Much of my youth was spent at Sunset Speedway, near Omaha, Nebraska, and at Playland Park Speedway (depicted above), in Council Bluffs, Iowa. My father, Walter C. Ahrens Jr., raced a 1934 Ford coupe with great success in 1957 and 1958, when I was a toddler. Having witnessed a race at Watkins Glen during his hitch with the Army, he honored the American racing colors of blue on white when he painted the car. But that was about the extent of his cultural sophistication. Otherwise, Walter was a louche country boy who liked to outrage people, so he chose the bad-boy number of “69.” If his prissy in-laws were offended, he was happy. Later, as the supply of coupes had diminished, he built a ’32 sedan to run on those same tracks and at the Nebraska State Fair, a long course where the long wheelbase was less of a handicap. This local scene was dominated by Bob Kosiski and the Burdicks, whose names are also prominent in the annals of Daytona International Speedway, but Walter considered himself intellectually superior to them and felt that he belonged to the big show himself. It never worked out that way, but I benefited from listening to his car talk. He said Detroit turned out “big heavy monsters,” and often mentioned cars like the Crosley Hotshot that were light in weight and advanced in technology. Colin Chapman, the British engineer who founded Lotus Cars, provided inspiration at our garage as we learned of his accomplishments through sports car magazines. Chapman’s motto was, “Simplify, then add lightness.” Walter’s thinking out loud informed me that arrays of batteries did not add lightness. (There was talk in the 1960s of an electric-car revival.) He also expatiated on such topics as camshaft profiles and spring rates. His experiment with Weber side-draft carbs on the overhead-valve Ford V-8 that went into the ’32 sedan was a fascinating, sputtering failure. Alas, he never matched his early success, and by the early 1970s disappeared with a bitter heart into the realm of digital devices, which were far less quixotic.
This theory and practice made my basic education about cars. The jargon paid off during an interview with a racing team’s engineer. He talked about pushing for an ever-higher reciprocation rate inside the engine, so when I was unable to think of anything insightful to ask him–the idea is to keep the interview subject going–I said something about the harmonic resonance that is encountered above 15,000 rpm. I understood it to mean there’s a lot of vibration going on. The engineer didn’t detect any uncertainty on my part. Instead, he seemed about to dissolve in tears. Finally, someone had truly understood him.
Going off to the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln, I earned a B.A. in English. As soon as possible after graduation, I ran away to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, but everything went hideously wrong and I was cursed to write for magazines and newspapers. Once in Hell, it was natural to move to automotive subjects. I contributed to the late and much-lamented Automobile Magazine over a 34-year period until it went belly up in 2019. I turned in everything from reviews of new cars to feature stories based on adventures such as the 2004 Alcan Winter Rally, a marathon test deep into the Canadian Arctic. Of the latter, I can boast that our team won the gold, my performance in the special slalom stages on ice had something to do with that victory, and it was an honor once again to have the Ahrens name in the winner’s column.
My biggest dreams while sitting in the stands at Sunset and Playland have been realized through automotive journalism. I’ve driven cars and ridden motorcycles on racetracks in North America, Europe, and Asia. (Ride along with me in a single-seater at Laguna Seca.) As a freelance journalist, I aspired to write for the top titles, and indeed my byline–often with my own photos–has appeared with automotive reports in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and New York Post.
I spent 25 years living in and around Ann Arbor, Michigan, but eventually returned to Southern California, dwelling near Palm Springs since 2013. Nevertheless, Detroit is my everyday theme and I continue as a contributor to DBusiness (“Detroit’s Premier Business Journal”), now in the 16th year with editor R.J. King. My latest story is about a collector of automotive advertising art, but other recent assignments have encompassed such topics as the history of currency, business succession planning, and why a Danish TV crew visited town in October of 2021. For this work, we have been on a nice streak of receiving awards from the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. In the 2020 judging, I got the gold in the small magazines category for “Best Body of Work, Single Writer.” The judges declared:
The writer is a practiced hand on the auto beat, and his work on Autonomous Cars shows deep knowledge of a complicated subject. He also turns a historical profile into an entertaining read, and lends his ability to understand all sides of a story to his take on Michigan’s foray into legal marijuana.
In 2021 the AABP judges awarded the gold for my “Closing Bell” column:
These engaging slices of history illustrate the richness of Detroit’s commercial past, with a look at circus impresario James A. Bailey and automotive design pioneer Helene Rother, among others. The writing has the literary grace of good historical narratives, and beautifully toned vintage photographs add elements of authenticity and charm.
While still living in Michigan, I started some research in the Detroit Public Library, reading papers in the Knudsen family’s archive. That was the beginning of a deeper exploration of American automotive history. But the immediate impetus for writing “The American Automobile from Flivver to Furious” came just a year ago, in April of 2021, after one of my Uncle Chuck’s friends said something about Henry Ford “inventing” the moving assembly line, an outrageous assertion. So this book happened. I wasn’t in a self-conscious state during its composition, only conscious that it’s a good tale.