.
Chris and I vended until about 3 pm when I had to leave, go back to my hotel to clean up and change into dressier clothes for the evening's events. I traveled out to Pleasant Prairie to the Metropolitan Club banquet.
Photo Coutousy of Kenosha News
The Met Club’s banquet hall was beautiful, one of the best facilities I’ve ever seen for a car meet. I had explained to my hosts that another club had an emergency and needed my services later in the evening, so we scheduled my talk early. At 6 pm I did an early-bird presentation, a separate show I do that explains exactly what an automotive historian does. I did this so that any late arrivers wouldn’t miss the main part of my show and also because it's a good crowd warmer. Although everyone expects the talk to be dry and serious in fact it's a funny, a tongue in cheek commentary laced with press photos of girls in bathing suits demonstrating Ramblers. It got a lot of laughs.
Immediately after that I launched into the main part of my program which was about the testing done for the Metropolitan pre-production cars. I recently discovered many long-lost photos of factory road testing of the first Mets and made up a slide presentation that I think went over pretty well. The Met Club members are especially nice, listened attentively and responded very enthusiastically. At the conclusion of my 40-minute talk we had a book-signing event, and I got to meet and shake hands with some pretty wonderful people. Then I packed up my slide projector and headed for Kenosha.
Photo Coutousy of the Connecticut AMO
AMO’s banquet was held at the Italian American Club not far from the waterfront. The day before I had mapped out the route carefully so I could arrive around 8 pm or so. As soon as I arrived I began to setup my projector, get my mike ready, go over the details one last time with Bill Reddig, and then we went on. The crowd was enormous!
I warmed up the big crowd with a short presentation of slides and commentary. The Italian American Club has really bad acoustics, and sound waves just go all to pieces in there. Besides that the sound system is about two centuries out of date. I quickly realized that if I used it no one would understand a word I said, so I asked everyone to refrain from noise making, and spoke without a microphone. I can speak pretty loud when I have to and I think the vast majority could hear me well enough- and I know that if I had used the mike, half the room would have been unable to hear me. After my intro talk Bill Reddig spoke and talked about the old days when he worked with Ed Anderson and George Romney and George Mason and it was wonderful. Bill is a national treasure.
Photo Coutousy of the AMO
The crowd gave us a good round of applause and then went on to the award ceremony. Bill and I stayed to get our pictures taken for the club magazine and then left. We said good-bye outside; I drove to my hotel and finally took a break. It was 11 pm. I had been going non-stop for nineteen hours straight and I was tired. I was also hungry because in all my activities I never found time to eat more than a snack. Yes, that’s right; I went to two banquets in one night and never got a meal.
The next day I got up at 7 am, the latest time all week, to have breakfast with two really wonderful people, Skip and Lorraine Vollmer of Pennsylvania. Skip is another former Nash and Rambler dealer and his dealership, Vollmer Motors, served the AMC public for many years. After a terrific brunch we retired to my room where I interview Skip for the next two hours about his career as a Rambler/Nash dealer, all on videotape so we can save these precious memories for all time.
The filming and interviewing took longer than expected but the results were good. Afterwards, Skip and his lovely bride headed for home in their beautiful 1955 Nash Ambassador Country Club, while I loaded up the Chevy for the return trip to Connecticut.
The first day I hit a tremendous storm, the worst rain I’ve seen in thirty years, but made it to my hotel. Next day the weather was beautiful again, and I enjoyed the long drive through Pennsylvania. Early evening found me home at last with my sweetheart-happy to see me after eight days on the road.
Regrets? I’ve had a few. I wish I had taken
a Rambler, even if it meant towing it. I wish I could have gone to the
Rambler Club banquet, but this is a business for me so I have to go to
the one that hires me. I wish I had enough time to see all the cars there,
but the number was simply amazing. I wish my new Rambler Commemorative
book had been ready in time for the show instead of three months later.
But my biggest regret is I wish I could have spent all month in Kenosha,
so I could see everything there is to see, talk with every Rambler enthusiasts
I can, enjoy the whole thing for weeks rather than days.
If circumstances prevented you from going to Kenosha, that’s a shame. It was an amazing event. If we ever do it again, don't miss it!
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