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.
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.