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One man's road to Iola

John Gunnell recalls Iola's early years as the Iola Car Show turns 50 this year on July 7-9.
The forest ranger tower in the background of this photo was erected as a way to control traffic flow to the show, and is considered a symbol of Iola.

The forest ranger tower in the background of this photo was erected as a way to control traffic flow to the show, and is considered a symbol of Iola.

It all started for me in 1972 with the purchase of a 1954 Chevy Two-Ten four-door sedan for $325 in Staten Island, N.Y. A few weeks later, that was followed by the purchase of a 1953 Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe Eight four-door sedan for $175. Then came a 1956 Oldsmobile Super 88 Holiday sedan for the princely sum of $25. That car was quickly sold for $125, which seemed like a real “killing” 50 years ago.

An announcement for a car show in New Hope, Pa. — spotted in The Village Voice, of all places — was really my beginning of a long career in the old-car hobby. The next fall, a trip to the AACA Fall National Meet at Hershey, Pa., took that career a bit further. It was Hershey on Friday in the Chevy, and to Camp Hill, Pa., on Sunday for the first convention of the Pontiac-Oakland Club International (www.poci.com).

The late Chet Krause (right), who originated the Iola Car Show, chats with Old Cars columnist Gerald Perschbacher at the 2013 edition.

The late Chet Krause (right), who originated the Iola Car Show, chats with Old Cars columnist Gerald Perschbacher at the 2013 edition.

POCI founder Don Bougher was looking for a volunteer editor for his Smoke Signals publication (then a newsletter, and now a full-blown magazine). Everyone else took a step back, and that’s how I was picked as the new editor. The next summer, my family was transported to Wichita, Kan., for the second POCI Convention. Terry Boyce, editor of Old Cars at that time, was a Wichita native and went there to cover the convention.

That fall, I met up with Terry again at Hershey, where he was selling subscriptions to Old Cars. It seemed like he had a dream job that involved old cars, travel, writing and history.

“How did you get so lucky?” he was asked. “The answer to that question is just keep trying,” he said. “Become a member of the Society of Automotive Historians (www.autohistory.org) and keep trying.” So, that became my agenda between 1973 and 1978: to become an automotive writer.

The late Bob Gary (left) and Ken Nimmocks, were two members of the Wisconsin Society of Automotive Historians who took over the car show theme planning in the 1990s.

The late Bob Gary (left) and Ken Nimmocks, were two members of the Wisconsin Society of Automotive Historians who took over the car show theme planning in the 1990s.

By 1975, a few of my stories had been sent to Old Cars and actually published. A friend and co-worker named Mike Carbonella took the photos and I took care of the words. Sometimes the stories were donated, and sometimes Terry squeezed out a $12.50 payment for each. It wasn’t about the money, however — it was about having fun.

During the summer of 1978, I planned a road trip to the Iola Old Car Show (now called the Iola Car Show, or IOLA), where Old Cars was published, but it never happened. After looking at the 1,100-mile trip on a map (no Mapquest back then), a visit to car shows in Macungie and York, Pa., seemed to make a lot more sense. No one knew at the time that a household move to the tiny village of Iola was in the cards for me and my family. Working at Old Cars also included working at the Iola Old Car Show, and my first show was in 1979.

The car show had been started in 1972 by Old Cars publisher Chester L. Krause, the founder of Krause Publications, and members of the Iola Lions Club. In 1973, the show became a part of the Iola Lions Club’s annual chicken dinner. By 1979, the show’s theme celebrated Wisconsin-built vehicles, and it was exciting to stand by the gate as many Nash, AMC, Kissel and Excalibur cars showed up, as did a couple of FWD, Oshkosh, Sterling and Oneida trucks. At that time, the staff of Old Cars Weekly (it became a weekly in 1978) did a lot of the car show legwork.

The late Jeff Godshall (left), renowned automotive designer and historian, with former Old Cars editors Terry Boyce (center) and John Gunnell in 2008. Boyce worked on early Iola Car Shows.

The late Jeff Godshall (left), renowned automotive designer and historian, with former Old Cars editors Terry Boyce (center) and John Gunnell in 2008. Boyce worked on early Iola Car Shows.

Around 1980, Tex Smith came to work at Old Cars Weekly. Tex had been a boyhood hero of mine after checking out his book “How to Fix Up Old Cars” from the library many times during the 1960s. He had worked for Hot Rod and Motor Trend out of California starting in the late 1950s and through the mid 1960s. He was quickly named publisher of Old Cars Weekly and had some big ideas about growing the publication and the Iola Old Car Show.

At that time, the show was getting big. According to Tex’s book, “Inside Hot Rodding: The Tex Smith Autobiography” (Graffiti Publications, 2015), the show had “something like 1,500 show car spaces, a large number of vendors and around 3,000 swap spaces” and around 60,000 spectators in 1980. It also took up a lot less real estate than it does today, so people on the showgrounds were, literally, bumper to bumper.

Tony Hossain (left) was editor of Old Cars Weekly in the mid 1980s, when the Iola Old Car Show was growing from 60,000 spectators to twice that number.

Tony Hossain (left) was editor of Old Cars Weekly in the mid 1980s, when the Iola Old Car Show was growing from 60,000 spectators to twice that number.

Somewhere in this time frame, there was a year when the crowd grew larger than the Iola community of 1,200 people could safely handle. Traffic became backed up for miles, and spectator cars were parking in the ditches alongside the road. Many had to be towed out at the end of the show. Following that experience, someone decided to make some logical changes. A 100-ft. forest ranger tower was obtained and erected on the grounds. It was also decided to end the practice of stopping cars at parking lot entrances to collect money. Instead, the admission fees were raised to include the former parking lot fees and entry was quicker.

The author with automotive TV celebrity Courtney Hansen at the 2016 Iola Car Show. Sending a car show rep to the SEMA Show really started the celebrity visits  to the show.

The author with automotive TV celebrity Courtney Hansen at the 2016 Iola Car Show. Sending a car show rep to the SEMA Show really started the celebrity visits
to the show.

Krause Publications Vice-President Clifford Mishler was making many of the decisions to improve the Iola Old Car Show, and it kept growing under his management. Proceeds from the show were used to support local charities and community organizations that worked at the show. At some point, the state tax agents noticed the money that the show was generating and thought it was going to the publishing company. To clarify that this wasn’t the case, the car show was set up as a separate entity called Iola Car Show, Inc., with its own staff and office. That took a lot of the planning responsibilities off the Old Cars Weekly staff.

Even though the Old Cars Weekly staff had less to do with planning IOLA over the years, we had a few suggestions that we passed on to the car show staff. One was to make the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians responsible for selecting the annual theme and finding vehicles to fill it. Another was to send a car show staff member to the SEMA Show in Las Vegas each year to line up celebrity guests for IOLA. Today, there are usually a dozen or more TV personalities, celebrities, writers, artists and well-known racers signing autographs at IOLA.

Auto writer Linda Clark (left) and former Old Cars Editor John Gunnell (center) met celebrity guest Jo Coddington at the 2018 Iola Old Car Show.

Auto writer Linda Clark (left) and former Old Cars Editor John Gunnell (center) met celebrity guest Jo Coddington at the 2018 Iola Old Car Show.

One thing that hasn’t yet been achieved is a visit from comedian and former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, who is a well-known car collector and expert. He was invited to Iola in the late 1990s while still working on the “Tonight Show.” Jay said his schedule was “too tight” then, but he’d try to come sometime in the future. Maybe that day will come soon. We know the 120,000 Iola spectators that currently attend each year would love a visit.

Learn more about the Iola Car Show at https://www.iolaoldcarshow.com/

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