When he turns the ignition key in one of his classic cars, Randy Buser smiles. He loves the rumble of the engine.
“I like the smell of the exhaust. It might not be healthy, but it’s neat,” he said. “I just think the cars are pieces of art that show the styles of the era.
“It kind of reminds me of my childhood growing up in the mid-70s. The neighbors had Chargers and Challengers, and I was always drawn to them.”
Buser got his first classic muscle car — a 1970 Pontiac Firebird — when he was 16.
“I got a few speeding tickets and lost my license. I had to drive beaters until I could afford insurance again,” he said.
Buser and his brother Rick bought the Grand Avenue Saloon in Port Washington while they were college students. Buser now owns the Port tavern and his brother owns Maxwell’s in Cedarburg.
Classic vehicles are often parked outside the Port establishment.
Buser currently owns five classics — a 1955 white Ford Thunderbird, a 1968 blue-and-black Plymouth Road Runner convertible, a 1970 red Dodge Challenger, a 1993 red Dodge Stealth RT and a 1999 black Pontiac Firebird.
All have been outfitted with seat belts, something a true classic collector would frown upon, Buser noted.
He also has a 1990 Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a 1997 red GMC truck dubbed Big Red with oversize tires and a high chassis.
Several patrons also have classic vehicles and those may be parked nearby, especially on nice days, Buser said.
Many classic car owners keep their vehicles, shiny and pristine, in garages, bringing them out only for car shows or special occasions.
Not Buser. He and his daughters drive the cars. The most modern vehicle he owns is a 2006 Mercury Mountaineer that his wife Linda drives.
“She doesn’t like the muscle cars,” Buser said. “She just shakes her head. We gave her the Challenger for a birthday gift, but she wasn’t as thrilled about it as we were. I still had to get her a birthday gift.”
After his first car was well-known to local law enforcement officers — something he warns his daughters about — Buser didn’t own another classic vehicle until the mid-1980s.
He and his wife owned Corvettes — Linda liked driving them — until they needed a back seat for their oldest daughter Sara, who is now 23.
Sara, who learned to drive stick shift on the ’55 Thunderbird, drives the newest car — a 2011 Hyundai she bought for better gas mileage — but drove the Dodge Stealth when she attended Port Washington High School.
Her sister Brooke, a junior at Port High, drives the ’99 Firebird, the only classic car Buser owns that has an automatic transmission. She will learn to drive stick this summer on the T-Bird, her father said.
Sara said she used to envy her friends who drove newer cars until she discovered how much boys liked the Stealth.
“They would walk right past the other girls’ cars and stare at mine,” Sara said. “I’d ask if they wanted to go for drive and they’d say, ‘Really? What will your dad say?’”
In winter, Buser usually drives his truck, which he bought new but customized from a four-door, long-bed to a four-door, short-bed.
Now that spring has arrived, the classic cars are coming out of the Quonset hut where he and other family members store and work on their vehicles.
The 120-foot-long metal building in the Town of Port Washington is as classic as the vehicles, Buser said. It’s big enough to hold 20 vehicles.
“So we’ve got room for a few more,” Buser said.
His father-in-law Jay Mayer, owner of J&H Heating in Port, brother and brother-in-law also store vehicles in the hut, including an old fire engine that Mayer and his son are converting to a truck with a wooden bed to advertise the business.
“They’ve been working on it for years. They have the chassis painted and plan to finish it this summer,” Buser said.
Buser bought the T-Bird from his father-in-law.
“I found the T-Bird but didn’t have the money to buy it, so my father-in-law ran down and got it,” Buser said. “He had it for 13 years and asked if I wanted to buy it. He bought a brand new T-Bird that had all the modern conveniences.”
At the time, Buser was driving a 1973 Ford Mustang convertible.
“I would rather buy old. I like to buy something that’s classic, that they don’t make any more,” he said. “That’s when the value goes up.
“I buy cars that are in good shape. I don’t do the work on the cars myself, and you’re better off buying one that’s good than paying someone to fix it.”
It’s easy to find classic cars on the Internet, but Buser prefers dealing with people directly.
He only buys vehicles he loves and will sometimes just stand in the garage or Quonset hut admiring them. He has friends who do the same thing.
“When I got a 1971 Barracuda, a friend whose first car was a 1970 Barracuda, got the itch and found his original car. A crack was still in the grille. I think he paid five times what he originally paid for it,” Buser said. “We have a few friends who have their first cars.”
Buser has videos of his daughters driving the cars he’s owned since they were young.
“Even the first one — the Barracuda convertible — the girls were 12 and 6. I let them drive sitting on my lap in the field or back yard,” he said.
Buser plans to keep the cars his daughters drove and give the vehicles to them.
“I think as they get older, they will appreciate them more,” he said. “I wish my parents had kept my 1970 Firebird and given it back to me.”
Image Information: Randy Buser checked the engine of his 1970 Dodge Challenger. Photo by Sam Arendt