Margaret Dunning, 104-year-old classic car enthusiast, dies during California auto rally

Margaret Dunning got a chance to sit in the Batmobile during the rally | Larry Edsall photo
Margaret Dunning got a chance to sit in the Batmobile during the rally | Larry Edsall photo

At dinner Friday evening, Margaret Dunning said that her bucket list was complete. The 104-year-old matriarch of the classic car community was in California to participate in the ELK Charity Challenge, a week-long driving event to raise money — tens of thousands of dollars — for three children’s charities, and earlier in the day she had visited Jay Leno’s extensive collection in Burbank.

Leno was supposed to be somewhere else at the time, but he’d changed his plans so he could be at the garage, be there waiting for Margaret, waiting with a nice bouquet of flowers.

Sunday afternoon, while leaving a lunch stop on the challenge route, Margaret Dunning fell on stairs and died not long afterward at a hospital in Santa Barbara.

Margaret and two close friends had flown to California from her home in Michigan, but she probably would have preferred to have driven. Yes, at age 104, she was still driving.

Dunning with her 1930 Packard at Pebble Beach Concours in 2012 | Hagerty
Dunning with her 1930 Packard at Pebble Beach in 2012 | Hagerty

It was just a few years ago that she’d hooked a trailer to the back of her 2003 Cadillac, loaded on her Model T Ford, the one with the experimental tin bodywork (Margaret grew up on the farm next to Henry Ford’s and she and her father had many conversations with the automotive pioneer while he sat in their kitchen enjoying Margaret’s mom’s desserts), and drove — and drove alone — to Colorado, just so a friend could learn to drive the ancient Ford.

Born June 26, 1910, her history with cars and other mechanical devices traces to the days when Margaret, an only child, served as “gopher” for her father, Charles Dunning, as he sent her to fetch the right tools and then showed her how to use them as he worked on cars and farm equipment. Even as a centenarian, she did her own oil changes and helped with the mechanical work needed to maintain her cars.

Margaret Dunning started driving at age 8. Her father died when she was 12. Because of severe arthritis, Margaret’s mother couldn’t drive so Margaret inherited all family driving duties.

She became well-known, even beyond the classic car community, when The New York Times published a feature story four years ago about the woman who was 30 years older than her award-winning 1930 Packard 740 roadster.

She bought the Packard because she had wanted one when the car was brand new. She and her mother, Elizabeth, had been shopping for a new car when Margaret spotted a Packard roadster. But her mother said she wasn’t going to ride in such an open car and insisted they buy the 1930 Packard sedan instead.

After her father’s death, Margaret’s mother invested in real estate in the Plymouth, Michigan, area. She and a friend built a new library for the community. Later, Margaret, who was successful in retail and especially in banking, build a historical museum in Plymouth in her mother’s honor.

Among other things, the museum is known for its collection relating to Abraham Lincoln. She was involved in many charities, and had donated several of her cars to museums.

At the start of the ELK Charity Challenge, Margaret Dunning was back behind the wheel of yet another roadster, this time one of the George Barris-built Batmobiles that was used to lead the parade of challenge cars as they launched from in front of the courthouse in Ventura, California.

She only posed for photos in the 1979 Lincoln-based Bat car, but she looked ready to press the starter button and to see if all the vehicle’s crime-fighting gizmos really worked.

16 thoughts on “Margaret Dunning, 104-year-old classic car enthusiast, dies during California auto rally”

  1. I grew up in Plymouth and she was always a legend, I had the opportunity to meet her a few times in Texas. An outstanding woman beyond a doubt

  2. I,M A 96 YR OLD CAR VETERAN , IST CAR ,I RESTORED IN 1956 WAS A 1910 PRATT, BEFORE THERE WAS A HOBBY, SUPPLIERS, , SUCH, LIVED IN DEARBORN MICHIGAN ,TWO BLOCKS FROM FORD ESTATE MET HIM WHEN I WAS 14 YEARS OLD STARTED FORD SCHOOL AT 13 YRS OLD , YEAR WAS 1933.. WAS LATER KNOWN AS “THE PACKARD MAN” PROFESSIONALY RESTORED TWENTY PACKARDS ,HAD ONE OF THE FIRST ANTIQUE CARS TO SHOW AT THE “OLD CAR FESTIVALE” AT GREENFIELD VILLAGE (1956) … I STILL HAVE A MODEL A PICKUP

  3. She was such an inspiration to so many, young and not as young as she, in the hobby of automobiles and a Grand Lady. If only we had such a chance at life to watch an industry grow from dependency of mostly horses to highways.

  4. A lifelong friend and mentor to my Dad, Ms. Dunning was an amazing, kind and generous woman. It was an honor and privilege to call her our family friend. If you ever have the chance to visit Plymouth, Michigan, please pay a visit to the Plymouth Historical Museum, it holds a special place in our hearts. Margaret will be dearly missed throughout Plymouth and to all. Rest in peace Margaret.

  5. A true American Icon in her own right … that’s the stuff that real people are made of !

  6. I was born and raised in Plymouth, MI where Miss. Dunning also resided for a good portion of her life. She especially loved her classic Packard because she thought it had beautiful lines. I agree with her. My mother liked to shop at the Dunning’s lady’s wear store in Plymouth many years ago. I’m sorry to hear that the “Grand Lady of Plymouth” has passed on at 104 years of age. Rest in peace great lady!

  7. If Jay Leno as well as others can make time for this celebrity LADY, then the “collectable world” should recognize her GREATNESS as well ! :)

  8. I was born and raised in Plymouth, MI also. I remember the Dunning’s Ladies Wear store on Forest Avenue downtown Plymouth, right next to the Stop and Shop. I got my first yard goods there to learn how to sew (I hate sewing to this day).My mother shopped at Dunning’s where we had to whisper and walk softly if we were to accompany her there.I believe I met Mrs. Dunning once when my mother, in a hushed and respectful tone, introduced me to the owner.

    I wish I had known who I was meeting that day. She was a wonderful woman whose name and generosity were so important to my hometown. It was a sad day when she closed Dunning”s and a sad day when she fell to her death. But she really lived, didn’t she!

  9. My husband and I lived next door to Margaret and her companion , Irene , during the summer months on Base Lake from 1979 until she sold her place about 9 years ago.
    She and her soulmate lived a very simple life. They loved to garden and go for rides on their pontoon boat called “the Fairy Queen”.
    Margaret was a great lady. I’m glad to have had the pleasure of knowing her.

  10. I met her at Keels and Wheels Concours in Seabrook, Tx and she was a real feisty lady. She was ready to pose by her Packard anytime. RIP, Ken

Share your comments