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Meadow Brook: Models of elegance

Published August 8, 2009


ROCHESTER, MICH—Back in the 1930s, it was only natural for Roy Chapin, the founder of the Hudson Motor Car Co., to use his personal car to make long-distance trips.

Today, in the hands of Hedley and Pattie Bennett, that same 1929 Hudson still does exactly that. Last weekend, it ferried the couple from their home in London, Ont., to the Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance in this Detroit suburb.

"It has just shy of 60,000 miles (96,560 km) on it," Hedley Bennett says. "We don't trailer it. I enjoy going shopping with it just to go sightseeing. It's so good to see a car that's driven."

The Michigan car show celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. It drew 220 high-end cars and motorcycles, including 13 owned by Canadians, all selected by a committee and invited to the event. More than 15,000 spectators come each year to see the show, held on the grounds of a mansion originally owned by John Dodge, co-founder of the company that bears his name, and now part of Michigan's Oakland University.

The event is similar to the famous Pebble Beach show in California, and the cars are parked on a golf course. The show also includes historic concept cars, brought this year by GM and Chrysler, and panel discussions by noted car designers.

More familiar car names such as Packard and Duesenberg were joined by several little-known marques, including Panhard Levassor, Mitchell, Pungs-Finch, and Meisenhelder. In some cases, a car on display was the only one still in existence, or the only one ever built.

The Bennetts' car, a huge seven-passenger model, has been in the family for more than 30 years. Hedley was originally a Hudson dealer.

"I remember seeing it when we went to Detroit to pick up new Hudsons," he says. "I thought one day I'd own it, and many years later, we did."

He currently sells parts for cars whose manufacturers are long defunct, such as Studebaker, Essex and Reo. "We have several Hudsons, and we drive them all. The most enjoyment from them is driving them."

A panel selected class winners, who then drove up to a viewing stand to receive their awards. Paul Del Grande of Mississauga came back with a Blue Lion runner-up trophy for his 1957 Chrysler 300C convertible, powered by a 6.4 L Hemi engine. "I've owned it since 1975, and I'm the fifth owner," he says. "The car originally belonged to Nelson Rockefeller."

Del Grande discovered the car's connection when he found a plate engraved with the former U.S. vice-president's name on it in the glovebox. He sent a letter to Rockefeller and received an answer confirming it.

"My father had Chryslers, and I've always had Chrysler products," he says. "I was looking for a 300 back in the 1970s, and I answered an ad from a fellow in West Virginia who had two. They were sold, but he said he had this one and didn't want to sell it.

"Six months later he called and said his wife was pregnant again and it's for sale. It's the first old car I bought, and it's my favourite." Del Grande paid $1,800 for it. He says it's now appraised at $225,000.

He's no stranger to the show circuit: 10 years ago, the 300C took an award at the prestigious EyesOn Design show in Detroit, and was invited back to that event last year. Indeed, many of the cars at Meadow Brook have appeared at other high-end meets, including Pebble Beach.

An invitation to that show in 2008 turned into the first test of a fresh restoration for Ric Simpson's supercharged 1936 Cord 810 convertible. The 74-year-old retired math teacher bought the car in 1959 and restored it in 1967 — driving it from his home in Fort Erie to Montreal as its first post-restoration test — but many years of regular use had taken a toll on the finish.

"Four years ago, a friend said, `I've got nothing to do so bring it over and I'll paint it all the same colour,'" Simpson says. "It should have taken three days, but it took three years and a month. He put 4,000 hours of labour into it, and I put in 1,000."

Cord was the first American mass-market front-wheel-drive car, and one of three brands built by an Indiana company, along with Auburn and Duesenberg. They were only made for six years, in two styles with a three-year hiatus between them: the earlier L-29, and Simpson's radically styled model, popularly known as a "coffin-nose." He originally paid $150 for it and says he has invested another $50,000. Similar models can sell for more than$200,000 today.

With Pebble Beach invitation in hand, Simpson set out the only way he's ever transported the car: by driving it. The restoration was finished at 3 a.m., and the next day, he and his wife Sondra headed to California. The 11,265 km round trip went almost without a hitch, until his distributor rotor broke in Nevada.

"I'm 99 per cent brilliant," he says. "I'd rebuilt another distributor, put all new parts on it, and wrapped it in plastic. The 1 per cent? I left it on the dining room table."

A piece of duct tape came to the rescue, holding the part together until he could have a rotor shipped to meet him in Salt Lake City.

Simpson also owns four Rolls-Royces, including a 1977 Corniche built for the Saudi royal family. But his love of Cords stems from a sedan his father bought in 1938. "In 1952 he gave it to me, and I totalled it a month later," he says.

Naturally, the Cord got to Meadow Brook under its own power, and was going home that way, too. "Of course I drove it here," Simpson says. "I believe I've driven a Cord more than anyone else in the world."

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