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The GTO Couple

A Poncho love story - the power of Pontiac binds Wisconsin hobbyists.
Denise Clumpner with her 1969 Pontiac GTO and Jesse Fisher with his ’67.

Denise Clumpner with her 1969 Pontiac GTO and Jesse Fisher with his ’67.

Everyone who has found and fallen in love with the old car hobby is lucky, but only the luckiest have then found true love through old cars. Denise Clumpner and Jesse Fisher of Fond du Lac, Wis., are among the luckiest whose affections began through old cars and continue with them today in wedded bliss. The key to their happiness? Each has a set of keys to a Pontiac GTO.

“The running joke was I had to have a Pontiac if I was going to marry her, so we fixed that before the wedding,” Jesse laughed.

“I wasn’t looking for a husband, but I figured I’d be crazy not to marry him,” Denise replied.

Denise Clumpner and Jesse Fisher beneath the neon that originally hung over their table at the Hudson’s restaurant where they went on their first date.

Denise Clumpner and Jesse Fisher beneath the neon that originally hung over their table at the Hudson’s restaurant where they went on their first date.

The couple met at the at the Omro (Wisconsin) Memorial Day Car Show in 2007. When Denise pulled into the show with her high school car, a 1969 GTO that she bought in 1979, she found there was nowhere to park. Jesse and his buddies offered to move their cars so Denise could park her GTO. The two immediately hit it off even though Jesse was more of a Chevy guy. To his credit, he was considering becoming a GTO man.

“When we met, he said he wanted a 1967 Chevelle or GTO,” Denise recalled. Telling Denise that you’re looking for a GTO is like letting a badger loose — she will tear up the countryside to find one, and when she traps one, it will live up to its reputation as a “Great One.” That’s because Denise has had GTO fever herself since her 1969 became her first car. It was purchased from Waupaca Motors, a dealership near Denise’s hometown of Ogdensburg, Wis., when she was just 16 years old. Denise began restoring that GTO while still in school and had it ready to show within two years, debuting it at the nearby 1981 Iola Old Car Show. That GTO remained with Denise through her career as a teacher at Fond du Lac High School where even the students knew her by her car.

With GTOs almost always on her mind, Denise immediately went to work hunting down a “Goat” for Jesse. She soon found a few potential GTOs, but they weren’t quite what Jesse was looking for. Regardless, the searches certainly made for fun dates and by December, the couple was engaged — even though Jesse didn’t yet have a Pontiac, let alone a GTO. That would change before their wedding day when the perfect car surfaced, tying Denise’s past to her future with Jesse.

Denise posing with the ’69 GTO after it was first restored.

Denise posing with the ’69 GTO after it was first restored.

“We got engaged in December and in February a friend from Scandinavia (Wisconsin) called me and said, ‘I’m not sure what we’re going to do,’” Denise recalled. “Their son bought a 1967 GTO from the original owner, got it in the body shop and then got into a nasty divorce. My friend and her husband took over ownership of the GTO and told the body shop to ‘call us when it was done.’ 13 years later, John calls and says, ‘The car is done.’ She called me and said, ‘Do you know anyone interested in it?’”

Scandinavia — population 328 — is just a country mile from Denise’s equally small hometown of Ogdensburg (population 185). Everyone from the local barkeep to the postmistress in either town is familiar with Denise and her white-and-black GTO. So if the locals have a GTO to sell, they know to call Denise.

Denise poses decades later. Same car, same woman, same school in the background — even the same shirt!

Denise poses decades later. Same car, same woman, same school in the background — even the same shirt!

“The car was 85 percent done,” Denise said of the 1967 GTO in Scandinavia. “Some things weren’t done but should have been done. Everything inside (the interior) was original.”

The couple looked over the Mariner Turquoise 1967 GTO to determine its pluses and minuses. The body work was done, but the interior needed attention. There were also many small details that had to be corrected to complete the restoration. Overall, it was a great foundation and its minor issues weren’t necessarily minuses since Denise and Jesse are accomplished detailers who enjoy completing some lighter aspects of restoration. What also made the car a great candidate for any buyer is the fact that the original owner is still counted among the few hundred residents of Scandinavia.

The only real reservation that Jesse had over this 1967 was that an automatic instead of a four-speed backed its 335-hp 400 V-8, but as Denise noted, “the price was so good for them and for us” that Jesse bought it.

In short order, Jesse set about correcting the car’s flaws. He restored every inch of the interior, rewired the car and detailed the trunk with the correct splatter paint. He also detailed the engine compartment, work that included replating the chrome air cleaner and valve covers.

As has become their custom, Denise and Jesse exchange car parts at birthdays, Christmas and other holidays. One year, Denise gave Jesse more “stop” for his new sleigh.

“For our first Christmas as newlyweds, a friend who sells Pontiac parts sourced us an original power front disc brake setup from another GTO, so that’s the only modification to it,” Denise said. “I could barely lift the Christmas present to wrap it.”

By their 2008 wedding, both GTOs were looking tall.

“We had a two-day car wedding and were married in Omro at Scott Park, where we met, and only old cars were allowed on the island,” Denise said. The next day, the reception was held at a nearby Oshkosh location and included their own celebratory car show. “We had about 35 cars and quite a few motorcycles, too. There were even dash plaques for guests.”

The couple was married in front of her GTO and his Camaro, the cars they were driving the day they met, one of which was decorated with “just” and the other with “married” on their rear windows. Denise’s father, Harold, from whom she inherited her Pontiac genes, officiated the ceremony. Jesse’s GTO, as well as the couple’s other classics, were parked close by the couple during the nuptials.

It turns out Jesse has some Pontiac in his genes, too. When his mother met Denise and her GTO, she recalled owning a white-and-black GTO of her own. And she had a favor to ask of Denise:

“The day he and I met, his mom was at the Omro Car Show and was very excited to see my car. Years ago, she had a white 1970 GTO with a black top. When Jesse took me to meet his mom for the first time, she said she wanted to ride in the GTO so I took her up the road and we burned some rubber! She really enjoyed that. She is a fabulous photographer and has taken some great photos of Jesse doing burn outs!”

Today, Denise and Jesse continue to show and cruise their GTOs, especially now that they’ve retired from their respective teaching and firefighting careers. They’re finding being lucky in love means quality time in the hobby they love with the one they love, whether cruising, showing or doing an occasional burnout — usually in a GTO, of course.

“My dad got a good deal — I had been working in his shop since I was 12 years old!” Denise laughs.

In short order, a new exhaust, belts, hoses and tires were installed to make the GTO legal and safe, but there were bigger plans on the horizon.

“I started buying parts right away,” she said. She started junkyarding and attending swap meets, buying anything she could find, but parts were already difficult to source since the car was already over 10 years old.

“I walked up to everyone [at the Iola Old Car Show] that had a GTO or was selling GTO parts and asked them for specific items,” she said. “I was really looking for a dash with air conditioning [outlets] — mine was really cracked,” she said. “I met a guy who said I should speak with Jack Benson, and told me where to find him. I tracked him down, and Jack had a notebook with all of these names and numbers of guys who handled Pontiac parts. He flipped through the pages with his finger skimming over names, and suddenly said, ‘Call this guy! He’s from Menasha.’ I happily copied down the number and called him right away. When I told him what I was looking for, he said, ‘I thought I’d never be able to sell this dash. I’ve had it for three years and never got one call on it!’ So he sold it to me for $30 and he and his brother even put it in for me!”

The GTO was a pretty solid example since most of its 10 years were spent in Texas, but it still needed some metal parts. Denise said the deck lid had rust and the car had poor body repairs from an incident in its past.

“The passenger rear quarter panel had been replaced — it must have had an accident early in its life,” she said. “I found pull marks in the front fender when I stripped it down over Easter vacation of my senior year. The hood was buckled so I found a nice used hood for $25 — with the tach! That was a great deal, even back then.”

GTO deck lids without rust were much more difficult to find, so Denise ended up settling for a modified part so that she could get the car repainted in the first of its two paint jobs. That first paint job was just $650 plus $80 for a new vinyl top and $100 to rechrome the bumper. The GTO was finished just in time to attend the 1981 Iola Old Car Show. Then, a few years later, Denise finally found a rust-free GTO deck lid.

“That GTO trunk lid cost me $300 and that was more than my rent in 1986!”

The GTO that Started It All

Denise Clumpner and her two siblings came home from the hospital in a 1951 Pontiac convertible, ingraining the Pontiac gene in her DNA. That convertible is gone, although Denise still wears its keys around her neck and has a replacement hardtop version in her garage. Yet her real automotive love is her 1969 Pontiac GTO hardtop.

“I saw the car the first time when I was 13,” Denise recalls. “My sister and I were dating two brothers from Waupaca (Wisconsin) and their sister owned it. I saw it when she was home visiting from Texas. She let us sit in it because she had just gotten a new AM-FM 8-track stereo for it. But I didn’t think at that time I would ever own it — I was too young to think about that.”

By June 1979, that Texas GTO had returned to Waupaca and was traded off just in time for Denise to buy her first car.

“She bought a new 1979 Z28 and this was parked at the back of Waupaca Motors because it couldn’t pass Wisconsin’s safety inspection,” Denise said of her GTO. “My dad was making a deal on a truck there at the time. The GTO was in bad shape, but I loved it.

“Dad didn’t think it was a great idea for me to have a car with that much power, but my brother really went to bat for me and said, ‘If she’s buying a car, it should be worth the money she puts into it.” Since Denise’s dad Harold owned Clumpner’s Ogdensburg Garage, where Denise had been working since she was a kid, he was able to get a great deal on the neglected GTO. He made a package deal on the truck for their business and the GTO for Denise. All those years of working at the garage had earned her a GTO.

The car is now on its second paint job and with 259,000 miles — 120,000 more miles than when she bought it — it still has its original YS-code 400-cid V-8 and automatic transmission, which have both been rebuilt. Some mechanical parts have also been replaced and/or rebuilt several times, such as the radiator and the rear differential.

Over the years, Denise has tried to track the history of her GTO before it came to Wisconsin. She hasn’t been able to determine who owned the car during its first six or seven years, although she was able to talk with the woman who traded in the car at Waupaca Motors. She was only able to learn that it had been purchased used off a lot in San Antonio, Texas. Fortunately, the GTO retained the emblem of the car’s original selling dealer: Frank Weaver Pontiac, of Waco, Texas. That led Denise to befriending Frank himself.

“He said he thought there was a chance he sold that car personally,” Denise said. “They sold a lot of GTOs to GIs on Saturdays because they had just gotten their paychecks. The salesmen all wanted to work on Saturdays! He said sometimes two or three GIs would go in together on a GTO, beat the heck out of it, then eventually abandon it on the side of the road. They would then get scooped up and auctioned.”

Although she’s not sure about her GTO’s life during the disco era, it’s undoubtedly found a loving home since. Over the last 40 years, Denise has been regularly improving the car while adding to its odometer, even participating in the Hot Rod Power Tour on multiple occasions. It’s also inspired her post-retirement careers as the Show Car Director for the Iola Car Show and as an appraiser for her business, Heritage Classic Auto Services.

Denise is one of a lucky few whose passion for a car led her to love and a classic car career. How many GTOs can make that claim?

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