Eye Candy: 64th Old Car Festival at Greenfield Village

Photos by Kevin A. Wilson

If you were looking for ways to make an old car show great, you could do a lot worse than to take your cues from the 64th annual Old Car Festival in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s like a re-creation of the early days of motoring on the streets of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, with hundreds of pre-1932 cars displayed, driven, discussed and demonstrated.

This year the weekend after Labor Day delivered perfect shirt-sleeve weather for an amble through the park or to sit on a bench listening to expert historians narrate the tale as each car passed in review. Cars from 1918 and earlier drove by the reviewing stand Saturday, and those from 1919 to 1932 did the same Sunday.

Every year since 1950, the longest uninterrupted streak in the country, the historic village Henry Ford assembled has played host to this gathering, one that sets a high standard without resorting to an exclusive invitation list or a focus on high-dollar cars. More than 875 vehicles (including more than 100 period bicycles and motorcycles and some boats and camper trailers in tow) were entered for the gathering from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon.

While there were no-shows and cars that appeared for only part of the weekend (a Friday afternoon thunderstorm delayed some), the place was abuzz without being overcrowded. Photographers can get up close to the cars as you can see in our Eye Candy gallery, and most of the owners are friendly and eager to chat about their vehicles.

This year incorporated a tribute to the centennial of Dodge Brothers, the company John and Horace Dodge founded in 1914 to forge their own way after many years of being the key supplier of major components to Ford.

It was not a particularly amicable parting of ways when the Dodges gave Henry a year’s notice that they’d decided to become competitors rather than the ghost company making most of the vehicles that wore Ford’s signature on the grille. But it was an historic turning point that today’s museum properly acknowledged by giving Dodge center stage.

Not that you’d notice any paucity of Fords — the majority of cars arrayed along the streets (organized by year of manufacture) were Fords, with Model Ts and Model As in every conceivable variation. Sure, it’s Dearborn, and the museum and village owe their origins to Ford, but the pre-1932 focus (the Village hosts a show for newer cars, the Motor Muster, in early summer) also coincides with the era when Ford was the dominant brand in the market.

So if the traffic on the village streets was Ford-heavy, there were still plenty of examples from brands still popular today (Chrysler, Chevrolet, Cadillac) and the obscure and defunct ones of the early 20th century. Yes, there are judges, and awards, all aimed at historic accuracy more than “elegance” and the museum curator chooses recipients of a preservation award for unrestored examples.

What makes the Old Car Festival particularly delightful is the setting, of course, in the village where Ford gathered Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, the Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop and a host of other historic structures.

The show is just an activity visitors find happening in the village, like others through the year, such a vintage baseball games or musical events.

Greenfield Village invites show participants to drive their cars around the grounds, and not just for the Pass-in-Review. In a few hours on Saturday afternoon, we heard half a dozen owners say, “Let’s go for a drive, shall we?”

In a trice, family and friends loaded up and hit the streets. For spectators, this proves equally fascinating, as you not only see the cars move through bright sun and shadow, but hear and sometimes smell them in action.

The clattering cacophony of a Model T in motion is interspersed with the chuff-chuff-chuff of a Curved Dash Oldsmobile, the hum of a big Chrysler six, the utter silence of a Detroit Electric and the hiss of a White steamer. And they’re surrounded by vintage buildings, period street lamps, and the sights of a paddle-wheel steamer on the “river” and a steam locomotive on the Village’s railroad.

Want to get a kid hooked on old cars? It all comes to life here in ways far more engaging than seeing the same vehicles polished and posed behind velvet ropes in a museum or poised like fashion models on a golf course.

There’s far more going on at the Old Car Festival, including car “games” on an athletic field, the opportunity to watch a Model T being assembled in minutes, and even a Gas Light Parade just after sundown Saturday when the cars use their acetylene and early electric headlights to navigate the streets.

Go, see for yourself, and take home some ideas for your own old car show.

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