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Car fans go back in time at Greenfield Village

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Thirteen of the most-popular 15 car models in 1915 were made in Detroit. Some 750 cars from this era gather each year fully restored, running, and delighting thousands with rides around the Old Car Festival, which took on the look of an automotive Disneyland last weekend for the 68th time.

“Everybody really gets into it, the whole atmosphere and bringing that age back to life,” explains Janice Kerr, who with husband Dan dressed to match their perfectly restored 1927 Dodge Brothers two-door. 

The 1927 Dodge on display last weekend was Kerr’s first full restoration, performed on a car that Kerr’s parents bought when his father retired in 1982.

The Kerrs, from Pittsburgh, are regulars at car shows around the country, but explain The Henry Ford-sponsored festival is unique due to its setting in Greenfield Village in Dearborn. 

“I wasn’t a very good book student,” recalls Dan Kerr, explaining that he became a mechanic and auto restorer straight out of high school in Pittsburgh, which only allowed students enrolled in one of two “Power Mechanics” classes to drive cars to school, presuming the cars would become classroom projects.

 “Other kids were envious. Every day we would pull out of the school parking lot with our cars full of kids.” 

The 1927 Dodge on display last weekend was Kerr’s first full restoration, performed on a car that Kerr’s parents bought when his father retired in 1982.

The elder Kerr was a 47-year veteran of U.S. Steel, and after retirement, Dan Kerr remembers a phone call from his panicked mother: “I can’t be with your father anymore.”

Kerr went over to his parent’s home and noticed the rugs in the living room his father had just vacuumed had obsessively straight lines from the task. “We have to find him something to do,” said Kerr’s mother.

So they rescued the Dodge from a barn, where it had been placed following 50 years of storage in the basement of a Pittsburgh home, where it had been stashed when the owner couldn’t find tires to fit it during the Great Depression. When the house needed a new furnace, it was exhumed. When Dan Kerr retired in 2008 he took over the restoration of the Dodge from his father, also launching himself into a career restoring cars for himself and other collectors.

The Kerrs now have seven vintage Dodges, starting with an early 1915 Dodge Touring car they display in shows in Auburn, Indiana, and museums such as the well-known Antique Automobile Club of America museum in Hershey, Penn. Says Kerr: “That’s why we’ve been married 49 years — she stays in the house and I work in the garage.”

Janice Kerr agrees with a laugh, but explains that the couple has befriended at least 20 other couples who follow old car shows around the country. Each year the Kerrs tow one of their cars behind a large motorhome 8,000 miles around the U.S. to auto shows.

“If it’s not car-related, we don’t go,” says Janice. “It’s the people. We know a lot of people who do the same thing, and we see them all the time.”

Says Dan: “Where else can you go and see cars riding around on old streets and meet up with your friends in their cars?”