28 April 2011

Orphan Car Show brings out the unique and beloved

Jack Miller isn’t exactly Daddy Warbucks, but he certainly has a soft spot for orphans – the four-wheel variety.

Miller, curator of the Ypsilanti (Mich.) Automotive Heritage Museum, began working in his father’s Hudson dealership as a teenager in 1953 and remembers driving new demonstrator cars to school. Nearly 60 years later – and more than five decades after the last Hudson rolled off the Detroit assembly line in October 1954 – Miller’s affection for the defunct marque remains strong.

“We were dealing in orphan cars before they were orphans,” Miller said. “Those were beautiful cars. I was sad to see them go.”

Miller’s longtime love for all things Hudson led to the creation of Ypsilanti’s annual Orphan Car Show, which he and friend Randy Mason started 15 years ago. Miller was transportation curator at The Henry Ford Museum and was well aware of the public’s attraction to “oddball stuff.” Most of those oddballs also happen to be orphans.

“The rarer the car, the bigger the orphan,” Miller said. “We’ll jump over two cars to get those rare orphans to the show.”

The Orphan Car Show, formally held each June, is scheduled for Sept. 25 at Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park. It is expected to draw 300 cars and more than 2,000 spectators. Miller said the show was originally limited to orphans built in 1959 and earlier to eliminate muscle cars “you see at shows every weekend.” Recently, the rules were changed to include vehicles built in 1963 and before.

“That allows us to include cars like the ’63 Oldsmobile Starfire, which – with their leather upholstery and all that chrome – are such beautiful cars,” Miller said. “Not all orphans are that nice looking. Some are as plain as a straw hat with a daisy in it.”

Barry Wolk, of Farmington Hills, Mich., appreciates the Orphan Car Show because he’s an “oddball-theme collector” (his words), having a particular interest in anything named Continental, whether it’s a Lincoln, Porsche or Chris-Craft boat.

 “The beauty of the Orphan Show is you see things you don’t normally see,” Wolk said. “They’re not necessarily high-quality, expensive cars, but unusual ones.

“It’s been an interesting transition. At one point, all anyone ever wanted to see were Duesenbergs. Now people want unique cars.”

And Wolk has one. This fall, he plans to show his 1933 Continental Flyer – there’s that theme again – a rare bird with an interesting history.

Continental Motors produced cars for only two years and then only out of necessity. For years, Continental had manufactured engines for as many as 200 independent auto companies, including newly-formed DeVaux in 1931. When DeVaux collapsed a year later, still owing Continental $500,000, Continental assumed automobile assembly.

In 1933, Continental introduced a completely new line of models – the six-cylinder Ace, smaller six Flyer and four-cylinder Beacon. That proved to be the only year that the Ace and Flyer were built; Continental also discontinued Beacon models in 1934.

“It’s a unique story in that Continental executives promised they would never directly compete with the auto companies they were building engines for,” Wolk said. “But in the end, they didn’t have a choice.”

Wolk hopes the dark green, four-door Flyer will help erase memories of the last time he participated in the Orphan Car Show. In 2006, he couldn’t start his rare 1956 Continental Mark II convertible – built back when Continental was its own division – and the car had to be pushed across the awards stage.

“My most embarrassing moment in 10 years of showing cars,” Wolk said.

Each year, the Orphan Show spotlights a particular make or model. Past “honored orphans” include Hudson, Packard, Studebaker, Nash, Kaiser-Frazer, Willys, Desoto – even Checker cabs. This fall, the show will showcase orphan trucks.

“I think we’ll end up with 50 or more,” Miller said. “We can expect everything from Samsons to heavy-duty Brockways.”

Of course, as long as Miller has a hand in it, the Orphan Show will always include his favorite of all orphans.

“Hudsons of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s … we have them all sitting right here in the museum, so I see them every day,” he said. “Those first Hudsons coming out in the ’40s, right after World War II … People were clamoring to open the door and take in the smell of a new car. It was an exciting time.”

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