The Oakland Tour: What Starts Repaired, Ends Repaired

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following blog was written by John Gunnell, owner of Gunner’s Great Garage Restoration Shop in Manawa, Wisconsin. Gunnell regularly contributes articles and industry-driven observations for THE SHOP magazine and eNewsletter. To learn more about Gunnell’s Yellowstone Trail trip, read Restoration Shop Owner Prepares 1917 Oakland for Yellowstone Trail Tour


DAY SIX: Little Engine That Could

Friday started at the Comfort Inn in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, under cloudy skies. For the rest of the day, we would cloud the air a little bit more with white, black or blue exhaust smoke. Dave Sarna said, “That’s patriotic,” but there was no red smoke. The day ended at the Super 8 in Hartford, Wisconsin, with a roll of duct tape, some borrowed plastic wrap and cloudy skies that turned to rain.

We stopped at a BP gas station at the intersection of Highway 45 and County Road R and met Kenn Oie who had emailed us that he would meet us with his 1960 Thunderbird. While Ken and I talked, Dave attended to some service work on the car. The exposed overhead valve train had to be oiled daily and it seemed like a good idea to top off the coolant (the radiator was pretty much empty) and crankcase oil. He also tinkered with a few other things.

We started off again on County Road R, with Dave and the smokey Oakland leading the parade, Kenn following in the T-Bird and me driving the F-150 Crew Cab chase truck and trailer. The Oakland was running fairly strong and we stayed on R until we came to RP, which took us into North Fond du Lac. Several of the yellow colored Yellowstone Trail signs were spotted along this route. In Hudson, someone had told us that there are 400 of these in Wisconsin.

We were early for a change, but Lions Club members were already at the Yellowstone Park in North Fond du Lac. They told us they were representing three different Lions Clubs in the area. Several people made donations to the disabled kids camp in Rosholt, Wisconsin, for which we are raising money.

A minute away was a warehouse for Northern Battery, which is located in a historic building that was a Yellowstone Garage. In fact, the garage belonged to the family of Mark Mowbray, the executive director of the national Yellowstone Trail Association. Mark and his brother came to see us in North Fond du Lac.

Mark had also told Kirk Donskey, vice president of Northern Battery, about our plans to stop at the building. Kirk made a healthy donation to the Lions Club and also helped us out with a technical issue. Our two-year-old battery had gone dead several times, so Kirk told his Fond du Lac crew to put a new 6-volt Northern Battery in the Oakland.

Northern’s regional manager Russ Barber had the battery ready when we arrived and assistant manager Todd Broeske installed the new battery. Warehouse manager Rich Humblet supervised and we included all three of them in our North Fond du Lac photo sessions. We also got a tour of the inside of the old Yellowstone Garage. This was of particular interest to me, being the owner of another Yellowstone Garage.

After an hour or so, we were ready to take off, have lunch and smoke up the highway to Hartford. Dave had been advised to put a little diesel fuel in the Oakland’s tank, so we went looking for a gas station with diesel fuel. We didn’t make it to the Quik-Trip station before the Oakland started acting up. The carburetor was flooding and stalling the car, but the problem also seemed to be electrical. At the Quik-Trip, Dave took the distributor apart and cleaned the contact points with sandpaper. He then checked and adjusted the carburetor.

I suggested we might want to put the car on the trailer and tow it to the museum in Hartford, but Dave was having none of that. He insisted the car was going to make it under its own power and continued to adjust the carb the best he could. It wasn’t “good,” but it was functioning enough to drive the car. So, we skipped lunch and went smoking through downtown Fond du Lac.

We then took off for Hartford on Highway 176. Mark had mentioned something about a hill we’d have to climb-and he wasn’t lying! In the old days, Oakland automobiles were known as good hill climbers, but I think those models were from the early teens, because our 1917 Sensible Six huffed and puffed a little climbing those grades south of Fond du Lac.

We were beginning to wonder if Dave was driving a car or The Little Engine That Thought it Could. Sometimes he would come to a halt near the top of a hill and I would think we’d be loading the trailer. Then, the car would shake, a puff of smoke would come out of the tailpipe and the Oakland would start moving uphill again.

As you might imagine, we had traffic backed up at various points. Dave was usually going about 20 to 25 mph. I was driving behind him, a ways back, with the four-way flashers going on the truck a trailer. We left room between us for vehicles to pass me, get back in for safety and the pass the Oakland. Not all the other drivers caught on right away, but I have to admit we didn’t get a hint of road rage until we were almost to Hartford and a black pickup sped by with the driver leaning on the horn. He probably felt bad when he saw the lettering on the back of the Oakland that said, “Raising funds for blind children.” At least I hope he did.

About 10 miles out of Hartford, Dave stopped for a breather and I told him I had checked the GPS for an easier way to get to the auto museum. He said that I should get ahead of him and lead him in. All went fine with this, until the last couple of turns. Dave got stuck in traffic coming up a hill and lost sight of me turning left. He continued straight. I did a U turn when I could and went the way he had gone. It was easy to find him. All I had to do was follow the smoke.

The GPS soon got us to the Wisconsin Automotive Museum, where again members of three different Lions Clubs were waiting, along with Dawn Bondhus, the director of the museum. The Lions had food waiting and several donations, including a $500 check. After some picture taking, Dawn offered Dave and I a tour of the museum. The specialties there are Kissel Kars, Nashes and short track racing cars, but the overall collection included everything from a gorgeous Ruxton on special display to a 1913 locomotive. We had a pretty long chat with Dawn and though I’ve been to the museum many times, this was the best visit.

The rain started just before we got to Hartford at 4 p.m. and continued all the time we were there. By the time we left, it was coming down pretty steady. It was dark, but Dave wanted to drive the Oakland to the Super 8, where we were staying. Amazingly, he was able to make a relatively easy (he only cut off one car) left turn onto Highway 60, a busy four-lane road. I wasn’t quite as lucky with the trailer and had to wait awhile. Dave would need to find the Super 8 on his own.

Naturally, Dave missed the entrance. When I got to the Super 8 he was nowhere in sight and there didn’t seem to be anyplace to put an F150 Crew Cab with a 20-ft. trailer. Dave showed up and said to put the trailer near one entrance tight to one side. Then, he parked the Oakland. It was raining pretty steady, so Dave decided to walk down the street to try to buy a tarp to cover up the car, which has absolutely no rain protection other than the windshield and the top. In the meantime, I went inside to register.

I told the receptionist who checked me in how we had parked the trailer and she asked me to move it to the back of the parking lot. I took the luggage up then went out front to look for Dave. No Dave. I went back to the room, then back to the car. No Dave. I went inside to tell the clerk that Dave might need to know the room number, but there he was, sitting in the lobby with scissors and a couple of big sheets of plastic that he had “bummed” from the Walgreens next door.

“Go back to the truck and get me the duck tape and a towel,” he said. Both items were a little hard to find, as various people had been tossing various items into the truck for several days. The tape and the towel did show up eventually.

We tucked the light plastic into the top rails and used the duck tape to attach it to the car body. In the process, we made the ugliest “side curtains” anyone has ever seen. But, they worked.

Dave Sarna gets my Michael J. Dowling Award of the Day for Friday. Dave is a guy who doesn’t give up. Many other people-even real car enthusiasts-would have given up last Friday when the clutch facing flew off, before the trip even started. Dave found a way to get a clutch back from Hershey to Wisconsin on a weekend, two days before the tour began, and install it.

When we obliterated a rod bearing on Monday, Dave contacted Andy Wise to ship us four good used bearings. He and the three Bob’s then got the replacement bearing in the engine and had the car running in six hours. And today, when the car started acting up, Dave took the distributor and carburetor apart in a Quik-Trip parking lot, put them back together, got the car running again and drove the car to Hartford, making it just 5 minutes late (and only because we made a wrong turn.

If Dave wasn’t involved in this Yellowstone Trail Tour, it probably never would have started and it would already be over. Lion Dave-as the other club members call him-really is the King of the Jungle. He just doesn’t know what the word quit means. Two weeks ago, he realized a personal dream by driving a Trans Am over 200 mph at Bonneville (two-way average over 208 mph). Now, he’s driving a 1917 Oakland at 25 mph across 409 miles in Wisconsin. Somehow, some way, Dave achieves what he sets out to do

DAY SEVEN: Rain, Rain Go Away

Saturday on the Yellowstone Trail Tour had us dealing with rain all day. The rain was pretty light in Hartford in the morning, got worse in Hales Corners at noon and was pretty heavy in Kenosha late in the day. The 1917 Oakland is going to be a little waterlogged, although that big convertible top did a pretty good job keeping most of the interior dry.

We had starting problems in Hartford and decided to tow the car into the Milwaukee area. In Hales Corners, we stopped at a historic old tavern that had recently been moved 30 feet because of a road-widening project. The local Lions Club members turned out and gave us a nice donation for the camp in Rosholt.

Bob Hanson of WPAK Radio 1AM 106.9 caught up with us for the end of the tour. His cousin from Kenosha came along to guide us through the area.

After leaving Hales Corners, we headed the Oakland towards Kenosha. There we ended the tour at Gateway Classics, a giant collector-car dealership. I took some photos for an article about Gateway, while the rest of the team looked over the more than 100 cars for sale at Gateway Classics.

It looks like we’ll also be towing the car home in the rain. I’ll bet the Oakland will be happy to return to her normal berth in Gunners Great Garage’s Waupaca location. Time for some shuteye!

John Gunnell

John Gunnell has been writing about classic cars since 1972. He is also the owner of Gunner’s Great Garage in Manawa, Wis. He owns 11 cars and seven motorcycles.

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