Long before I owned a Ferrari, raced a Mustang, or restored a Triumph, I was a Pontiac man. My first car was a 1970 LeMans Sport, which unfortunately suffered all the indignities that go with the teenage hot-rod bug: jacked up suspension, tatty exhaust and mismatched aluminum-slotted rims. But the car itself was marvelous. I’d felt as if I was one of a privileged few to fully understand the genius in the restrained design and wonderful finish of these intermediate GMs. And though it’s been years since I’ve owned my last GTO, the fire still burns.
I had a chance to fan the flames today, as our rolling car show called The Drive Home heads northeast through Illinois with an early stop at the Pontiac-Oakland Museum in Pontiac, Illinois. Pontiac could be one of those Midwestern towns used as the wholesome backdrop in “Back to the Future” or “Groundhog Day” with its center-square courthouse and historic murals. Housed in a former five-and-dime store on the town square, the museum is a private/public partnership between the town and Tim Dye, a Pontiac enthusiast and publisher of the Smoke Signals magazine of the Pontiac-Oakland Club. He discovered Pontiac while on a road trip and happened to mention his interest in forming a museum dedicated to his passion for the car of the same name. Proactive town officials and merchants took note, and a day later Tim was on the phone with Pontiac’s mayor and on his way to fulfilling every car guy’s fantasy.
Walking into the Pontiac-Oakland Museum, I am hit with a wave of familiar childhood awe, as an immaculate 1970 GTO Judge sits near the entrance. Next to it, a Tiger Gold GTO and a 1969 Ram Air IV Judge, presented mid-restoration. My car-guy flames have just had gasoline poured all over them.
The Drive Home crew are treated like visiting dignitaries. Or maybe these fine folks just treat everyone this way. Local media show up to interview us about our trip, and a number of officials are on hand, clearly proud of their museum. And there is a lot to be proud of. If limited by space, it is not by quality and the thoughtfulness of the displays. Tall ceilings and oak cabinets house Pontiac sales memorabilia and a comprehensive hood ornament collection. A Safari wagon sits in a diorama that could be ripped from a period magazine ad – complete with a tent, Coleman cooler and a flickering campfire. A glass-enclosed library invites slow relaxing research among voluminous records and documents.
Tim Dye and his crew are now taking us to lunch, and they’ve called out the town’s tourist trolley to cart us to Edinger’s Filling Station, a classic diner with an automotive flair. I order the buffalo chicken sandwich, aptly called “The Firebird,” and we have a wonderful time chatting with our hosts. The food is fantastic, hearty home-cooking; this is the meal we’ve been looking for since we left Tacoma. All too soon, it’s time to leave, with promises exchanged for a return visit. The gentle Southerners in our Drive Home team (of whom the practice of hospitality is considered an art form) are especially charmed by the town and its citizens, and decide that this all-to-brief time in Pontiac was one of our best stops so far.
Filled with chicken pot pie, we are now braced for the most daunting traffic yet: the dreaded I-294 in western Chicago. We have another gathering to attend, this time at the newly inaugurated Collectors Car Garage, a 66,000-square-foot concierge storage garage and event center directly across the street from the WGN Studios in Chicago. The event is to support the Hagerty Education Program, the in-house educational arm of the LeMay-America’s Car Museum. These HEPy Hours, as they are called, highlight the success stories of job placement and entrepreneurialism in the classic car industry under the Hagerty sponsored program.
Inside the impressive new facility, our road-worn cars provide a very stark contrast to the polished white epoxy floor and the assembled guests in their cocktail attire. About 100 people attend, continuing the building groundswell of support for the LeMay/America’s Car Museum and our looming goal of returning these great cars to the city of their birth. Now at the doorstep to Motown, we are filled with anticipation, anxiety, and excitement about the coming events this week. It promises to be very special. Stay tuned.