Margaret Dunning, the car-loving centenarian who became something of a celebrity and earned the nickname “Belle of the Concours” after showing her 1930 Packard in the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, has died.
Dunning, of Plymouth, Mich., would have celebrated her 105th birthday next month. She died after being injured in a fall while participating in the ELK Charity Challenge, a fundraiser in California that benefits three children’s charities. Earlier in the week, Dunning visited Jay Leno’s extensive car collection, and Leno changed his plans so that he could be there to greet her.
“No matter how many great people you cross paths with, Margaret was one of those extraordinary individuals you meet once in a lifetime,” said automotive writer Michel Lamoureux, who became friends with Dunning several years ago. “One of the most meaningful things she ever told me was that it’s important to savor life in real time – to enjoy what you do while you’re at it.”
Dunning was born June 26, 1910, just a few miles from Henry Ford’s Detroit-area home. Her parents, Charles and Bessie Dunning, told her that Ford would sometimes stop by their farm house to visit, and he once rocked her to sleep. Dunning’s connection to the automotive legend may have been an omen. She said she was a “tomboy” as a kid and served as a “tool chaser” for her car-loving father, who taught her to drive at the age of 8. Dunning earned a driver’s license at 12, and she continued to drive well past her 100th birthday.
(Margaret Dunning: 94 years behind the wheel and counting.)
“Oh, yes, I’ve driven my share, that’s for sure,” Dunning said during a recent interview. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
Her favorite car to drive was the cream-colored 1930 Packard 740 Custom Eight Roadster that she purchased in 1949. “I love third gear; the car just sings,” she said. “I’ve 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.”
A successful businesswoman and philanthropist, Dunning helped create the Plymouth Historical Museum. Pam Yockey, museum board president, said Dunning will be missed here and abroad. “Margaret was truly caring, down to earth, unpretentious and giving of her time,” Yockey told hometownlife.com. “She has counted among her friends celebrities, rajas and us. How privileged we have been." (Museum Power)
Dunning had an energetic personality and a keen sense of humor, which made her a popular guest at classic car events across the county. Once asked the secret to her longevity, she said, “I never got married.”
In addition to her prized Packard, Dunning owned a 1931 Model A, ’66 Cadillac DeVille and ’75 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. Daniel Clements, son-in-law of Dunning’s best friend, Rachel Churches, maintained her cars and also accompanied her on trips although he joked that Dunning really didn’t need his help. “She’s the Energizer bunny,” he said. (It's a family affair - and then some!)
Dunning was both charming and modest. In fact, after being featured in the New York Times and then honored at Pebble Beach – where she chatted with the likes of Leno, Sir Stirling Moss, Henry Ford III, Edsel Ford II and Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur (India) – she said: “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.”