To watch videos in 2D, see note below
The Old Car Festival is held every September on the grounds of Greenfield Village, one of The Henry Ford (boy, do I hate that rebranding, “the Henry Ford what?”) institutions in Dearborn, Michigan. The Festival is one of the oldest car shows in America, literally and figuratively. The show was started in 1951, making this year’s edition the 63rd, and there can’t be many other enthusiast car shows (as opposed to dealer and manufacturer “auto shows”) that have been held continuously for a longer period of time. Also, it’s called the Old Car Festival for a reason. To the youngest of those in the 18-35 male demographic an old car is one that was made before they were born. To a young adult today, a 19 year old 1994 model is an “old car”. In 1951, going back 19 years would be 1932 and in the early 1950s, a ’32 Ford V8 was, like that ’94 is today, just an old car, not a treasured antique. Though you’ll see plenty of Fords at the Old Car Festival, you won’t see any Thunderbirds or Mustangs because the judged show is open only to vehicles made in 1932 or before. While the event is held at a facility strongly associated with Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co., Fords aren’t the only cars on display. Offhand I can recall curved-dash Oldsmobiles, Hupmobiles, some early Cadillacs, a couple of Detroit Electrics, a survivor 1924 Rolls-Royce Twenty, and even a stately Stearns-Knight with it’s fabulous jousting mascot, definitely not compliant with current pedestrian safety standards.
Actually, display isn’t the right word. “In action”, would be a better descriptor. Another thing that makes the Old Car Festival unique is that many of the cars are not on static display. Greenfield Village, as the name indicates, is laid out like a small American town from the early 20th century.
The roads in the Village are almost all paved, and car owners are encouraged to take their flivvers, steamers and electrics out for a spin or three around the town. Since the Village is self-contained, other than an occasional modern van or SUV owned by the museum, or vehicles pulling trailers for cars so old and fragile (or so valuable) they can’t even be driven from the parking lot, there’s no modern traffic to contend with.
That brings up another thing that makes the Old Car Festival unique. I’ve learned that if you go early and stay late at a car show, you can see (and shoot video of) some very rare and special cars actually being driven, if only to and from the aforementioned trailers in the parking lot. However, while it’s exciting to see a Can Am vintage Lola T70 or Jaguar D Type move under its own power, parking lot speeds are still only parking lot speeds. At the Old Car Festival you can see Model Ts and Model As puttering around at pretty much the same speeds they achieved on the roads back then.
Old cars aren’t the only attraction. Besides the cars and Greenfield Village itself (alone worth many visits), there were vintage fire engines going around, hand cranked sirens blazing, and the museum’s own vintage Model AA “Dearborn Coach” bus carrying people around the village. Going over the video and the few photos I shot, I spotted wreckers from two different eras. While I noticed one breakdown, fortunately nobody needed to go on those wreckers’ hooks. Antique cycling enthusiasts were there riding both high-wheelers and safety-frame bicycles, wearing period clothing, as were many of the car enthusiasts. The two wheeled regiment was also represented by at least one vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle that I saw.
Late in the afternoon as people started to leave, I set up my video rig on a tripod right between a main Village road and the road that led to the Ford Museum parking lot, where most of the old cars’ trailers were. In the background was one of the Village train stations. With vintage cars going by to the cameras’ right and left, a steam locomotive chugging out of the train station in the background, and people walking and riding in period dress, you could almost imagine you were back in time, somewhere in small town America in the 1920s.
I don’t know how old the oldest car at the event was, I think I read a reference to 1897. I saw a couple of real, not replica, 1903 Ford Model As, the first car model that Ford Motor Company made, and some early Cadillacs, the company that Henry Leland and Ford’s backers made out of the Henry Ford Company, Henry’s second automotive venture (the third was the charmed FoMoCo). A woman brought her 1908 Renault survivor that she drives to and from the Orphan Car Show held every year in Ypsilanti. No trailer queen that. There were at least two high wheeled cars that must have been from the late 19th century. All forms of early automotive propulsion were represented, with internal combustion, steam and electric cars.
Speaking of electric cars there was even a 1924 Auto Red Bug Speedster.
First called the Flyer, and originally made by A.O. Smith (which would later make early Corvette bodies), who then sold the rights to Briggs & Stratton, it was first powered by a British designed gasoline driven fifth wheel when so-called lightweight cyclecars were briefly popular. Eventually the design changed hands, apparently to the Automotive Electric Services Corporation (other sources say Automotive Standards, both companies may have been involved or the same company used more than one name), which I’m guessing made or rebuilt starters and generators because when they ran out of their stock of gasoline engines for the wheelmotors, they changed it to an EV powered by lead acid batteries and a Dodge starter motor on one back wheel. The little buckboard was slowed with a Model T parking brake on the other back wheel. The Red Bug’s own parking brake was a piece of wood that locked against the rear tires. It had enough equipment to be street legal, headlights, a taillight and a prominent horn, something that must have been used with regularity if you think about how tall conventional cars of the era were. No wonder they were painted red, that was probably to make them more visible in traffic. Depending on battery voltage, and equipped with a two speed controller, it has a top speed of 12-16 mph and a range of about 10 miles. Sold ostensibly as a runabout for adults (“Red Bug is not a toy… it is a dependable electric roadster that carries two adults comfortably), at $300, about what a new 1924 Model T cost, it was more often used as a plaything for the children of the wealthy, though some resort hotels bought them for guests’ use. If you want one for yourself, you can find plans online to build a replica, which would undoubtedly be cheaper than buying a real one. Apparently restored Red Bugs are worth a lot more than the 300 dollars they cost new.
The Gold Bug Speedster was a 1924 model. Nineteen-twenty-four is almost 90 years ago. Watching cars that were 90, 100, and even more than 110 years old being driven down the street at the speeds they were designed to go, I couldn’t help but wonder if people like Henry Ford, Ransom Olds and Henry Leland thought that the machines and industry that they created would last more than a century.
A word about 3D. Like Martin Scorcese, who knows way more about photography than I ever will, I now shoot everything with 3D rigs. Cars are three dimensional objects and are best seen stereoscopically. However, I understand that some people are annoyed by 3D and the last thing we want to do here at TTAC is to annoy you, our readers. If you want to watch the videos in 2D, the YouTube 3D video player is very easy to change to 2D mode. After you start the player, pause and click on the Settings icon in the YouTube player menu bar, that’s the one that looks like a gear. You then have the option of turning off 3D or selecting from a variety of popular 3D formats.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS