19 October 2012

Margaret Dunning: 94 years behind the wheel (and counting)

Margaret Dunning has quickly become a celebrity in the classic car world, which is quite a contradiction considering she is 102 years old.

Dunning, a charming, energetic centenarian from Plymouth, Mich., burst onto the national scene last summer when she was featured in the New York Times. During the 14 months since, she has been a popular and honored guest at motoring events from coast to coast, most recently at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

“It’s a dream come true,” Dunning said, standing near her 1930 Packard 740 Custom Eight Roadster on the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach. “They’ve treated me very well. A lot of people want to talk to me, but I don’t know why everyone is making a fuss. I just love cars like everybody else.”

The truth is, Dunning isn’t like anyone else. She is a walking treasure, eager to share first-hand knowledge of life in pre-Depression America. Certainly there are few people – if any – with more driving experience than she has. While growing up on a dairy farm in southeastern Michigan, she served as a tool chaser for her automobile-loving father, of whom she said, “I adored.” Dunning’s dad taught his tomboyish daughter to drive at the age of 8, and when he died four years later, she was awarded a driver’s license so that she could drive her arthritic mother wherever she needed to go. That means Dunning has been driving for 94 years and has carried a license for 90.

“Oh, yes, I’ve driven my share, that’s for sure,” she said.

Dunning still enjoys getting behind the wheel of her cream-colored Packard, which she has owned since 1949. “I love third gear. The car just sings,” she said. “I never used it as my everyday driver, but I do like to get it out at least once a month. They were made to be driven, you know.”

Daniel Clements, son-in-law of Dunning’s best friend, Rachel Churches, maintains Dunning’s collection of classic cars, which includes a 1931 Model A, ’66 Cadillac DeVille and ’75 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. Clements is also something of a caretaker for Dunning whenever she travels. “Not like she needs to be taken care of. She’s like the Energizer bunny,” Clements joked. “I’ve been around the hobby for over 30 years and have been taking care of her cars for 15-20. She doesn’t like to sit; she wants to be involved. She could stand here all day and talk to people.”

Dunning did a lot of that at Pebble Beach. Among her many well-wishers were NBC “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, popular actor and Concours Master of Ceremonies Edward Hermann, and the Maharana of Udaipur (India), Arvind Singh Mewar, who kissed Dunning’s hand and offered her a gift. “It was all very exciting,” she said. “It certainly makes your heart thump.”

Dunning has a great sense of humor, and she isn’t afraid to share it. Asked the key to her longevity, she said, “I never got married.” Whether or not there is truth in that statement, Dunning proved long ago that she can stand on her own two feet. She built her fortune in the retail clothing industry, sold her business in the late 1960s and now enjoys serving her community, particularly the Plymouth Historical Museum. Dunning’s love of history, particularly classic vehicles, makes perfect sense considering that she grew up just down the road from Henry Ford, who knew her parents and would sometimes stop by to visit. “I was told he even rocked me in my baby carriage,” Dunning said, repeating a story she shared with Henry Ford III and Edsel Ford II while at Pebble Beach.

“Meeting all these good people just shows that car people are car people,” Dunning said. “We come from difference places and different backgrounds, but we all have that in common.”

One thing is for certain: None of the car aficionados that Dunning met at Pebble Beach has driven as long as she has, and few – if any – can match her 63-year “marriage” to her award-winning Packard.

“I’m so pleased to see that the old car is still desirable,” Dunning said. “It gives me such pride. It’s quite a thrill.”

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