The V-8 under the hood of my 1932 Ford chuckles contentedly as I motor sedately around Dearborn, Michigan, on a steamy Sunday afternoon. This is one joyride with noble intentions: we're toasting the divine Deuce on its seventy-fifth birthday and searching for what moved Henry Ford to give working-class Americans their first shots of speed.
This is not an epic trek, because in addition to being America's first industrialist with a global reach, Ford was a loyal homebody. Less than four miles separate his birthplace, his longtime home, and his grave site. Ford's pack-rat nature also eases the task of exploring his life and times. Thousands of the cultural artifacts that he gathered are at Dearborn's version of Disneyland, a museum recently - and aptly - renamed The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, an assembled community of homes, workshops, labs, and factories where American genius, including Ford's, thrived.
My sponsor for this venture is Lynn Stringer, a devout admirer, collector, and restorer of '32 Fords. Before, during, and after his thirty-five-year engineering career at Ford, Stringer harbored Deuce passion, an affair that began during his Steubenville, Ohio, teenage days. After a few years of hot-rodding, Stringer decided that he really needed a '32 roadster. In 1978, he purchased the car we're driving for $7000 in Minerva, Ohio. It had sat for sixteen years following a career transporting grand marshals and beauty queens in parades.
Stringer spent eight years returning his De Luxe Roadster to factory-original condition. He painted it with the same medium maroon nitrocellulose lacquer Ford used in 1932. Instead of dipping the fenders as the factory did, Stringer sprayed them with original black enamel. His twenty-year-old paint job radiates an authentic glow that makes the Early Ford V-8 Club of America judges swoon. Stringer values this prime example of Henry's handiwork at $125,000.
Unlike restorers afraid to risk their cars to the rigors of the road, Stringer is game for our rolling historical quest. The tight confines of his '32's doorway serve as a gauge to remind us that the average American has grown in stature and girth. Climbing aboard the well-stuffed, leather-upholstered seat is easier than the exit maneuver, which involves cruel contortions to squeeze past the steering wheel, the seat, and the doorjamb.
After I switch the ignition toggle and mash a metal floor button, the engine starts with a subdued rumble. The shift lever pokes proudly out of the floor to position its plastic knob next to my right knee. Little or no throttle is needed to get rolling. In fact, more gas merely excites a stronger and longer-lasting quiver through the limber body and frame when the clutch engages.
Our first destination is the Dearborn Inn, a Marriott hotel steeped with rustic charm and located in the shadow of Ford's engineering complex. When it opened in 1931, this was the world's first airport hotel, built to host passengers and flight crew arriving across the boulevard at the Ford Air Port. Ford's aviation interests ran the gamut from dirigibles and flying bombs to the manufacture of Tri-Motors, B-24 bombers, and troop-carrying gliders. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis here to give Henry Ford his first airplane ride. In 1947, the airfield was reconstituted as the company's first proving ground.