[Editor’s Note: Thanks to the folks at Motorbooks, we recently got a preview of Tom Cotter and Michael Alan Ross’s upcoming book, Motor City Barn Finds, in which they explore Detroit for the cars that built the city. In this excerpt, we catch up with them as they meander along 6 Mile Road.]
Wednesday, July 20
We had spent the past couple of days in the ’burbs, within one hour from downtown Detroit. But as
Michael and I were having breakfast Wednesday morning, we decided we needed to spend more time actually in the City of Detroit. I wanted to find cars in the grittier sections of town, where tourists might be hesitant to visit because of rumors of robberies, violence, or worse.
We had been warned before beginning our trip that we should not visit “the hood” without hiring an off-duty police officer to ride shotgun. I actually spoke to a retired policeman who said he would ride with us for the cost of $25 an hour. I told him I would think about it.
Michael and I decided to visit Detroit by ourselves during the daytime, not in the evening. And we would play it safe and be respectful. So after breakfast, we would make one quick stop in the suburbs to let morning rush hour traffic thin out, then we’d aim the Woody toward downtown Detroit.
Beverly Hills Avanti
We headed toward the heart of town by way of—get this—Beverly Hills. We had gotten a lead from a guy we met at Pasteiner’s about a Studebaker Avanti in the driveway of a house in the town of Beverly Hills, Michigan. We cruised up and down the streets of the neighborhood where the car was spotted until we finally stumbled across it.
I walked up to the door and knocked while Michael assembled his camera gear.
I met Martin Parent, a retired automotive engineer who had a very nice collection of beautiful cars stuffed into a very small garage. But we weren’t there to see beautiful cars; we were there to investigate the Avanti.
“I don’t have room in the garage, which is why the Avanti is out here,” said Parent, who has owned the car for about three years. “This car is a 1963, the first year of the Avanti, and it has a supercharger on the original motor.”
A steel car left sitting outside in Detroit might not fare so well, but the Avanti is fiberglass, so it was not much
worse for the wear. The odometer registered just 51,000 miles. Looking at it closely, we could tell this was a very
“I was over at a friend’s house, where the car had been sitting for thirty years,” said Parent. “Well, I was like a kid in a candy store, but I wouldn’t have bought it if it didn’t have the supercharger. I paid $6,000 for the car, which I think was a good price.”
Sitting in Parent’s driveway, the car was partially disassembled. But Parent said he had begun disassembling it and had the seats, chrome, trim, and so on in his house.
He admits he is not a Studebaker guy, and the cars in his garage prove that. There were no more Studebakers, but there was a 1939 Ford coupe, a 1961 fuel-injected Corvette, and a 1966 396 Chevelle. Parent is also the original owner of a 1970 Corvette, which he took off the road in 1974 when he bought a new ’Vette. He just decided to keep the ’70.
Even though the space is small and packed with cars, he paints all his own cars in that very garage. He plans to paint the Avanti turquoise in there as well.
“I started working on the Avanti—rebuilt the carb, took the heads off, did a valve job—then I came down with cancer,” said Parent. “Between chemo and radiation, it has slowed me down a little bit.”
Thankfully Parent seemed to be on the road to recovery.
“I don’t care what they say. If you grew up around cars, you never get it out of your system,” he said.
We wished Parent good luck on his Avanti project and said goodbye. Then we were off for Detroit proper, where we would follow up the one inner-city lead we had and then just drive up and down streets to see what we could find.
Never Tired of Tires
Stephen Copeland has been hanging around his family’s tire store on Dexter Avenue since the 1960s. His father, William, started Copeland Tires in 1967, and Stephen has worked there since he was thirteen years old, except for the time he took off for college. He grew up in a house just 100 feet from the shop.
After graduating from high school, Copeland went to automotive college in Northern Michigan, then came back to his father’s shop and started working there full-time. Eventually he took over his father’s business, and since then he has expanded both its services and its footprint. When his father ran the business, it was simply a tire store, selling and repairing tires—no alignment, no brake or front-end work. But Copeland used the broad automotive knowledge he had gained at school to increase the store’s offerings into general auto repairs as well.
“This building used to be a car wash, which is why it is so long,” he said, referring to the expanded portion of the store.
“There were washers and blowers and dryers in there, and guys would hand dry them here at the end.
“I’ve been working here my entire adult life. Except for being a paperboy or working in a local store as a kid, this is the only job I’ve ever had.”
Copeland is not a true old-car enthusiast; he enjoys old cars, but doesn’t collect or restore them. Except for two cars, one of which is a 1932 Hudson.
“A guy was working on it in the street, and he just left it there,” he said. “He gave it up—it must have been thirty years ago. The police were getting ready to tow it away, so they said, you can take it if you want. There is no title and no serial numbers we can find. So I towed it home, and haven’t done anything with it since. It was a complete car, but now the weather, the animals, and the vegetation are taking over.”
I asked Copeland if his wife has complained about the old relic in the yard, but he responded that he has a 10-acre plot, so it’s well out of sight from the house.
In building the tire business, he expanded the original store’s space from just one service bay to about ten. Nine of those service bays are busy with customer cars every day, and one is occupied by a tenant that has been sitting there for more than a quarter century: the second old car in Stephen’s life is his father’s 1951 Chevy convertible, which the elder Copeland bought in 1954.
“I was born the same year as the Chevy, 1951, so I was too young to remember,” Copeland said. What he does remember is that it was his dad’s everyday car for many years. Eventually, though, by the time he was about ten years old, both his father and his mother owned other cars and the convertible became an extra vehicle. He fondly remembers that his parents would take him and his sister for top-down rides in the summertime to buy ice cream.
“The car was originally a shade of red, but my father sent it down to North Carolina, to a friend of a friend, to have it painted black,” said Copeland. “I remember it took a long time, but it finally came back and it was beautiful.
“My father also converted it from an automatic to a standard transmission, because back then people were a little scared about working on automatics. It still has the Powerglide emblem on the trunk, though. And it still has the original sixcylinder motor.”
The car sat for many years in William Copeland’s garage. But when his father started to show signs of Alzheimer’s, Stephen had to make some tough decisions.
“About twenty-five years ago, I had to take everything away that had wheels,” he said. “Otherwise he might start driving and get lost.”
First, he took away his father’s daily driver, but eventually he decided it was best to remove the ’51 Chevy from his father’s house as well.
“He was like, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’” said Copeland. “It was tough, but it was for his own safety.”
William passed away in 2012, but that Chevy has been sitting in the empty bay at Copeland Tire for about twenty-five years, according to the younger Copeland. He figures the last time the car was driven was about twenty years ago, when he drove it home one night from work—he lives 45 miles away—and back again the next morning.
“I put ninety miles on it,” he said. “And the car ran great. I parked it in the shop and it hasn’t been driven since.”
Copeland figures the car could use a new paint job and the bumpers could use a rechroming, but he’s not sure he’ll be the one to do it.
“Both my son and my daughter know they have it coming,” he said. “And they both know I want to keep it in the family.”
Neat man, neat car, and neat family.
When we left Copeland Tire, we began driving up and down urban streets to see what else we could find.
A Collector with a Greater Calling
I was driving down a residential street in the beautiful Boston-Edison neighborhood when the shape of a bright red old car caught my attention as we passed a house. I backed up and saw that it was a 1957 Chevy sedan.
When I got the Woody up to the curb I noticed a couple of other old cars in the driveway. I walked up to the door, rang the doorbell, and then knocked. Nobody answered. So I walked down to the driveway to see the other cars, a couple of older Cadillacs, and a couple of Chevys.
Hmm, nobody home. What to do next?
I went to the Woody, got out my notebook and pen, and started to write a note to the owner. Hello, My name is Tom Cotter, and I am writing a book about . . .
Just then, a car pulled up to the curb and a man got out.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m looking for the owner of these old cars,” I said.
Perfect. Just in time.
I showed him the note I had just started, mentioned to him the book we were writing, and asked if he would allow us to interview him and take some photos.
No worries. Within just a few minutes, I was to find out that this was one multidimensional fellow.
“My name is Sam White,” he said as we started to walk down his driveway collection. “My addiction came from my father. He was big on antique cars. He had a Triumph TR3 that I still own; I just don’t have here right now.”
He said his father bought the Triumph in 1977. Today, he keeps it in another storage facility.
“He also had a Jaguar,” White said. “But the cars in my driveway are my addiction. I’ve had that 1956 Cadillac since my kids were young, probably ten or fifteen years.”
As we toured the cars in White’s driveway, I noticed Harvard University decals on the back windows of several cars.
“What’s with the Harvard stickers?” I asked. “Did you go there?”
“Yes, I graduated from the Harvard Divinity School,” he said. “It’s where I got my masters in theological study in 1988.”
“You mean you are a minister?”
“Yes. Well, actually my title is Reverend Doctor Samuel White III.”
Suddenly I was intimidated. I’d never been confronted before by a car guy who was also a minister and a doctor. Reverend White has been pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church in Detroit for twenty years. His family has lived in this house, which was built in 1916, for twenty-two.
Anyway, we continued our tour of his collection.
“I bought that Caddy from a guy in Detroit for $400 or $500,” he said. “It runs, but they all need work.
“Then there is the ’46 Cadillac four-door that I got from a friend. That car runs better than any car I own. It’s a straight eight. I bought it from another pastor who worked on old cars too. I paid like $2,500, and the engine just hums.”
We worked our way toward cars on the side of the driveway.
One car was covered, but I felt through the cover and identified it as a 1956 Chevy.
“And the other car is a 1951 Chevy,” he said. “I need to get rid of both those cars. I got them for little or next to nothing. But I’ve got to get some cars out of here.”
The 1956 Chevy is a four-door sedan. It is rough, but very complete with a six-cylinder.
“I’d like to get a couple of grand for that one,” he said. “The 1951 apparently runs as well, although I’ve never heard it. I’d like to get a grand for that. I’m just trying to clean out my driveway.”
The car White drives most is the 1957 Chevy. It’s not for sale.
“It’s a 283 and it starts every time,” he said. “I’d probably sell that ’56 Caddy too. It’s a four-door hardtop and runs well. I’d like $5,000 for that one.”
Next he said something that really got me stoked.
“I want you to stand next to the garage door and I’m going to go into the house and open it up,” said White. “I think you’ll like what’s inside.”
So Michael and I waited in the driveway as White disappeared into the house for a couple of minutes. Then the huge carriage house doors started to open. I saw pink. Big and pink.
It was a pink 1959 Cadillac. Huge! Elvis style.
The Caddy was impressive enough, but it was the two cars behind it that almost brought me to tears.
Two of them.
Now, full disclosure: I’ve never told this to anyone, but I’ll share my fantasy with you. It goes like this: every time I open a garage or barn door that has been closed for a long time, I imagine a Jaguar XK120 or XK140 inside waiting tobe discovered. Not a Chevy or even an MG, but a Jaguar. After more than half a century of opening doors, I have found many Model As, old Plymouths, and John Deere tractors, but never a Jag. Until this moment.
The Reverend Dr. Samuel White III had not one but two Jaguar XK140s sitting next to the pink Cadillac, a coupe and a roadster.
But let’s talk about the Cadillac first.
“I went out to get a Mother’s Day gift, but on the way there, I saw these fins,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I have to go see that.’ Well . . . I bought it and drove it home from 14 Mile.” Happy Mother’s Day! “It ran well except for the brakes.”
The Reverend Dr. Samuel White III must be married to a saint to accept a pink Caddy for Mother’s Day!
OK, on to the Jags. I gave the good reverend my business card and told him that when he needs money to send his kids to college, he should call me. That I would be a customer of that 1955 XK140 roadster.
“OK, that car is Tom’s,” he said.
He actually enjoys the Jaguar fixed head coupe more than the roadster.
“There was a place called Frog Motors in Detroit, and they worked on nothing but foreign cars,” said White. They were going out of business, so they sold me these cars, one for $3,000 and the other for $5,000. I got them dirt cheap.”
He bought both cars about ten or fifteen years ago. What a deal.
“Everything works, the engine, the brakes,” he said. “The roadster just needs new paint.”
He bought the 1957 black coupe at the same time.
“Deal of a lifetime,” he admitted.
Reverend White had the brick garage set up like a sports car shop in England: flags, banners, and signs were draped on the walls around the two cars. The garage was packed with the Caddy and the two Jags. Then their owner told us that he usually packs his father’s old TR3 Triumph in here as well, between the Jaguars.
This guy was a space-efficiency expert.
I asked him which car he enjoyed driving the most.
“Well, it would be the Triumph because it was my dad’s,” he said. “It’s the car I would get rid of last. I was offered $15,000 for the car, but that was Dad’s; I can’t sell Dad’s car. Every Father’s Day, I get that car out and I drive it.”
Reverend White’s father is deceased, but you can tell his son still misses him.
“My father was one of the first African American corporate executives for Xerox,” he said. “We lived in Rochester, New York. He died at forty-nine years old.”
So seeing one red Chevy in a driveway had led us to meet one of the coolest collectors in Detroit, a man whose eclectic garage included three Cadillacs, three Chevys, two Jaguars, and one Triumph TR3. I asked Reverend White if either of his kids shared his passion for cars.
“I told my son, ‘That ’57 Chevy is yours. Let’s work on it.’ But he didn’t really care. Unfortunately that is a typical reaction for that generation.”
We discussed the challenge of keeping old cars running.
“I must admit, this is a rich man’s hobby,” he said. “I bought them all cheap and do a little bit at a time. But I do enjoy it.”
“Gran Torino” Home
Back in 2008, nearly everybody saw the Clint Eastwood film “Gran Torino.” The entire film was shot in and around this house in the Highland Park neighborhood. Eastwood played the staring role as retired autoworker Walt Kowalski.
When Michael and I drove past the house, a family was obviously living there, with kids hanging around the front yard and porch. They were probably used to the occasional car driving by and snapping photos because they posed for the camera, so we drove off. We returned a few minutes later and they were gone, so we were able to get a clean image.
One Car Leads to Another – and Another
After lunch at—where else?—Vinsetta Garage, we headed back into the Detroit neighborhoods where we had cruised that morning.
We just chose a street, Tuxedo, which is off Woodward Avenue, turned down it, and started to look left and right down the long driveways between the large and tightly packed houses. Within a few blocks, we spotted an old car, a 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible in a pretty powder blue. Wow, that was easy.
From a Galaxie Far Away
We parked the Woody and walked toward the car to check it out. It was sitting in the driveway of a house that had signs posted saying it was scheduled for demolition. Suddenly, a voice called out from across the street.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for the person who owns this car,” I said.
“That’s me,” a man said as he stood up from his porch and started to walk over to us. David Johnson introduced himself to us, and we asked him how long he had owned the car.
“Quite some time,” he said. “Actually, it was my brother Oscar’s car. Before he passed away, he gave it to me. It’s been sitting here for about four years.”
Oscar used it as a daily driver for years.
“When he had the car, everything was good, it ran well,” he said. “He paid a couple of thousand dollars for it. But now I’m trying to get rid of the convertible because they are getting ready to tear that house down, so the car has to be moved in the next couple of weeks.”
I asked whether he had a title for the car. (He didn’t.)
“How much are you asking for it?” I asked.
Now, granted, the car was rough and did not have an engine, but $300 for a convertible—even if it was only to be used as a parts car—is a good value. The challenge was that the car had to be moved quickly, within a couple of weeks.
I gave him the phone number of Eric Stanczak, the gentleman with the cute granddaughter and the yards full of cars. I told Johnson to call him and maybe he would take it off his hands.
Meanwhile, as we were looking at the Galaxie, an older gentleman came driving up in a new Chrysler 300. He introduced himself as Mr. Willy.
“I’ve got an old car in the garage if you are interested,” Mr. Willy said. Sure!
We followed Mr. Willy, or William Perryman to be exact, to the end of the block, where he got out of his car and said to follow him toward the back of the house.
Ran When Parked Mustang
There, behind a rental house he owned, was a very used 1968 Ford Mustang. Not only had the Detroit weather been wearing on the car, the garage roof had collapsed and the timbers were sitting on it. This thing was rough.
“It was my brother’s car,” Mr. Willy said. “My mother bought it and gave it to him. His name was Dennis Wayne Perryman. I have the title in his name. I inherited it when he passed away. Now it’s been sitting for at least twenty years. I’d take $400 for it.”
As we were talking to Mr. Willy, yet another gentleman, attracted by the Woody, came over. His name was Ty Austin, and he lived just a few houses away.
“You looking for old cars?” he asked. “I’ve got one in my backyard.”
Boy, this was easy as pie!
We walked into the backyard of Austin’s house, and there was a 1964 Chevy Impala SS. Pretty nice car. It was equipped with a four-barrel carb, factory air conditioning, bucket seats, and a console. It also had a set of Keystone Classic rims on it.
“I bought it in 1992 for $2,500,” said Austin. “I got it from a guy who drove it up from Alabama. When I bought it, I had the 327 engine rebuilt, which cost $2,500 by itself. It was my baby for a minute, my dream car—since I was a kid I wanted one of these. So when I had the opportunity to buy one, I did.”
Eventually the transmission failed, so in about 1997, he parked the car in his backyard to fix it. But life got in the way.
“I just never got around to it,” he said. “I’m probably not going to get around to working on it, so I just need to sell it and get it out of the yard.”
“How much would you want for it?” I asked.
He answered about $3,000, which sounded like a good deal. We thanked Ty and told him we’d keep it in mind.
We needed to get back to the house early today because it was our host’s birthday, and we wanted to join a few friends and take him to dinner. But it had been one heck of a productive day! Time for a shower, a nice birthday dinner, and a couple of beers.
The Dearborn Inn
The Dearborn Inn was one of the first hotels, if not the first, designed to cater to airline passengers at the nearby Ford Airport, which was located across the street. It was the idea of Henry Ford, who wished to provide flying passengers lodging and meals. Ford World Headquarters is just a couple of miles away.
Renowned Detroit industrial architect Albert Kahn—who also designed Ford’s Rouge Factory, the Packard Plant, and others—designed the Dearborn Inn in the Georgian style of architecture. Built in 1931, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel features 231 rooms plus five guest houses that were completed several years after the original inn was built.
The exterior has remained basically unchanged, but the interior has gone through several sympathetic restorations. It is furnished in the American Colonial style, which was preferred by Henry Ford.
The Ford Airport closed in 1947—it was leveled, and the property became Ford’s test track. But the Dearborn Inn remained occupied and preferred by travelers as one of the best inns in the country. It was responsible for several innovations in the hotel industry, including being the first hotel with air conditioning in 1937 and the first with a direct-dial phone system in 1961.
One of Henry Ford’s great passions was ballroom dancing, so he made sure an adequately sized ballroom of 3,444 square feet was constructed in his new hotel.
In 1987, the inn went through a massive interior restoration, and two years later Marriott became its managing partner.
In 2009, it was named by AAA as one of the top ten historic inns in America.
The Dearborn Inn is popular with tourists in the area visiting other historic sites, such as Greenfield Village, the River Rouge Complex, the Detroit Zoo, and the Henry Ford Estate.
[Tom Cotter and Michael Alan Ross’s Motor City Barn Finds is available for pre-order on Amazon.]