Archive for the ‘margaret dunning’ Tag

Plymouth car collector is still cruising along at 103

When Margaret Dunning takes her ’66 Cadillac on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue this week, Dream Cruise fans will see two classics on display — her car and its amazing 103-year-old driver.

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it, the Dream Cruise,” Dunning said. “I’m out on Woodward every year.”

The 19th annual Woodward Dream Cruise is Saturday although, as always, hordes of auto enthusiasts have been cruising Woodward for weeks.

Dunning turned 103 in June, but this remarkably spry, 5-foot-tall “lady driver,” as she calls herself, still loves to drive. And sometimes, floor it. Like the proverbial Little Old Lady from Pasadena, immortalized in song by California duo Jan and Dean in 1964, Dunning likes to go fast.

“Which one?” she replied with a laugh, when asked whether she’d ever had a speeding ticket.

“I got clocked at 72 awhile ago,” she said with a grin, declining to say on which local road.

Last week, she showed visitors her stable of collector cars parked in an oversized, heated garage behind her house in Plymouth.

She chatted knowledgeably about each car, sat in the driver’s seats and patted the side of her 1931 Ford Model A pickup, saying, “This is my sweetheart. It’ll go all day.”

As Dream Cruise fans know, Woodward’s cruising heyday was the 1950s and ’60s, when young men revved hot rods from drive-in to drive-in. For the annual reincarnation of cruising Woodward, however, no one shows off the populist, come-all quality of the Dream Cruise better than Dunning.

And for her, that’s old hat because she has trashed age and gender expectations for nearly a century when it comes to cars — learning to drive at 8, becoming her newly widowed mother’s licensed chauffeur at 11 and being the rare single woman who trucked vintage cars to collector shows since the 1950s, according to her biography at the Plymouth Historical Museum.

Explaining her passion for cars, she sounds like any enthusiast.

“You just get into into internal combustion and it takes over on you,” she said, standing next to her ’66 Cadillac DeVille, with sandalwood tan paint and beige leather-and-cloth seats.

“I grew up on a farm with a lot of machinery, and my mother maintained everything. I was an only child and my father would be fixing something so he’d ask me to get him a tool. I couldn’t help but be fascinated,” she recalled.

Soon, she was tinkering and fixing.

Dunning’s father died in 1923, “and my mother couldn’t drive, so she got me a car to drive her — a Model T, of course,” Dunning recalled. “I could drive because I was used to driving all over our farm.”

Dunning still lives in the tidy Tudor house her mother built near downtown Plymouth in 1927, after they moved off the farm. Somewhere around World War II, she started collecting classic cars.

Dunning has a fondness for Caddys. Her daily drive is a silver 2003 Cadillac Seville. She also owns a two-tone 1975 Cadillac Eldorado in chocolate-brown and tan with matching tan convertible top, wide whitewalls and a steering wheel wrapped in faux leopard skin.

One car clearly close to her heart is a cream-and-black 1930 Packard Model 740 convertible. According to the ClassicCarZ website, Dunning bought the car in poor condition in 1949, had it fully restored and soon was the recipient of the first 100-point winner from the Classic Car Club of America. She took it on some hot laps this spring at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Video of Dunning’s laps made her a hit on YouTube.

Close to home, she’s been driving on Woodward each year for the Dream Cruise for more than a decade. Her usual Dream Cruise ride is the ’66 Cadillac DeVille.

“It’s all-original — all factory, right down to the exhaust,” and never been repainted, said Dan Clements, a Ford engineer who maintains Dunning’s collection.

“Got about 73,000 miles now, and she bought it with 29,000,” said Clements, 56, of South Lyon.

What keeps this dynamo running strong after more than a century? It might be her daily bowl of oatmeal. It can’t be the rest of her diet: friends say she shuns vegetables.

But part of how the never-married Dunning stays remarkably vigorous at her age, they say, is by nurturing her love of owning, driving and appreciating old cars, and by mixing with people who share that interest.

“At the car shows we go to, she’ll stand there all day, talking to anybody who comes along,” Clements said, after loading Dunning’s Packard into a trailer for a car show Saturday in Benton Harbor.

“And she does Woodward every year, her and my mother-in-law,” he added.

Dunning can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t get at least a tingle of excitement from the memory-triggering cultural history that’s revving on Woodward Avenue, she said.

“I think everybody has a car somewhere in their life, maybe their father’s car, or even a neighbor’s car from their childhood, that’s their dream car,” she said.

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A PAIR: Margaret Dunning of Plymouth, Mich., is 101 and her Packard 740 roadster is 81

WHEN Margaret Dunning was 10 years old, she lost control while driving the family’s Overland touring car and careered into a barn, fracturing several boards.

“I hit it, and it didn’t move,” Ms. Dunning, who turned 101 last month, said.

“That car had a mind of its own,” she said. “And I’m not a very tall person, so I had trouble getting onto the brakes with enough power to hold that engine down. It just got away from me.”

Soon enough, though, she was back at it, rumbling around the back roads of Redford Township, just west of Detroit, where her family owned a sprawling dairy and potato farm. By then she had already been driving for two years.

Before the barn incident, Ms. Dunning’s father had often let his young daughter steer while he operated the other controls. One day he let her do it all, but not without a stern lecture.

“Do you know what you’re controlling here?” she recalled him asking. “Do you know the power that you’re controlling?”

“He explained to me how, for some jobs, it was better to use multiple horses,” she said. “But the minute you lose control, you’ve got wild horses to deal with.

“And that’s how he taught me about horsepower,” Ms. Dunning added. “And it stuck with me.”

After that, Ms. Dunning, an only child, drove everything on the farm that was drivable, she said, including a Maxwell truck and eventually, tractors.

When she was 12 her father died, and his Model T Ford became hers.

Once her politically connected mother, who had arthritic feet and could not drive cars, finagled a driver’s license for the 12-year-old Margaret, she drove her mother everywhere. Her mother drove the farm’s four teams of horses.

“If you had just a little knowledge and some baling wire and bob pins, you could keep the thing going,” she said of the Model T. “It was the little car that made America.”

She cherished her time in the car alone, reaching into the wind for roadside stalks of fragrant sweet clover. “I’d see a few friends or race past a blind pig,” she said, using the euphemism for Prohibition-era drinking establishments. “Before I could get home, people would be calling saying, ‘I think I just saw Margaret, with quite a dust pile behind her.’ ”

In those days there was something else in the air: the excitement spawned by a burgeoning auto industry. Henry Ford not only led that wave, but to the Dunnings he was a friend and neighbor who lived minutes away.

“Dad would come in and say, ‘Well, Henry’s outside and I’ve asked him to stay for dinner,’ ” she said. “Mom had made huckleberry pie and offered Henry some.

“He said that was his favorite pie — I think he was being polite, but he was marvelous just like that.”

She added, “He always wore a hat with a sizable brim and a black band, and he’d push it off his face when he talked to you, and looked you right in the eye.”

Ms. Dunning, who never married, attended a private high school in Wellesley, Mass., before enrolling at the University of Michigan, intending to study business.

“When I was little, Mom asked me what I thought I wanted to do for a living,” she said. “I told her ‘to buy and sell.’ I think that surprised her.”

She dropped out of college during the Depression to help at her mother’s real estate business and later had successful turns in banking and retail.

All along she supported her beloved town of Plymouth, where she has lived in the same home since she was 13. In the 1940s she and her mother donated property to establish what is now the Dunning-Hough Library. She has also donated more than $1 million to the Plymouth Historical Museum.

Her love affair with vehicles never waned. She drove a truck as a Red Cross volunteer and has owned a parade of classic and antique cars. At her home, she also keeps a 1931 Ford Model A, a 1966 Cadillac DeVille that she often drives to car meets, a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and her everyday car, a 2003 DeVille. A battered Model T steering wheel is her garage doorstop.

But her real love is a cream-color 1930 Packard 740 roadster, which she has owned since 1949. She plans to show the Packard at the Concours d’Élégance of America in Plymouth on July 31 .

“I saw a for-sale picture and I was a goner right then and there,” Ms. Dunning said. “The guy said his wife had told him they had to get a closed car if they were going to have children. It was raining that day in Detroit when it came in, I remember it well. It sat in a carrier all by itself.”

Ms. Dunning cannot recall how much she paid for the Packard, and said it was unclear how many miles were on its in-line 8-cylinder engine. The Packard had not exactly been pampered, she said, before it was fully restored by a friend.

“It had been through the boot camp at some Army places during the Second World War,” she explained. “In those days soldiers wanted something to drive from camp to their new city, and they loaded them with other soldiers and ran the dickens out of them.”

Since it was restored, the Packard has mostly been a show car, although Ms. Dunning used to drive it more often than the three or four times a year that she takes it out now. “It’s always been a car that I’ve kept separate from other cars,” she said, adding that she has owned other Packards.

“They’re just made out of such fine material,” she said. “I love the engineering that went into it. There’s just a lot of very, very fine workmanship.”

Packard, an upscale brand produced from 1899 to 1958, ushered in several innovative designs, including the modern steering wheel. Ms. Dunning’s roadster was built in Detroit in an Albert Kahn-designed factory complex, now abandoned, that covered 3.5 million square feet and once employed 40,000 workers. In addition to the luxury vehicles, the factory turned out engines for World War II fighter planes.

Ms. Dunning still changes the oil herself, but mostly relies on a small maintenance team that includes a 90-year-old friend. “His hands are just magic,” she said.

Her car has black fenders and a red leather interior with a cigarette lighter, map light and glove compartments on each side of the dashboard. The windshield pushes outward, and there is a rumble seat and storage compartment in back. The transmission is a 4-speed — manual shift, of course.

All these years Ms. Dunning has kept her Packard’s original key with its elaborate crest. For her recent birthday, some friends duplicated the prized key.

“I was thrilled to death to have another one,” she said. “If I had ever lost the one I had, the locksmith would be out here for a week, and I still would not have that crest,” she said.

Ms. Dunning, who belongs to several car clubs, including the Michigan Region Classic Car Club of America, said the Packard has never given her much trouble, although there were times she had to deal with vapor lock, when the gasoline gets hot and evaporates before making it through the carburetor.

“You wait until the car cools off, restart it and off you go,” she said.

“I’ve never run out of gas with it,” she said with a chuckle. “That’s the famous thing to do with old cars. You’re so busy trying to keep everything else in shape, you forget about the gas.”

She said she was looking forward to the concours because she had not shown the car in years. “And it’s just such a pleasure to revive old memories, people I haven’t seen in such a long time.”

Having experienced the horse-and -buggy and Model T days, Ms. Dunning is amazed by the technology and styling of contemporary cars, she said. She is considering buying another vehicle, but she does not know what yet. “It’s just so much easier to drive now because of power steering and brakes,” she explained.

“With the older cars you have to use what I call arm-strong steering. But cars like the Packard make it all worthwhile. I love that car a great deal. I mean, I honestly do love it.”

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