Wheels 'N' Windmills roars into Solvang

Thousands of spectators of all ages spent a warm Saturday afternoon in Solvang admiring candy-apple-red hot rods, cherry vintage trucks and various classic cars in mint condition.

With 300 vehicles in all makes and models (up to 1980), Wheels ‘N’ Windmills has become one of the biggest Central Coast car shows. The event, sponsored by the Oldsmobile Club of Southern California, was organized 12 years ago by Robert Stokes of the Santa Ynez Valley. Many of this year’s participants came from Southern California or the Central Coast; but some arrived from neighboring Nevada and Arizona.

“We have over 40 clubs represented at our show, and some of them will bring maybe 15 or 20 vehicles,” said Stokes, show coordinator. 

Spectators milled about casually in shorts and T-shirts, admiring the vintage cars and classic trucks on display. Tourists posed for selfies alongside picture-perfect vehicles, while nostalgic songs from Elvis, The Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys filled the streets of downtown Solvang.

“We see everything from kids in strollers to elderly folks, like my dad,” said Stokes, adding that his 94-year-old father inspired him to start restoring classic cars in the 1960s. “When you put on a car show like this you don’t get a particular type of demographic — though we don’t see as many younger people as we used to.”

The vehicles — in vibrant colors and various sizes — covered every square-foot of parking space along Copenhagen Drive, most of First Street and half of Second Street. 

“It started in Buellton right on Avenue of the Flags,” Stokes said of the event, which donates proceeds to local charities. “The city of Buellton decided to renovate the islands on the avenue … where we put the bulk of vehicles. We started looking at places where we could take the show, and the city of Solvang offered their services. Once we found out that the city would allow us to use the center of town it became a no-brainer. With all the ambiance of the quaint little shops of Solvang, you couldn’t ask for a better location for a car show on the West Coast.”

Wheels ‘N’ Windmills annually attracts up to 15,000 people, according to Stokes; but he said the participants — classic vehicle owners and their clubs — make Wheels ‘N’ Windmills a success.

“If you don’t please these guys they won’t come back,” he said of enthusiasts who bring their vehicles to Solvang every year. “They like a good location. They don’t want a place where there are no spectators. They want a venue that isn’t just visible, but is also accessible to spectators. So the location is very critical to the success of the event.”

Hank Carralejo of Santa Ynez, a retiree who worked for the city of Santa Barbara for many years, brought his 1941 Willys Coupe to this year’s show.

“We’ve had a lot of onlookers — a lot of people coming around who remember these cars from the old days,” said Carralejo, a member of Pacific Valley Street Rods. “Seeing people smiling and enjoying the cars — it’s a good show.”

Good weather and hot wheels

Pete Thomsen, of Solvang, brought his 1949 Studebaker truck and cream-yellow 1957 Ford Ranch station wagon for spectators to admire.

“I’ve been attending the show, off and on, for about 10 years,” said Thomsen. “This is a great show. Everybody loves coming here because the weather is always good. It’s a great place to relax and get out.”

Thomsen, of Pacific Valley Street Rods, is particularly proud of his Studebaker pickup.

“This was my dad’s truck 45 years ago,” he said, pointing to the metallic-green beauty. “He sold it to a neighbor [Ron Long], who was a school teacher, and then I bought it from Ron about 13 years ago and restored it.”

The legacy of passing vehicles from one generation to the next — along with a shared enthusiasm for restoring classics — is a common theme among car enthusiasts. Stokes, who grew up in San Jose and worked for 31 years at United Technologies before moving to the Valley to be near his aging dad, recalled his love of classic cars as a teenager.

“I grew up in the ’60s and I gravitated to the muscle cars,” he said, crediting today’s new Chevy and Dodge V-8s with reviving the muscle-car trend. “The new muscle cars are technological wizards, but there’s nothing like the feel of the original muscle cars.”

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Stokes, who owns a restored 1967 Oldsmobile 442, said after moving to the Valley in 1997 he was surprised by the lack of car shows in the area. When he and a friend launched the event they had two stipulations: It had to be a non-profit show, with all proceeds going to local charities, and it had to cater to participants.

“They don’t like to wait in lines in the heat to be checked in, so we devised a plan to make the waiting as short as possible,” Stokes said, pointing out that at Saturday’s car show more than 30 awards were given to participants at the end of the event.

The afternoon awards ceremony recognized cars and trucks in several Best of Class categories. In addition, Merchant Awards of Excellence were given by local businesses that sponsored the show to recognize specific vehicles they admired.

Tim Heflin of Agoura Hills is a past award winner who attends the show regularly. This year, Heflin’s 1949 Cadillac Coup de Ville was on display on Copenhagen Drive, along with a 1950 Pontiac Tin Woodie.

“We trophied last year, with [a] Cadillac, and we trophied with the Woodie two years ago,” said Heflin, a member of the Roam’n Relics Club of Simi Valley. “There’s only four of these [Woodies] left. I’ve had it 27 years. I [restored] it for my dad. He died six months later … but I’ve had it ever since.”

A family that drives together

Chris Brown of Camarillo attended the show with his parents, proud owners of a black Austin-Healey sports car, parked next to Brown’s restored 1932 Ford Roadster. His mother, Sharyn, reminisced about the audacious convertible, which her husband purchased in 1963 out of high school. He proposed to her in the Austin-Healey, said Sharyn Brown.

“Chris used to ride in the back seat,” she recalled, noting that during the early 1970s the family of four traveled throughout Northern California with their toddlers squeezed into the rear of the small, British sports car. “We called ourselves ‘Hippies in the Healeys.’”

The younger Brown, who caught the bug for restoring classic cars in high school, said he was glad to be in Solvang, attending the show on Saturday afternoon with both his parents and their vehicles.

“This is my first time here and everybody is friendly and nice,” he said. “It’s well-organized, and you can’t beat the weather.”

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