Photos by Larry Edsall
Who got you interested in classic cars? Sam Haberman remembers, and he’s returned the favor.
Haberman, who lives in Birmingham, Michigan, remembers being 15 years old when his 20-year-old cousin, Gerald Mitchell, let him drive his MG-TD.
Yes, Haberman was too young to have a driver’s license, but driving his cousin’s classic British roadster sparked a passion in Haberman for classic cars.
Haberman’s first classic was a 1951 Studebaker Starlight coupe, which he suspects has become the most-seen car of its kind: “I donated it to the Henry Ford Museum 30 years ago,” Haberman said, speculating that during those 30 years at least a million people have seen his car.
Not millions, but at least a few hundred people saw not only one of Haberman’s classic cars but a couple of his cousins at the recent and 18th annual Orphan Car Show in Riverside Park in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The show is the largest in the country exclusively for cars produced by automakers who no longer are in the business in the United States.
Entered this year were 33 Studebakers, 27 Hudsons, 25 imports, a dozen Packards and a dozen from various AMC brands, nine Nashes, and assorted others — from Checker to Crosley, Franklin to REO, 42 from defunct brands of Detroit’s Big Three — including DeSoto, Edsel, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Plymouth and Pontiac — plus 14 Chevrolet Corvairs.
Yes, Chevrolet is still in business, but it no longer builds Corvairs and since they were built in Ypsilanti at Willow Run, they comprise a class at the show each year.
For many years, Haberman’s passion was Hudson, another brand with strong local ties to Ypsilanti (the 18th Orphan show was held in conjunction with the opening of the expansion of the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, which now is the home of the National Hudson Essex Terraplane Historical Society and its cars).
Haberman’s favorite Hudson was a 1957 Hornet powered by an AMC 327-cubic-inch V8. In fact, he liked that powerplant so much that he bought a 1965 AMC Ambassador convertible, primarily because it had the same engine.
Turns out, however, that while it was the same engine, the big convertible’s powerplant was linked to a two-speed transmission and thus wasn’t nearly so interesting to drive. So uninspiring, in fact, that it wasn’t long before Haberman decided to sell the car.
“Would you take a trade?” asked one of the first respondents to Haberman’s advertisement.
Haberman wasn’t sure he was interesting in a trade, until he found out what the fellow was offering. Turns out the fellow had had an Ambassador convertible in college and was trying to relive those happy days. In trade, he was offering a 1936 Hudson Terraplane, a gorgeous coupe which was the car Haberman entered in 2014 orphan show.
Which brings us back to Haberman’s cousin, Gerald Mitchell, who had two cars at the show — a 1949 Studebaker Champion Regal and a 1970 Avanti II.
Mitchell lives in another and seemingly misnamed northern Detroit suburb, Southfield. He found himself wanting something unusual and saw an online advertisement for the ’49 Champion.
As it turned out, the car’s owner knew Mitchell’s cousin Sam, who assured Mitchell that he could trust the seller, who had restored a couple of horse-drawn wagons that Haberman had bought once upon a time.
So Mitchell bought the car sight-unseen.
“It was everything he said it was,” Mitchell said of the car which originally had been bought by a recent Studebaker retiree, who drove it for 20 years but then parked it in a field for two decades.
The second owner restored the car and drove it for 20 years. Mitchell has owned it for five years.
Mitchell liked the Studebaker so much he decided to get another, this time an Avanti, for which he had very fond memories, memories much like his younger cousin had about Mitchell’s MG-TD.
It was in 1963, Mitchell said, that he not only saw his first Avanti, but got to ride in one.
Last year, he started searching for one of his own. Again, he found it online, but this time the car wasn’t what its owner — a classic car dealer — promised it was.
But at least Mitchell has his Avanti, even if it’s going to cost him time and money to make it the car he really wants to drive and to show.