I recently went to Ford’s 68th Annual Old Car Festival held at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. This once-a-year gathering focuses on antique and veteran cars, starting with turn-of-the-century steam-powered cars and going up to 1931, notably the year before Ford introduced their revolutionary Flathead V8. This event is the largest and longest-running antique car show in America, and it was situated in Ford’s period-correct pre-war campus called Greenfield Village. Numerous brands were represented in the turnout, many of which are now defunct.
As I entered Greenfield Village, I was greeted by a steam locomotive, full of passengers in open cars, gearing up for a loop of the amusement-parklike campus. Inside, there were period-correct buildings and shops perfectly complimenting the presence of the old automobiles throughout the festival. While some of the old cars were parked in rows on the grassy areas segmented by manufacture year, many cars were actively driving around, sending dark clouds of unfiltered exhaust into the air. To maintain order on the property, Ford employees dressed in pre-war police uniforms were actively directing traffic, and many visitors also chose to dress the part, lending the festival a mini-Goodwood Revival feeling.
Wandering the campus, I was most impressed with the tone set by the cars. Owners brought their vehicles from near and far, with awards given to those who completed the journey on modern roads, a tremendous feat in my opinion. I was most impressed by hearing the loud chatter of the earliest engines and watching them slowly rumble down the road in a seeming endless line of cars. Standing near the traffic, I gained an appreciation for modern exhaust filtering, as the air was thick and difficult to breathe.
Of historic automobiles, I find old-timer and veteran cars of utmost interest. They harken back to a time when the automobile was in its infancy, glittering with the promise of growth, a far cry from where we are today on the dawn of autonomy. Walking past a row of obsolete marques like Hupmobile, Maxwell and REO, it’s easy to appreciate the bespoke details and hand-built qualities that set each brand apart. At this time, Detroit-based independent coachbuilders like The Murray Co. manufactured chassis for multiple automakers, and manufacturing was shared amongst the companies in the then oversaturated market. Each car also had a badge on the grille in the same cursive type stamped out of brass, pointing to some uniformity amongst the varied marques.
There’s also a lot of interesting history surrounding the earliest obsolete brands of automobile. Take Maxwell, for example. Maxwell operated from 1904 until 1925. In its time, it was one of the top three automakers in the burgeoning car industry and the first to market the automobile to women. Maxwell sponsored Alice Huyler Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the United States in 1909 — a feat which took 59 days and was completed in a Maxwell 50. Although the Maxwell Motor Company expanded too quickly and fell into debt following the first World War, their assets were bought up and consolidated into the Chrysler Motor Company at its founding in 1925.
While our editor Doug DeMuro believes that interest in these cars will fade away as their owners grow old and move on, I think this event is a testament to the longevity of this automotive legacy. Sure, as time passes, less of these old timer cars may be on the road and instead be in museums — and values may indeed dip to reflect a decline in interest. But there is room for the slack to be picked up by a new generation of car collectors like myself who will carry the torch of automotive history. After all, veteran cars are still street-legal to operate, reproduction parts are still manufactured for popular models and events like Ford’s Old Car Festival will continue to honor and preserve the legacy of the earliest iteration of the automobile and drum up interest in the festival’s youngest onlookers.
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