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Meet Margaret Dunning: Still cruisin’ at 103

Michigan woman still loves driving, touring and making history

Published November 8, 2013

Margaret Dunning has parked her trusty 1930 Packard for the winter, now that the classic auto festival season is over.

At age 103, Dunning is in better shape and has more spunk than many people half her age, as she motors around in her cream and black 740 Roadster with red leather interior and wheel accents, bought back in 1949 and restored to mint condition.

She’s been mechanically inclined since the days when she was her dad’s “go fetch it” girl, a tool-toting youngster at her family’s Redford Township potato and dairy farm in Michigan, about 30 km west of the Detroit-Windsor border crossing.

It wasn’t unusual for Henry Ford, a local resident and family friend, to drop by for some neighbourly chatter and a slice of huckleberry pie.

“Oh, I’ve had a fantastic life, and this year has been almost like a fairytale for me,” she says on the phone from her home in Plymouth, west of Redford.

“I’m 103 and, if you catch me in another two months, I’ll be 103 and a half,” she adds with a chuckle.

Dunning has had several vintage cars over the years, getting help from experts in restoration and major repairs but doing a lot of the maintenance herself.

Although she still drives her beloved Packard, she’s put down the wrenches and just oversees the work these days.

She and her grand set of wheels were one of the highlights of the inaugural Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance on the shores of Georgian Bay this past September. It was an end-of-season event that capped a remarkable summer, in which she and her Packard attended 14 auto fests from Florida to California and across the U.S. heartland.

She made quite an impression wherever she went.

“Margaret Dunning is fabulous,” says Kim Graham, spokesperson for the Cobble Beach Concours. “She arrived at the cottage she was staying at in a Rolls and said, as she got out, ‘Ladies, it is always imperative to arrive in style.’ ”

The 1936 Phantom was one of five Rolls from the 1930s that participated in the weekend event and helped chauffeur guests around.

Dunning was at Cobble Beach to present the Margaret Dunning Spirit of Driving Award, named in her honour, to Alan Sands of Tottenham, Ont., who owns an immaculately preserved 1954 Allard J2X.

As an aficionado of such prestigious vintage automobile fests, Dunning was impressed with Cobble Beach.

“I saw a lot of Canadian cars up there I’ve never seen before. The whole event was a really beautiful affair.”

Dunning, who never married, donated more than $1 million to help build a library and museum in her community, where she is a permanent member of the Plymouth Historical Society’s board of directors.

In 1997, she established the Margaret Dunning Foundation, which supports various educational and historical projects in her home state.

She was one of the first in a group of 16 of Plymouth’s celebrated denizens and patrons to be inducted into the Plymouth Hall of Fame in 1980.

“I’ve just been a very fortunate person,” she says. “I’ve always had three meals a day, never over-indulged in any one particular thing, and being a farmer’s daughter helped.

“There weren’t many mechanics around back then, so my dad was the one to get in there and fix it, and I was his helper. I always asked questions and he had a wonderful way of explaining things. He could do almost anything with horses and machines.”

From the age of 8, her dad, Charles, would let her steer the family car while he worked the pedals and gears. But Dunning got an early lesson in the power of automobiles at the age of 10, when she accidentlally drove into the side of a barn.

Dunning was just 12 when her father died in 1923.

But she had learned a lot about fixing and driving cars, trucks and tractors on the 156-acre spread, where her pioneering grandparents had put down roots.

Her ability to handle vehicles, and some family connections, gained her a special driver’s licence after her father’s death. Her mom, Bessie, ran a real-estate business and had enough political pull in the state to get young Margaret a driving permit.

With Dunning at the wheel, the feisty daughter-and-mom duo often toured the Michigan countryside visiting friends, relatives and clients in their Ford Model T.

They moved to Plymouth in 1925, where they built the home Dunning lives in to this day.

She studied business at university and college, worked at a Ford plant completely staffed by women producing voltage regulators in the 1930s and, from 1942 to 1945, served as a volunteer driving trucks for the American Red Cross in Michigan.

The Packard is her pride and joy, but it’s just one of many vintage cars she’s owned over the years, several of which she still has. Others, such as a 1906 Ford Model N and a 1930 Cadillac convertible, have been donated to a Michigan car museum.

Dunning made her own history this year when she became the oldest woman to drive around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — at the wheel of her Packard, of course, prior to the start of the Indy 500 in May.

Last year, the Packard earned a perfect score of 100 at the Classic Car Club of America’s Grand Classic, at the Concours d’Elegance show in Pebble Beach, California.

While there, Dunning chatted with show emcee Jay Leno, talk-show host and car collector extraordinaire, who has a vast stable of classic, vintage and exotic vehicles.

“He’s so gentle and so kind in how he speaks to you,” she was quoted as saying in the New York Times following the presentation. “He told me, ‘I loved seeing you drive up in this wonderful car.’ I told him, ‘I love to see you and your cars.’ So it’s a nice life all around.”

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