Cars in Wisconsin

Country road in Wisconsin
Photo by Sylvia Eisenmann, Courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Transporation

Driving along, we approach the crest of a hill lined with trees. Where our road intersects another is a brown and yellow sign telling us we’re on a “Rustic Road.” Spontaneously, we turn right onto the new road, and I check the map to find out where we are heading.

Perhaps not the first thing you think of about Wisconsin, but the state has an entangled history with the automobile’s development, racing, and enjoyment. I have come to appreciate this because I live with someone who enjoys racing, carwatching, and back-road picnicking adventures.

A recent surprise was a trip to the Wisconsin Automotive Museum in Hartford ( . The occasion is an outing with the local sports-car club, including a back-road drive with 10 plus cars and a picnic. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, 80 different models of cars and trucks have been made in Wisconsin since 1900. The Museum features two of these makes: the Kissel Kar and the Nash.

Photo provided by Wisconsin Automotive Museum

The Museum’s first floor houses a history of Kissel and Nash models and styles. Think of open roadsters, chrome detailing, unique lights, and leather seating. On the second floor, the collection broadens with a variety of classic cars—eye candy for the car enthusiast. The details of the cars and the changes in styles are fascinating, but most intriguing is the number of car types and designs made right here in Wisconsin in the early life of the automobile.

There used to be more collections on display in Wisconsin, like the David V Uihlein and Brooks Stevens race-car collections. But as these owners have died, the opportunity has died with them. This makes a visit to the Wisconsin Automotive Museum to see some of Wisconsin automotive history a special trip that can stand alone or be combined with another adventure, like exploring the Rustic Roads of Wisconsin.

The Rustic Roads program, now 40 years old, preserves scenic country roads that highlight rural Wisconsin. There are 117 designated Rustic Roads spanning more than 669 miles through 59 counties. The routes can be identified by the brown and yellow signs and road-numbering system prefixed with an “R.” Plan an outing targeting these routes or, on your way to a destination, treat yourself to a detour. The roads are often narrow and meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. That being said, these roads are also popular with bike riders, so share the road. You can find a list of roads for trip planning at the Department of Transportation website: .

Photo by Green Concierge Travel

As you drive on these roads, imagine racing in a classic roadster—no roll bar, open top, and leather helmet. An article by Tom Still, current president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, reminded readers of the historic link between cars and the Badger State. These included firsts: the first steam-powered automobile, the first 4-wheel-drive automobile, and the first automobile race. Classic open-road races of the 50s were held at such well-known locations as Watkins Glen, New York, and right here at Elkhart Lake.

Today, Road America ( , Wisconsin’s four-mile premier road-racing circuit, winds through the contours of the north Kettle Moraine. The roar of engines can be heard in the Village of Elkhart Lake on most summer weekends. Road racing started at the Village in 1950 using the local roads. The friends of the early circuit and racing continue to keep it alive through historic markers and a website. Race fans make the pilgrimage to drive the old course.

Photo by Green Concierge Travel

The street races were championed by locals, such as banker Jim Johnson, Fire Chief Ray Kramer, and resort owner Ollie Siebken Moeller. Siebkens Resort has been at the center of car racing and events past and present. In the Stop-Inn Tavern, surround yourself with race decals, flags, and racing memorabilia. On race evenings, it’s the place for bench racing and stories from the day’s events. In the main house with the dining room, you just might find some famous racers; we sat next to Bobby Rahall and his team. Or for other racing memories, see if the tiny whiskey bar, Cocktail Bar, at the back is open, and enjoy a drink where many famous race-car drivers and celebrities have been after enjoying a day of automotive fun.

A final suggestion, visit the new Midwest Microcar ( in Mazomanie, a collection of microcars, bikes, mopeds, and more!

With so much automotive history to learn about, don’t forget about the numerous car shows across Wisconsin. A favorite every year is Botham Vineyards’ Vintage Celebration, held in August; this year’s marquee is the Lincoln. These events often prove that Wisconsin barns don’t just contain farming equipment!

Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at .