BISMARCK — Ken Ryan couldn’t believe the attention his wooden car attracted when he drove it from the Canadian border at Antler, N.D., to the Gulf of Mexico and back to North Dakota.
The vehicle drew questions from young men, old women and everyone in between curious about its unorthodox appearance. Many whipped out their phones to snap a picture before he continued down the interstate.
Ryan told them the story of how, 20 years after he bought a 1985 Pontiac Fiero, he replaced all but the frame to make the wooden car that’s street-legal today.
“It follows the idea of a hot rod,” he said. “You start with an older car, and you rebuild to your taste.”
Ryan lived for years in south-central Virginia after spending several decades in Sweden, where his wife is from.
His start with wood began in his 20s as he crafted musical instruments, such as guitars and stringed dulcimers, in his spare time. During the day, he worked as an international press officer for Ericsson, a telecommunications infrastructure company based in Stockholm.
Eventually, he moved from instruments to wooden boats before trying his hand at a car.
“I’ve had desk jobs all my life, so it’s something that is fun to do, and creative and manual,” he said.
While on the East Coast, Ryan purchased the Fiero and later put in a new V8 engine. He redid the brakes and suspension and acquired Atlantic white cedar, a lightweight wood used in boat building. The material is resilient, stands up to moisture and forms the bulk of the car’s body.
The vehicle’s front end is Kevlar with a smooth curvature reminiscent of cars of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Ryan finished the bulk of the car in Virginia but ran into problems trying to get it registered. He said the state required it to be a replica of a previously made vehicle by an established car manufacturer.
“I could build a copy of a Corvette,” he said. “That’s not something I wanted to do. I didn’t want to paint somebody else’s picture.”
So he shipped the car to Bismarck, where his sister, Pat Conrad, lives. He had to add a wooden bumper to comply with North Dakota’s regulations before he was able to register it here.
Ryan returned to Sweden a year ago, so he planned a cross-country road trip in the United States this spring .
He first took the car from Bismarck to the border crossing near Antler before returning to his sister’s house to gear up for the rest of the journey.
Headed south, he had just crossed into Nebraska from South Dakota when a state trooper flashed his lights.
“He stopped me,” Ryan said. “Really, I think he just wanted to see the car.”
The officer checked Ryan’s license plates because he had one only on the rear of the car. South Dakota residents need plates on both sides, Ryan said.
Ryan’s car was not registered there, so he said the officer let him continue on his journey. But first, the man snapped a photo.
The picture went viral on the Nebraska State Patrol Facebook page, garnering several hundred comments and more than 3,000 shares.
Ryan continued south to Galveston, Texas, where the temperature hit 90 degrees and he learned the car’s air conditioning did not work. He plans to fix that and make several other adjustments before taking the vehicle next on a trip around North America.
Still, he’s pleased with its performance. The car averaged 26.4 mpg on the 4,000-mile journey.
Ryan returned last week to Sweden, where he’s working on another wooden vehicle. He hopes to register it there.
Meanwhile, he intends to store his first wooden car in Bismarck until his next trip to the United States, when he can take it for another spin.
“This is what I had intended to do with the car,” he said, “get out and drive it.”