In past columns, I’ve occasionally referred to the Old Car Festival held annually in Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s the one vintage car event I try never to miss — it’s that good. I first attended the Old Car Festival in the mid-1950s, when I was about 10 years old. That’s about 65 years ago; hard to admit, but true.
When I first visited this world-famous complex created by Henry Ford Sr., it was known as the Edison Institute and Greenfield Village. The former is a unique history museum, curated in large part by Mr. Ford. Greenfield Village contains historic buildings and homes, relocated from throughout the United States, to create a 19th-century village.
Today, the entire facility has been renamed The Henry Ford, a move I suspect was intended to prompt folks to call it “the Ford,” much as we refer to “the Frick” or “the Met.” For many of us old-timers, it’s the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.
The Old Car Festival began in 1951, and is believed to be the oldest continuously running antique car show in the world. Until 1986, the cutoff date for entries was 1925. That year, the date was raised to 1932, and a new event was added— the Motor Muster—featuring vehicles from 1933 to 1968. The Old Car Festival is held in early September, while the Motor Muster takes place in mid-June. Each event attracts in excess of 600 cars and trucks.
What sets the Old Car Festival apart from similar car shows is that participants are encouraged to drive their cars throughout the village during the two-day weekend event. Watching vintage cars move under their own power is another of the reasons the show is a favorite of mine. Electric, steam, and gasoline-powered; one cylinder to sixteen cylinders. A priceless experience for anyone.
One of my grandfathers, Gus Schultz, took me to my first Old Car Festival. I remember him pointing out the car on which he’d learned to drive —a Brush, which has a wooden front axle. (I also remember standing next to a massive Oldsmobile Limited touring that is still owned by the same Michigan family, the Belfs.) Years ago, I realized I had pointed out my grandfather’s early driving experience one time too many to my youngest son, when he replied, “I know, dad, great granddad learned to drive on a Brush with a wooden front axle….”
Many years later, I became an exhibitor, and transitioned to the person showing his car to visitors and taking youngsters for their first ride in a vintage car. I never tire of it.
Today, the two-day event remains similar to when it began, although penny candy is no longer sold in the village’s country store. But the ambiance of the show remains, and there have been some welcome additions. A vintage bicycle organization, The Wheelmen (which includes women) ride and display their 1930 and earlier bicycles throughout the weekend.
The Wheelmen add to a feeling of constant motion when you’re in the village that weekend. A steam locomotive carries passengers around the grounds, a vintage carousel entertains, and there are the cars and trucks being driven. And, Greenfield Village offers tours in Ford Model A buses and Model T touring cars. There are “old car games” on the village’s activity field, and spectators can watch a team assemble a Model T in a matter of minutes.
For me, a key element of the Old Car Festival is driving my cars to the event—a 400-mile round trip. It’s part of the total experience. Although awards are given, there’s no award that compares to touring in a vintage car.
Another significant attraction is staying at the historic Dearborn Inn, built in 1929 by Henry and Edsel Ford as an airport hotel for their nearby airfield, which since has been developed by the Ford Motor Company. The original airfield even had a zeppelin mast—which was used once.
I should note that I usually arrive a few hours early, so I can do research in the Benson Ford Research Center, which houses thousands of documents, photos, and pieces of automotive literature on dozens of makes of cars and trucks — not just Ford products. It’s yet another part of what makes this weekend so special.