Summer Pleasures: Riding with the top down

Open car owner says ‘Grumpy people even smile’

Bob Ahlstrom drives 50 years of fun, wrapped in Glade Green and boosted by four-barrel carburetor V8.

It’s Ahlstrom’s “Rocket,” a 1952 Oldsmobile 98, and it rolls out today with dozens of other classic cars at the Ring Kings Car Show in Hood River, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Les Schwab Tires.

Sunny skies are expected, and what better way to enjoy it than in an open car like Ahlstrom’s “Rocket”.

He’ll be riding with the top down — one of the prime pleasures of summer.

“Driving a convertible gives you a feeling of freedom, I think, and a bit of an expression of daring,” said Ahlstrom, who is customizing the 98 from the original green to a glistening maroon.

“It’s fun. It’s an adult toy,” Gordon Hinkle said of his 1964 Corvette Roadster. “It’s hard to explain until you actually drive one. Driving a Corvette has a certain appeal, a lot of that is maybe not from the owners but from people who’d like to own one. As you get older, things change. When I was younger, it was the freedom of cruising around in a convertible, and the wind in your face.

“I don’t call it driving. You’re playing with the car,” he said.

Hinkle bought the car in Hood River in 1971, just out of college.

“It’s a survivor. It survived a 21-year-old boy,” Hinkle said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I kid around a lot about being in a convertible, that on a hot day you get to fry the top of your head. The cockpit gets so darn hot it sometimes gets unbearable during a hot day. The offroad side pipes are so loud the radio is almost unusable.”

Audio comes easier for Ahlstrom, who usually plays the soundtrack to ‘American Graffiti,’ “since I am seriously lost in the ’50s,” he said.

“I love my ride,” he said. “People always stop and chat with you. Children always wave at you when passing by in their Mom and Pop’s minivans. Grumpy people even smile when you’re cruising by.”

“At the sight of a convertible in your driveway, you will suddenly have more friends,” writes Teri Alcott on the car-lore website “Relatives will visit more often. People will bring you food and small gifts as a bribe for a ride. There’s not much you can do about it, so make sure the gas tank is always full.”

Alcott points out that “In the beginning, all cars were convertibles. As the automobile slowly evolved from the horse-drawn carriage of the late 1800s, most of the first motorcars were roofless and open. Only the most expensive cars featured closed bodies. As development progressed from a simple horseless carriage with a hot engine under the seat to a true motorcar, cars began to feature doors, windshields and roofs. As cars became more reliable, people began to see them as transportation, rather than expensive toys. By the early ‘20s, the Ford Model T showed the world that an average person could afford to own an automobile. Most cars were either two-passenger roadsters or five-passenger touring cars. It wasn’t until the ‘30s that cabriolet and convertible sedans became popular. These cars added roll-up windows and weather sealing with easy-to-fold tops. These features eventually filtered down to all cars.”

“Old vintage cars are just plain fun,” Ahlstrom said. “It’s more of a therapeutic thing, kind of like riding a motorcycle on four wheels. I used to ride a chopper many years ago; I get the same euphoria when I fire up my 98. It’s a lot more fun and cheaper than going to a therapist.

“I am not new to converts,” he said. “My first brand new car was a 1963 Pontiac Catalina convertible — gold with a white top, a big V-8 engine and lots of chrome.”

Then came the “Rocket.”

“About 10 years ago I bought a ’52 Olds parts car as a donor for another project,” Ahlstrom recalled. “It was just a shell with no engine or transmission. I found and restored the mechanicals to new and better. I could not find a back window for it, so I cut the roof off.”

He said, “I’ve been criticized for taking the roof off, but if you want to ride with the top down you have to do something.”

“My most memorable ride was three weeks after Sept. 11, I was cruising over the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge at about 11 p.m. It was misty and foggy, as usual. In the distance, hanging on the west tower was a gigantic American flag with lights on it. I saw it from the distance and could not take my eyes off it. I was mesmerized as I passed under it. I could not do that in a closed car.”

He said he’s passed on the “top down bug” to his daughter, Lisa, who sold her Mustang convertible when she started a family. “Lisa wants another (convertible) one day when the kids are old enough,” Ahlstrom said.

“Hopefully another generation will be enjoying riding with the top down, the sun in your eyes, wind in your hair, smell the country air and don’t forget the sunscreen.”

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