Detroit Rust: The Motor City embraces cars with a little grit

Cameron Neveu

When we drive our cars, they collect signs of that use—patina, in collector-car speak. The latest issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine, in which this article first appeared, explores the delight found in such imperfect cars. To get all this wonder sent to your home, sign up for the club at this link. To read about everything patina online, click here

Detroit knows a thing or two about patina. We’re not talking about ruins. Please. The abandoned buildings that dot the city’s 139 square miles will always infatuate national media but have little new to tell you about the place or the resilient people who live here. We’re referring instead to the passion and creativity that pushes through the cracks. This is a city where you can have the best meal of your life adjacent to an oil refinery, where grimy clubs have nurtured new musical genres. Detroiters understand that things can be better in spite and sometimes because of their imperfections.

Detroit Rust Lead gmc suburban hoot emblem leadd
Cameron Neveu

That attitude extends to cars. Although the classic car scene here is best known for the pristine muscle machines that crowd Woodward Avenue each August, clubs have emerged in recent years that celebrate age and wear. There are differences in the cars they welcome, but no one takes the differences, or themselves, too seriously. Members include young blue-collar guys, married couples, and at least one librarian. Everyone helps each other out—a GM engineer who commutes in a 1980s Suburban (aka “Shot of Burban”) lays killer pinstriping.

We invited members from multiple clubs to hang out in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. It’s anchored by Michigan Central Station, the imposing Beaux-Arts building that once symbolized the city’s despair but is now owned by Ford and is nearing the end of a $740-million restoration. Consider it a massive barn find and proof that the best stuff is always worth saving.

1952 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight

Owner: Dean Beattie — Machinist
Owned since: 2017
Patina level: Cultivated Crust
Patina philosophy: “Rust is cheaper than chrome.”

1952 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight owner front three quarter
Cameron Neveu

The Detroit car scene means a lot to Dean Beattie—so much so that he started a podcast dedicated to it. He has been a gearhead since high school, and he has fond memories of working on Chargers and Road Runners with his friends. But life happened, and Beattie had to get rid of his muscle cars. Looking for a cheap way to get back into the hobby, he picked up his well-worn Ninety-Eight, added some personal touches like pinstriping, and joined a local car club. “I just fell in love with it because of the patina,” he explains. “Plus, it would cost a fortune to fully restore this car, with all the chrome.”

1966 GMC Series 1000

Owner: Tommy Perry — Technical writer
Owned since: 2023
Patina level: Aging like Clooney
Patina philosophy: “Every scratch and dent was earned.”

Tommy Perry used to work at a restoration shop, so he appreciates concours-level cars. But for his personal vehicles, he isn’t interested. “It’s possible to appreciate the history of a vehicle when it’s kept mostly as is.” Perry, a Mopar guy at heart, took a chance on his GMC because it had a compelling story. It was owned by farmers in Rochester, New York, who used it as the “good truck,” rather than a work truck. They sold it to Perry’s family friend, who held on to it for 32 years. “I’m lucky to be its next caretaker, hopefully for the next 30 years, too. I plan to keep it mostly stock—except maybe lowering it a few inches—and use it as our club’s push truck for our race car.”

1964 Mercury Comet

Owner: Clifton Darnell — Snap-On dealer
Owned since: 2011
Patina level: Rode hard and put away wet
Patina philosophy: “Shiny cars are cool, but driving your car is cooler.”

When you look at this rough-and-ready Comet, you probably wouldn’t guess that owner Clifton Darnell moonlights as a custom painter. “Rule of thumb is a painter never has a nicely painted car,” he quips. Yet he insists he’ll eventually get around to transforming it into a 1960s-style custom. “A lot of people tell me to leave it alone, but I want to make sure that the car is still here in a hundred years. To save it, I have to replace all the sheetmetal, do the bodywork, and paint it.” But there’s a lot of downtime that goes into paint and bodywork. So, rather than let it sit uncompleted, Darnell continues to drive and enjoy his Comet, warts and all.

1949 Cadillac Series 62

Owner: Jim & Joyce Krom — Engineer / Librarian
Owned since: 2013
Patina level: Zombie in a tux
Patina philosophy: “We have no philosophy—we just think it looks badass.”

Cadillac’s Clark Street Assembly plant stood for decades just a few blocks from where we conducted our photo shoot, so this ’49 was built by people who lived right here in this neighborhood. Clearly, they built it to last. Jim and Joyce Krom found it in 2013 in nearby Milford, Michigan, and have since attested to its hardiness by driving it 1146 miles to Tennessee and back. As for its appearance, the Kroms have done precious little aside from replacing the original front bumper and swapping tattered wheel covers for aftermarket chrome caps and rings.




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    The Caddy is indeed “badass” and a sweet ride. However, I’m charmed by the Comet. One hardly ever sees a drop-top (at least, not in my area). All of the vehicles are cool and it sounds like their clubs are fun outfits – – – I’d like to learn more about Tommy Perry’s club’s “race car”! 👍

    Detroit is nothing to brag on. Most areas in the city limits are a mess. Miss management and corruption by local officials have left this once great city only great in the suburbs.

    Just a few years ago it was 10 below zero at the Detroit Auto Show. We deiced to walk up to the Hard Rock to eat. Well we were mobbed even at that temp buy beggars and drug attics.

    The shame is that Caddy and truck both could really be stunning cars if they were just cleaned up a bit. Kind of like the city.

    Who is this miss management person? What a horrible example she’s setting for all the nice suburban white folks to see.

    Give me an edit button.

    As for the city it needs new management.

    When you make Cleveland look good you know you must be doing something wrong.

    I don’t like when people feel the urge to crap on their own “metro area”, but the truth is the industry left Detroit for the ‘burbs decades ago. Factories that remain are bermed-off, and the automakers who have kept some level of local employment (GM/Chrysler) by building these new plants get zero respect from the Kia-driving hipsters that inhabit a few blocks worth of downtown Detroit.

    I was born in the earlier 80s. Even as a kid, before i was aware of the term “patina,” I always gravitated towards vehicles like this at every car show. On the rare occasion I would stop and look at one that was all shiny and perfectly restored, but I would normally go right past them to find the drivers, beaters, cars with patina, whatever you want to call them. I appreciate the level of effort it takes to restore, and I appreciate that we all have different tastes and ideas. But these are the type that excite me.

    30 years ago I owned a Corvette in all original condition, paint, interior, engine compartment. It had very minor wear and tear but enough to show the 55,000 miles it had. And everywhere I went with it,I was told to fix it. New paint. New interior. It got to the point I sold it, I couldn’t change it. It had a tenth of the “patina” these cars are showing. And everybody hated it. But these cars are way over the top with rust and obvious wear. My HOA would fine me if my house had that kind of patina. I am all for originality and some minor wear. The rest is lack of maintenance and not particularly fancy. I need a tetanus shot from just looking. Funny what was considered junk in the past is now what everybody wants. Does Patina mean cheap and lazy? I do miss that Corvette.

    Great article. I agree with all of them but the best to me is “Shinny cars are nice but i like mine”. Love that luggage rack on the Cadillac it goes with the bumper sticker..

    If your car has nice shiny paint you can’t drive it? Interesting, and also not true. Patina: bad paint and rust.

    To all you patina haters, Grow Up! Not everyone wants to spend all day polishing their cars, Some of us grew up and no longer want to spend hours waxing and worrying about their precious car.
    A lot of the patina cars have modern drive trains and can outrun, outhandle and get better mileage than your pristine junk. As long as someone is out enjoying their car. let them be. They are enjoying the hobby!
    Why worry about winning a 2 dollar trophy, when you can enjoy the day driving your car?

    I have as a hobby restored a half a dozen old cars and trucks over the years. They’re all shiny and will look great for years to come. However recently I acquired an old 1930 Chevy farm truck.
    I love the way that it looks with all the wear and tear and rust and I want it to look the same when it’s drivable. Not shiny.
    The problem is that the rust is so bad in some areas that it’s requiring a lot patching, welding, fiberglass on the underside of fenders where the metal is too thin to weld.
    I will paint the truck with epoxy primer and the original color in a matte finish and a faux rust.
    It should look the same in another 93 years instead of just rusting away.

    Had a neighbor in the late50’s/early60’s in Washington DC who bought a 1949 Caddy droptop on George Washington’s Birthday sale for $99. What a car. I loved it with no sense of how my life would be ruined by vehicular orphans. I’m not scratching 78 – parents gone and no longer around to tell me NO – lots of memories of the ones that got away, were “stolen” by zoning Natzi’ and hidden in the woods waiting to subject me to another stretch at “Club Dread”

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