You might see retired Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Bob Hawley tooling around in one of his Porsches or in his lime green VW bus or in a cream-colored Morris Minor, or you might see his wife, Jennifer Blahnik, in her bumblebee Citroen 2CV.
“I just collect cars,” Hawley said. “I guess what got me involved and liking machinery like that, I went to Lawrence [University in Appleton, Wisconsin] and spent most of my sophomore year in southern Germany. I really didn’t know anything about cars. Just being surrounded by the home of Mercedes, BMW and Porsche – we were real close to Stuttgart [home of Porsche] – that kind of piqued my interest.”
Three months after leaving law school, Hawley bought a brand-new BMW.
“Three months after that we bought an old Porsche 911, Irish Green,” he said. “I remember going to my mother-in-law probably a year later and asking her if she had a spare dresser for a bedroom, because we still had all our clothing in cardboard boxes. She suggested we build some dresser drawers in one of our fancy cars. Our priorities were skewed and we needed a down payment on the house. We put both cars up for sale, and the Porsche sold in 24 hours. We kept the BMW then. I always like to say I was between Porsches. The next Porsche I had was 28 years later when the kids were out of college and I was about one year away from retirement. My second Porsche was kind of a collector car.”
His latest interest, reflected in the Citroen 2CV, is micro-cars.
“For my birthday my wife gave me a wine tour and we went to New Zealand,” he said. “This gal showed up in a Citroen 2CV. Even though it was kind of ratty, I made up my mind I wanted one. I had driven one a long time ago in France. So I started negotiating with this guy in Oregon, and we bought a Citroen 2CV. My wife has been using as kind of a store moniker. She has a store in Egg Harbor [Signature Pieces] and people can never remember the name of it, but, you know what, they remember the bumblebee parked out front. I told her it would happen. She kind of doubted me for a while. She doesn’t anymore.”
Hawley said he recently attended a micro-car event in Boston.
“Those are really appealing,” he said. “Unfortunately, they’ve really started to increase in value. These Messerschmitts, Fiat Jollys, BMW Isettas and all those cars, you could buy those all day long for $5,000, now they’re $40,00 to $50,000. The last Messerschmitt Tiger I saw sold in 2 ½ minutes for $240,000 bucks. They look like little airplanes. They were built for returning veterans who were handicapped. They have just really taken off.
Hawley also bought a Nissan Figaro from an actress in Hollywood. The Figaro is very rarely seen in this country because it was built and sold only in 1991, and only 20,000 were built for the Japanese market.
“We took that car on a 6,000-mile road trip,” Hawley said.
His latest purchase was the VW Microbus.
“We picked it up in Sacramento and then we drove it back here,” he said. “It took us about three months to do it, but we really had a blast doing it. I’ve never had one before but I guess everyone else growing up in the ’60s did. We call our hippie bus Key Lime. We have a TV in it. Six speakers and subwoofer, a little sink and refrigerator. We actually lived in it for about two months, stayed off the interstates. It has no heat. No air conditioning. But it’s been an adventure.”
Hawley collects cars to be driven, not to be enshrined as museum pieces.
“Any new Ford Fiesta will dust any one of my Porsches and certainly any of my micro-cars,” he said. “If you’re looking for speed and convenience, don’t buy one. If you’re looking for a hobby or are interested in meeting a lot of very nice people at random, it’s fun to do.”
And since his cars are for driving, Hawley said he quickly learned a valuable lesson.
“You meet all sorts of people, so you have to keep that perspective when you’re driving one of those cars that you’re kind of an ambassador,” he said. “You might be in hurry, and they want to tell you their stories. If you don’t want to be a jerk, you have to recognize that you have to take the time and talk. If you have four errands to get done in an hour, it ain’t gonna happen. We have a Mercury Villager for those errands.”
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The old saw about the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life being the day he gets his boat and the day he gets rid of it does not compute for Russ Cihlar, but, then, his boat is also a car. It even bears a bumper sticker that reads, “I Brake for Fish.”
Cihlar, of Sturgeon Bay, is the proud owner of one of the 3,878 German-built, rear-engine Amphicars that were produced between 1961 and 1967. His is a beautiful Fjord Green (the Amphicar came in three other colors – Beach White, Regatta Red and Lagoon Blue).
“About 90 percent of them were made for the American market because we had the money,” Cihlar said. “At the time, they went for about the same as a Corvette. What would you rather have, a ’60s Corvette or this?”
Cihlar answers himself: “We just love this car. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
The Amphicar was the brainchild of Hans Trippel, a German engineer who had been working on amphibian vehicles since the early 1930s. He had a hand in creating the VW Schwimmwagen that was used by the Nazi Wehrmacht and Waffen SS during World War II. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that he came up with the design for the Amphicar, and the first ones rolled off the line in 1961.
Cihlar first ran into what would become his Amphicar sitting outside at a farm in 1972. The car had a 1965 plate and the odometer read 300-some miles. Cihlar was 16 at the time.
“I was antique hunting with a buddy of mine. We would go to places in the hope they would want to sell something,” he said. “This was just sitting next to a lilac bush outside. I’d never seen one before that, but I’d heard about it. I’d never even seen a picture of one. I sat in it. I’m 16. It’s a little four-speed. I thought, wow, wouldn’t this be cool to have?”
But, he had already tried to restore a vehicle and didn’t succeed, so he walked away from the Amphicar on that day.
“Ten years later it was still sitting there. That’s when I pushed to buy it,” Cihlar said.
He said it was in “derelict” condition when he bought it, and it sat outside of his place for another year until he built an addition on his garage.
“I built a shelf on the addition, took all the parts off and stuck the body on the shelf. It sat there until I was ready for it, about 10 years,” he said. “I’ve had it restored for about 15 years, thanks to my wife. It was kind of an impossible project, but she encouraged me so it got done. I was wondering how am I going to get it back to original.”
Asked what needed restoring when he bought it, Cihlar said “everything.” He learned that Amphicar parts are readily available from a California dealer.
“I restore military vehicles, too,” he said. “Those I was able to scuff ’em down, paint ’em up and get ’em running and they’re good to go. This one here had to be completely stripped down. That was a challenge for me. I learned patience. The only problem is, if it takes you 10 years to do a project, you’re not going to have many projects in your lifetime.
“It’s an expensive project, so you have to designate a goal every year,” Cihlar continued. “For the most part I did the work. I had a friend help me rebuild the engine. I’m not good with the deep mechanical stuff. You just have to have patience. My brother does body work, so he did the final body work. One year I just bought the interior because that’s all I could afford. The next year I bought tires. If I would have had to rely on other people restoring it for me, I would never have been able to afford it. I don’t think I’ve got $8,000 in this.”
The Amphicar produced for that short time in the 1960s was known as Model 770, because its top speed in the water is 7 mph and its top speed on land is 70 mph.
“I’ve had it up to maybe 60, but you have to have a clear road because the front end is so light. It feels like something is going on. It drives kind of quirky. You have to keep the front tires at 20 pounds and rear tires about 30. On the road it goes all over. You think the tire’s flat,” Cihlar said.
“It’s really built basic,” he said. “You’ve got the engine, a little English Triumph engine, a Triumph Herald. It was the only thing small enough at the time. The only thing that makes it different from a regular car, as soon as you turn it on, the bilge blower kicks on, so that cleans all the gas fumes out of the bilge, supposedly. I usually leave my bonnet open and I don’t have to worry about it too much. You start it up like a regular car. You’ve got a choke.
“Once you get in the water, you don’t need the wheels anymore, you just put it in neutral. There’s a shift lever on the bottom that’s forward, reverse and neutral for the two props in back. And that’s it. There are rubber seals on the door, and there’s a little lock inside when you shut the door that squeezes it in a little. If you run aground, you can just drive it off. By Sunset Park there’s kind of a rich sandbar. Sometimes I’ve run into that, so I’ve got to put the wheels on and drive over it.”
There are a couple of other things that differentiate the Amphicar from its landlubber brethren.
“I’ve got a car license, a boat license and a vessel safety check by the Power Squadron of the Coast Guard Auxiliiary, and then you’ve got to have a boat pass to go down the ramps,” Cihlar said. He also has to carry lifejackets on board.
More importantly, Cihlar points out, “If you get a rust hole, it’s more than unsightly. You could sink.”
Club to celebrate 25th anniversary in Door County
Laura Prellwitz adds the above line to every email she sends out as president of the Fox Valley Region Porsche Club of America, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2015 with a gathering in Door County.
“We chose Door County because of the beauty of the area and the wonderful scenic routes,” she said. “We wanted to have it within our region, which covers all the lakeshore counties and the whole northeast section of Wisconsin, as well as central and upper Michigan. We thought Door County was kind of centralized. And the Landmark Resort, when we contacted them about possibly being our venue for the event, they jumped all over it and they have just been absolutely wonderful to work with and extremely accommodating. It all just kind of came together.”
The event is planned for next June 27 – 28.
“As part of our celebration, we are going to have a gimmick rallye around Door County for about three hours, and then conclude it at the Landmark, where we will have a car show that is open to the public,” she said. “In fact, we need the public to come and vote for their favorite car as a trophy will be awarded in that category. This will be a truly unique situation for people to come and view a Porsche-only car show, and to participate in it.”
Prellwitz said the club has 161 registered members and about a third of the members have two or more Porsches.
“They’re kind of like potato chips. Once you have one…” she said.
The Porsche as potato chip syndrome began with her husband.
“He has always been a huge fan of Porsches and always wanted to get one,” she said. “A mid-life crisis settled in so he purchased a 1987 911 in August of 1999. We joined the Fox Valley club that same month.”
It would be more than a decade before Prellwitz got her own “potato chip.”
“On New Year’s Eve 2012 I got a 2002 Boxster,” she said. “A lot of people when they think Porsche, they think racing right away, but it’s a great touring car. I think it’s a very versatile car.”
Prellwitz’s Porsche enthusiasm earned her the national award of Porsche Club of America’s Enthusiast of the Year Award in 2009 (and that was before she even had her own Porsche!).
“It was quite the honor,” said Prellwitz, who is an English teacher in the Sheboygan school system. “The local club has chosen me as member of the year twice and enthusiast of the year three times. The club has been very appreciative of my efforts and that means a lot to me.”
The value of belonging to a car club, she said, is “being with a group of likeminded people. You go to an event with people you may have never seen before, but you immediately have something in common. It’s a great way to start a conversation.
“Our group is not very competitive. We’re more social. We go on tours and go out for dinner,” she said. “We do charity support for MS and the American Cancer Society, with the idea that it’s not just about us. We do try to help out in the community. We do technical sessions if someone is interested in more hands-on information. For those interested in competition, we try to do some things at Road America. We try to network with other Porsche clubs that offer races. Everybody joins the club for different reasons. Primarily for our group it is more social.”
Retired judge and Door County resident Bob Hawley has been a member of the Fox Valley Region Porsche Club of America for 10 years and is looking forward to the 25th anniversary event.
“We’ll be hauling three of our Porsches out,” he said. “I’ve given cars away to my two sons. They’re flying out and one of the cars is being stored for one son here, and I have a car for the other son. We’re excited about that.”
“We’re hoping to really break the record as far as attendance,” Prellwitz said. “Because our group is so scattered geographically, we’ve been promoting this event for months already so people will save the date. The most we’ve ever had at an event in the past is 65. We’re hoping for 75 or more and to have 30 to 35 cars or more. Door County is a big attraction for people and Landmark has such a great reputation. We will be the only Porsche-only car show in the state of Wisconsin. One of the trophies will be People’s Choice, so we’re really hoping people will come and cast their vote.”
Photography by Len Villano.