Travel back in time at The Henry Ford’s Old Car Festival

Pre war old car festival

The Old Car Festival at Greenfield Village is a unique car show, and not just because it’s the longest running antique car show in the United States, established in 1951. It is perhaps the only car show in North America where you can actually see prewar cars running and driving in something approaching their natural habitat.

Greenfield Village is part of The Henry Ford family of institutions, which also includes The Henry Ford Museum and the Benson Ford Research Center. The pioneering automaker opened the Village in 1933 on 200 acres adjacent to his eponymous museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford relocated almost 100 historic structures from around the United States and England to the Village. Under Ford’s direction, workers disassembled the Menlo Park research facility of Ford’s friend and mentor, Thomas Edison, and shipped it to Dearborn to be rebuilt. The Wright brothers’ bicycle shop got the same relocation treatment, forming another historical mile marker in a small town with its own roads and even a full-gauge railroad—a village where, however, nobody actually lives… permanently, at least.

During the Old Car Festival, organizers let car owners drive around the Village. Since there are no traffic lights, volunteers dressed as traffic cops in period uniforms and helmets (of course) direct traffic the old-fashioned way.

The volunteers aren’t the only folks wearing period-correct apparel. Car owners and their family members, and even folks just visiting the festival, dress in vintage and vintage-looking garb.

Pre war old car festival
Ronnie Schreiber

You could stand in some places in the Village and, from what was in front of your eyes, you readily imagine that you were back in the late 1920s. The scene was replete with period-correct cars and clothing, with even a smoke- and steam-belching locomotive in the background. The only anachronism was the presence of a club of high-wheel cycling enthusiasts. As you could see from the “safety frame” bicycles in the Wrights’ shop, by the turn of the 20th century, when automobiles arrived on the scene, penny-farthings were already antiques.

Any time of the year, visitors to the Village have the option of taking a ride on a train with a steam locomotive, or getting rides in the facility’s collection of Model Ts or period Ford buses.

Why 1932? It might have something to do with that year marking the introduction of flathead Ford V-8s, or, more likely, the occasion for the very first Old Car Festival in 1951—’32s were just then approaching 20 years of age. In other words, they were officially old cars.

As you’d expect at a car show in the heart of Ford country, at an institution founded by Henry Ford (though not officially tied to Ford Motor Co.), there were lots of Fords. A plethora of Model Ts roamed the streets, dating from 1909 to 1927 and ranging from original condition with over a century of patina to beautifully restored examples. There were also more than a couple of Model As, and some ’32 V-8s.

The Model T wasn’t FoMoCo’s first successful product. At the show, there were some of the T’s immediate ancestors, along with some very early Fords—including at least one 1903 Ford Model A that I saw, Ford Motor Company’s first car. There was also a 1903 Cadillac, which looks almost identical to the first Ford.

Pre war old car festival
Pre war old car festival
Pre war old car festival
Ronnie Schreiber

Cadillac was founded by Henry Leland on behalf of the investors in the Henry Ford Company, who had jettisoned Henry Ford from his second automotive venture before he established Ford Motor Company.

Despite the name of that venture, Ford was an employee; when he had a disagreement with the company’s backers, they fired him and brought in Leland to appraise the assets. Leland told them that Ford's design was a viable product and that his own machine shop, Leland and Faulconer, just happened to have a new engine that he had hoped to sell to Ransom Olds to upgrade the motor in the curved-dash Oldsmobile. Leland suggested using that engine to power Ford's design. The backers approved of Leland’s plan, and that company became Cadillac.

Meanwhile, Henry Ford started up FoMoCo with pretty much the same car he’d developed for his previous employers... and that’s why the first Ford and the first Cadillac are nearly identical.

For the first decade of Ford Motor Co., the Dodge brothers’ machine works was Ford’s primary supplier. In the early days, Henry Ford added bodies and wheels to the “machines” that the Dodges supplied. By 1914, however, John and Horace Dodge had tired of dealing with Henry Ford and wanted to make their own modern automobile. Appropriately, there were a number of early Dodge cars at the festival.

In case you’re wondering about Ransom Olds’ vehicles, there were also at least a couple of curved-dash Oldsmobiles, as well as later vintage Olds cars. Ransom Olds was also represented by a number of automobiles made by REO, the company he founded in 1905 after leaving Oldsmobile.

Pre war old car festival
Ronnie Schreiber

Another early automotive pioneer, David Buick, had some of his early overhead-valve cars there, including a 1908 that’s been in the Obermeyer family of Indiana since it was new.

I asked Mr. Obermeyer, now the patriarch of his family, if his grandfather was a doctor, since many of Buick’s early customers were physicians impressed with Buick’s reliability. (David Buick’s first customer was a Flint doctor.) No, Mr. Obermeyer told me, his grandfather was a farmer. So how did he come to own what was considered a doctor’s car? Apparently, the senior Obermeyer was a widower, having lost his wife some years before. His grandson said, “He bought a Buick because he wanted a Buick and didn’t have a wife to tell him he couldn’t have it. That’s how I heard the story and I’m not changing it.”

Joining the Fords, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles were Hupmobiles, Studebakers, Nashes, Hudsons, Stanley Steamers, and a couple of very nice pastel-colored Chryslers that would have made Walter P. very proud. Speaking of Walter Chrysler, there were a few Maxwells, from the company he ran and used as the basis for starting the Chrysler corporation.

By the way, did you know that one man, Benjamin Briscoe, can be said to have started all three of the “Big 3” American automakers? Briscoe never turned a wrench, but he was the financial backer of Buick, Maxwell, and Ford. Buick was the basis of General Motors and Maxwell, as mentioned became Chrysler.

Since the Old Car Festival is very much a Detroit show, Packard was well represented. A boat-tailed Auburn Speedster made fine company for the vintage upscale Chryslers and Packards.

The oldest car that I saw was a 1901 Locomobile steamer. Electric cars aren’t the only vehicles with range issues. The Locomobile was popular, but it could only travel 26 miles before needing to refill its water tank.

Pre war old car festival
Pre war old car festival
Pre war old car festival
Pre war old car festival

There were replicas of even older motorcars, like Karl Benz’s 1885 Patent Motorwagen, Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle, and his “Sweepstakes” racer, from the Ford Museum’s collection.

The newest car, besides the flathead Fords, was a majestic supercharged 1932 Duesenberg Model J.

The theme of this year’s Old Car Festival was sports cars, and yes, there was indeed a very British pre-war 1930 MG. In 1932, though, that supercharged Model J was the Bugatti Chiron of its day and before the Duesenberg ruled the road, the Stutz Bearcat was what affluent Americans with a need for speed drove. Speed, though, has never been the sole possession of the upper classes and there were also a number of cut-down Model T based speedsters at the festival.

There’s another way in which the Old Car Festival separates itself from other car shows. Many car shows have no shortage of “Look But Don’t Touch” signs, but at the Old Car Festival, I observed a number of car owners inviting kids to sit in and even go for rides in their cars. It’s the most family-friendly car show that I’ve ever attended—well, next to the vintage tractor show I was at in rural Ida, Michigan, but then, those were tractors, not cars.

The Old Car Festival is one of two big car shows held at Greenfield Village annually. If your thing is Mustangs or tri-five Chevys, the Motor Muster, for cars made between 1933 and 1976, is held every Father’s Day weekend in June. The Old Car Festival takes place every year on the weekend after Labor Day.