7 odd automotive orphans in Ypsilanti

Milk Truck

When the rain begins, a man in a baseball camp jumps out of a two-tone, cream-and-yellow 1955 Packard to stand at attention while the fabric cover of a black and orange Packard convertible lowers itself into place. At the 2019 Annual Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti—or really any year prior—extant or surviving electricity is an eye-catching luxury. The cars in this annual event represent extinct marques, so-called orphans without a surviving parent company.

After clipping the cover’s snaps into place (“Thank you, Dave!” “Sure thing, Randy”), the Good Samaritan ducks back into the two-tone sedan and the parade of Packards inches toward the announcers’ booth.

Safe beneath the canvas top of a 1914 Studebaker, I count my blessings from the shabby leather rear seat… until I notice smoke swirling around the dash that the fedora-sporting driver’s cigar does not account fully for.

“She burns a fair amount of oil,” Joseph “Rusty” Berg says around that cigar. “Hey, when you’re 110 years old and still running this good…” He lurches the Studebaker’s ornery cone clutch out of a stop. “Come now, behave.”

After the storm passes, you can hear the squeak of silicone squeegees on DeSotos, Packards, and Plymouths. Curiously, no one’s nursing the Fabulous Hudson Hornet next to the entrance, which sports a thumb-sized poly rope hooked around its hood ornament and wrapped onto the license plate bolts of the front bumper. The retro livery still conjures dirt track dignity and, vaguely, the ghost of Paul Newman.

The Orphan Car Show is held early each fall at Ypsilanti, Michigan’s Frog Island Park, just around the corner from the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. The general criteria are meant to encourage vehicles from manufacturers which have completely disappeared, but there is an exception made for brands dropped in 2010 or earlier whose parent company remains in business—for example, Edsel, Mercury, and Pontiac. Cars whose marques were once sold in the U.S. but haven’t been imported in for 25 years or more also qualify, even if those brands continue production elsewhere (enter Peugeot and Citroën).

Corvairs get special treatment, since the majority of the 1.8-million-car run were built at Ypsilanti’s now-defunct GM Willow Run Assembly plant, considered by the Corvair Society of America to be the “home” Corvair plant. This year the rear-engined, unibody cars were particularly celebrated, since 2019 marks “60 years since the first Corvair… and 50 years since the last” (quoth the show bulletin).

1914 Studebaker SC-4 Touring 

1914 Studebaker SC-4 touring
Cameron Neveu
1914 Studebaker SC-4 touring

This brass-era tourer can boast not only prewar, but pre-wars status. The leather strap of its cone clutch makes for some jerky starts—“About one in three starts are good,” Rusty says—especially since the pedal has a bare inch-or-so of travel. “The short clutch was supposed to be easier,” Rusty says drily. He trundles “Eleanor” along with good-humored dignity.

This GM engineer’s daily driver, and dedicated tow vehicle, is a 2016 GMC Sierra. During the workday, Rusty writes the computer code that runs power management programs for fuel cells. “I work on the future of the automobile... then go home and play with the past.”

1937 Packard Super Eight Dietrich Victoria

1937 Packard Super Eight
Cameron Neveu
1937 Packard Super Eight

This elegant Super Eight is only one of two semi-custom, Dietrich-branded Packard chassis. It  represents a 22-year family project for owner Dani Homrich—one that could begin only after Homrich’s father spent 10 years negotiating to buy the car. “My dad did the blackwork, and my son painted it,” Homrich says, opening the passenger door to show off the ashtrays characteristic of the semi-custom Dietrich bodies.

The standing droplets on the bright chrome headlights catch my eye. So too do the fingernail-sized levels set into the top of each lamp housing. The bubble’s hidden on the right lamp and just barely noticeable on the left, given the rain-dampened Ypsilanti park grass.

Revealed when one of the engine doors hinges up, elbow-style, the Super Eight’s engine bay is a thing of beauty. The straight-eight engine block is deep green, and the aluminum’s polished back to the transmission housing.

super eight engine bay
Grace Houghton

1954 Divco Model 15 milk truck 

1954 Divco Model 15 milk truck
Cameron Neveu
1954 Divco Model 15 milk truck

Authentic historic race cars may take you back to greasy garages and track-side memories, but this ’54 milk truck turns back the clock to front door stoops and station wagon carports. This Divco Model 15 delights with accessories down to vintage, cardboard ice cream boxes, glass milk bottles filled with white beads, and a faded orange account book on the dash. 

1954 Hudson Hornet 4-door 

1954 Hudson Hornet
Cameron Neveu
1954 Hudson Hornet

This handsome four-door dates from the last year of Hudson production—directly before Hudson merged with Nash to create American Motors Corporation. The robin’s egg-blue model that cruises past along Michigan’s Huron River is in good company; two blocks away, in Ypsilanti’s Automotive Heritage Museum, sits the original Fabulous Hudson Hornet. That most-fabulous Hudson, driven by Marshall Teague, didn’t come out for the Orphan Car Show, but an undeniably fabulous and liveried two-door Hornet graces the show with its presence, while Hudson enjoys solid representation with more than six distinct models. 

1960 Panhard Dyna Z16 

1960 Panhard Dyna Z16
Cameron Neveu
1960 Panhard Dyna Z16

Panhard’s Dyna sedan series finished in 1960, but not before it culminated in this spot-welded Z16 model. The all-aluminum Z16 shells weighed only 220 pounds, though steel panels gradually replaced the aluminum for reasons of cost efficiency. This little nugget of a sedan has been clocked, according to owner Ken Nelson, at 85 mph on Route 23—and wasn’t flat out. Considering the flat-twin, aircooled Hemi engine punches out a even 850 ccs, that ain’t shabby. 

1990 Peugeot 405 S Sedan 

1990 Peugeot 405 S Sedan
Cameron Neveu
1990 Peugeot 405 S Sedan

The hand-markered sign beside this 1.9-liter, 110-hp Peugeot declares that it is “not a fast car by today’s standards, but it delivers 27 mpg city, 35 mpg highway if driven with ‘prudence’!” The slab-sided beige sedan was built at the Montéliard-Sochaux plant near the Swiss/French border in February of 1990. It is especially uncommon Stateside; Peugeot only imported 405 wagons in 1990, given that dealerships had an overstock of sedans from the previous year. Autoweek reports there are just about 100 examples of 405 sedans this side of the pond.

Whether each of that number is driven as prudently as this example, we cannot say. 

1979 Triumph Dolomite Sprint sedan 

1979 Triumph Dolomite Sprint sedan
Cameron Neveu
1979 Triumph Dolomite Sprint sedan

This cobalt-blue, slant-four sedan slotted at the top of the Triumph sedan line, which boasted body designs by renowned Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti (who also designed the Moretti 1200 Sport Spider on this oddball list). Its documented third owner, Rusty Blackwell, notes that fewer than two dozen Dolomite Sprints currently reside in the United States. Blackwell has put 10K miles on this Dolomite since 2013 and the car has accumulated nearly 20K since first imported to the U.S. from England in 2004.

“I look forward to matching that [mileage] many times over,” Blackwell says.