LIMA — Here they come.
Classic cars are motoring our way on the Lincoln Highway this summer, eager to drive the route and celebrate the highway’s centennial anniversary, said Mike Hocker, executive director of Ohio Lincoln Highway Historic Byway.
“Anybody who’s a car buff or history buff or road buff, they’re going to be doing something this year for the centennial,” Hocker said from his Galion office.
An official tour will make a planned stop Wednesday in Van Wert, but there are many other groups traveling the highway at different times, Hocker said. The groups are heading in from all parts to Nebraska for an annual conference.
When you live and work near Lincoln Highway or “old 30” as some call it, it can be difficult to appreciate the history — but the road has a rich one, Hocker said.
“The Lincoln Highway was the first coast-to-coast paved road in the United States,” he said. “There really were no roads outside the city limits that were paved.”
When automobile companies got past their initial rush of sales, the numbers dropped. They came to realize that people wanted the cars, but there were no good roads on which to drive them.
Henry Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Co.; Frank Seiberling, chairman of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.; and Carl Fisher, owner of a headlamp company called Prest-O-Lite, worked together on making a proper road. (Fisher would later back the Dixie Highway and the Indianapolis 500.)
“What they did, they surveyed existing roads and hooked them all together in a straight, safe line,” Hocker said.
They were trying to create a road system that would in turn help their businesses, he said. The government was not involved.
“Understand that the government was busy building railroads,” Hocker said. “The government did not collectively have the vision that automobiles would someday take over.”
The name was Joy’s idea. Lincoln had been dead about 50 years, Hocker said, but there was still no memorial in his honor. The group decided Lincoln’s hero status would add to their project.
The task of traveling
The idea of a safe road was relative. Just east of Lima, the highway's original route crossed railroad tracks five times.
“What would happen is Model Ts would have to come up the grade. They had a gravity-fed fuel line, so by the time they got up to the top, they were out of gas,” Hocker said. The driver would have to get out and push it off the tracks — and hope a train didn’t come just then.
The route later changed to avoid issues like this and straighten through the years.
But the surfaces were quite different than today. Sometimes, it would be crushed stone or asphalt mix, even cinders. Anything that could be graded was tried, Hocker said. The road often washed out in heavy rains.
Travelers had to carry tool kits, spare tires, water and food — anything they thought they’d need, including camping gear. There were no motels.
“And it was not unusual to break down all the time. You expected it,” Hocker said.
Most towns had a speed limit of 5 mph. Outside of towns, the speed limit was 25 mph.
“Probably if you went faster than that, you’d hurt yourself or kill yourself,” Hocker said. It wasn’t certain the human body could sustain continued speed.
Spurring today’s conveniences
The Lincoln Highway changed traveling, but it also changed the face of towns it passed through. Businessmen saw the need for what was called a one-stop, Hocker said. It was like today’s convenience store. Repair shops opened, too.
Before motels and hotels were built for travelers, chambers of commerce would often provide a camping place outside town, Hocker said. They would lease a farmer’s field and sometimes install a hand pump for water or a grill for charcoal.
“That was kind of the precursor to the official rest stop that we think about today,” Hocker said.
Some even built little cabins, which in turn led to motels.
“That’s what makes driving the Lincoln sort of fun because you spot those things leftover from history,” Hocker said. “If you look carefully, you’re going to see those buildings that are repurposed or maybe you have a ghost.”
The idea of a roadtrip holds such power.
“It’s probably just an innate sense of freedom, the fact that you can control where your destination is,” Hocker said.
A special group
One group feels that lure in a strong way. They have come for the sheer thrill of driving the highway — and their visit is in no way simple. About 250 Europeans are gathering on the East Coast to drive the road.
“The majority, probably about close to 200, are from Norway,” said group leader Henning Kjensli, reached in New Jersey. “And then the rest are spread between Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Germany.”
Kjensli is from Norway. So what is the fascination?
“I think it’s got a to do with TV and movies,” he said. “We have a lot of American TV shows and movies in Norway. A lot of people like the culture, they like the cars.”
Describing them as “luxurious” and “flamboyant,” Kjensli said American cars are common in Norway.
“If you’re on the road, I’d say every 20-25 minutes, you’d be meeting a classic American car on the road in Norway,” he said. A typical Norwegian buys a car that is already in the country, but some have cars imported.
Kjensli and his father, Harry, spent 16 years restoring a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible in Norway. The short summers there impeded their fun.
“There really wasn’t enough time to enjoy that car over there,” he said.
So in 2003, they and some of their other car hobby friends decided to ship their 17 classic American cars here and drive Route 66. They spent three weeks driving from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.
“Take it back to the roads it was built for,” Kjensli said. “A lot of people sort of had the same sentiment.”
Doing more research, the group discovered the Lincoln Highway and started planning this trip for its centennial year.
“And now we’re at 71 cars all together that we shipped over from Europe,” he said. Kjensli traveled with the cars by boat, waiting with them for the week it took to clear customs here. They’re in storage now in Secaucus, N.J., waiting on the now-near arrival of their owners by plane. He went to college in Florida; most in the group speak English.
It costs about $1,500 to ship a car to the East Coast, he said, and about $2,500 from the West Coast. Kjensli, who is involved in his family’s business, also had the time to drive the route and make a very specific itinerary. Each hotel is pre-booked; security is in place.
Some of the cars are quite unique. The oldest traveling with the group is a 1930 Ford Model A; the newest is a 1987 Citron, made in France. Another European oddity is a 1969 Messerschmidt, made by a German airplane manufacturer. The company was restricted from building planes after World War II, Kjensli said, so they made cars that looked very much like planes.
“The passengers sit after one another, and it’s only got three wheels,” he said.
Kjensli will be driving a support vehicle but towing his 1969 Corvette. They plan to pass through this area the afternoon of July 6.
“One thing that we do hope by doing this trip — in addition to it being a trip of a lifetime — we also hope that the trip can contribute, doing some spotlight and getting the history of the Lincoln Highway back out there,” Kjensli said. “The fact that it’s been so forgotten now, I think that’s sad. … That’s something we hope that this tour can contribute to.”
Lincoln Highway tour