Behind the Wheel: Rally director Eric Wohlberg’s 1964 Buick LeSabre estate wagon
Rally Cycling team director Eric Wohlberg prepares for travel like everyone else — with one exception. As often as possible, he avoids airports, train stations, bus stops, security checks, cramped seats, lousy meals, lost luggage and all of the annoyances that can disrupt the conveniences of getting somewhere quickly.
An eight-time Canadian individual national time trial champion and three-time Olympian, Wohlberg prefers to take his time. Depending on one’s perspective, his preference for driving to races is either more hassle than flying or it provides the unbridled pleasures of the open road.
Now in his seventh season as director for Rally Cycling and its previous iterations, Wohlberg, 53, makes long hauls — sometimes for several thousands of miles and against better judgment — because of his appreciation for vintage cars. He arrived at the 2017 Tour of Alberta in Edmonton from his home in San Jose, California, in his 1965 Mustang Fastback. More recently, he cruised to the team’s beachfront training camp in Oxnard in January in his 1964 Buick LeSabre estate wagon.
“I’ve had really bad luck with planes through the years,” Wohlberg said. “It may take me a little longer to get there, but I’m probably not going to get my baggage lost. Plus, when you are driving, you get a really good feel for the country or anywhere in North America. I’ll take a day or two extra and check some things out on the way out, or on the way back.”
Pick a race anywhere in North America and there’s a good chance one of Wohlberg’s relics will be parked with the rest of the team’s vehicles — and it will be credentialed. Wohlberg’s vehicles complement the team’s fan-friendly overall persona.
“I’ve only looked at it from the outside; it’s a big point of pride for Eric,” said Robin Carpenter, the 2016 overall Tour of Alberta winner who’s in his first season with Rally. “I think it just adds to the richness of this team’s character.”
Rally’s squad this year is comprised of a larger group of younger riders than in past seasons. Much of the team was born at least 30 years after Wahlberg’s cars were made.
“Some guys are into it, some guys aren’t,” Wohlberg said. “It always turns heads, for sure. I think the young guys can appreciate what it takes to drive one of those things around. The cars don’t not drive themselves; You have to drive them, for sure. They kind of see it as something that stands out. They get a kick whenever they go for a ride in them.”
Wohlberg’s interest in cars and repairing them dates to his youth. He was raised on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan where his family had to be self-sufficient. His father led the way.
“If something broke, you had to fix it; that’s all there is to it,” Wohlberg said. “I just had that same farm-boy mentality. If something breaks, you do your best to fix it. Sometimes it might break a little worse when you are trying to fix it. But that’s how it goes. It’s a never-say-die attitude.”
After driving used Ford F-150 pickup trucks when he worked as a forester, Wolhberg bought his 1965 Mustang in 1990. He purchased his 1964 Buick LeSabre estate wagon for his 50th birthday.
“Right now, that wagon is driving down property values,” Wohlberg joked during the team’s tenure in Oxnard. “The place where it’s parked in front of is for sale, so that house is probably going for $15,000 or $20,000 less. I am sure the owner will be happy when it’s not there.”
Through the years, Wohlberg has modified his Mustang several times. The Buick station wagon is a constant work in progress. During Rally’s winter team camp, its radio antenna was stolen, but Wohlberg remained calm, saying he could find another, just like he’s found other parts in junk yards and on the internet.
“I think every man over age 50 should be driving a Buick of some sort,” he said. “It’s a rite of passage.”
While not equipped at his home to do total rebuilds, but he knows his cars well and does most of the repairs during off-seasons.
Monterey Auto Week, the yearly international pilgrimage in August to all things automotive, is among Wohlberg’s favorite weeks of the year. He car camps on the beach in the station wagon with his girlfriend and absorbs the automobile culture.
“It’s amazing the attention my car gets down there,” he said. “Once all the Lamborghinis and Ferraris are judged, I can score 9 1/2s and 10s with my station wagon. With my Mustang, people always want to know if it’s for sale. I’ve had a couple of offers for the wagon. It’s a beautiful wagon and they’re kind of coming back into style.”
The engine compartment is a collection of mismatched parts, a welcomed creative feast for mechanics. The exterior is weathered. The interior is old and worn. The driver’s seat floor mat bears the image of a roadrunner. A religious figurine rests on the center of the dash, accompanied by a plastic toy rifle. What’s not to like?
When Wohlberg drove his car to the 2013 Tour of Alberta in 2013, the round-trip was about 4,000 miles (6,500km). Wohlberg returned home after excursions through eastern Canada and into New York for a wedding and his father’s 80th birthday.
“I generally just like to listen to the low-pitch howl of the four-barrel (engine), Wohlberg said. “Pretty soon I’m going to put the exhaust cutters to both of my cars, so people are going to hear me coming.”
When not appreciating the rumbles of his vintage cars, Wohlberg often drives while listening to his younger brother’s band, “The Blazing Elwoods.” One of his brother’s previous bands wrote a song about Eric called “Drive Like Steve McQueen.” It’s a reference to the elder sibling’s car and the iconic driving scenes in 1968 movie Bullitt. The late actor drove a Mustang Fastback as a San Francisco police officer on vivid chase scenes on the hilly streets of the City by The Bay.
There’s little doubt vintage cars are a major thread in the Wohlberg family. The cover of the Blazing Elwoods’ album, “Don’t Sell the Car” features an image of the 1968 Dodge Polara the younger Wohlberg sibling inherited from his father.
The elder Wohlberg is also never sure whether either of his vintage cars will endure a long journey without issues. But he embraces the challenge. It’s all part of his enjoyment of the open road. And it’s part of the pleasure of driving his station wagon on the congested and often under-repair maze of the San Francisco Bay Area freeway system near his home.
“It’s a fun old car; it’s a little rough,” Wohlberg said. “It’s a 50- or maybe even a 100-footer. But it gets the job done. I can haul a lot of stuff in it. I can beat it up. It’s perfect for the foul weather and driving conditions on highways 101 and 880.”
About the author
James Raia has reported on cycling for more than 30 years and is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. In addition to writing about cycling and other sports, he contributes business and lifestyle content to several publications, and has been the editor and publisher of the automotive website theweeklydriver.com since 2004. He also writes a weekly car column for Bay Area News Group. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.