One grandson’s quest to restore a 1967 police car
Detroit — For some, restoring classic cars is just a fun hobby. For Denis Woltemate, restoring a jet black 1967 Plymouth Fury — the same kind of vehicle Detroit police drove while attempting to keep law and order during the unrest that swept the city five decades earlier — led him down a road that brought him closer to his late grandfather.
Woltemate’s grandfather, William Woltemate, was a sergeant in Detroit’s Mounted Police Department and served for 25 years, retiring in 1968.
After his grandfather died in 1998 at age 84, Woltemate stumbled upon a photo of his grandfather dressed in uniform, holding his Dalmatian named Cinders, in front of a Plymouth Fury.
“I thought it would be pretty cool if I could find a car like that,” said Woltemate, 52, of Delaware.
So five years ago, he hunted on eBay, and sure enough, he found a 1967 Plymouth Fury that he believes was driven in a Minnesota police department. He paid $5,000 to the seller in San Diego and spent another $3,000 restoring the vehicle to what it would have looked like in 1967.
To do that, Woltemate sought the help of Farmington Hills resident George Patak, a 27-year veteran of the Wayne State University and Ann Arbor police departments.
Patak won the title of “Best Restored Law Enforcement Vehicle” in 2008 and 2010 for his 1963 Plymouth Fury. Besides wearing a 1963 officer uniform while driving the car, Patak plays recordings of police calls from the area the car was assigned in Detroit 1963.
“I always wanted to be a cop ever since I was a little kid, so much so that I’d ride my bike up to the local 14th Precinct Schaefer Station, and I watched them do roll call in the parking lot at night,” said Patak, 67. “ … As a kid, these guys were my heroes, so I always wanted to restore a car like the kind my heroes drove.”
Woltemate discovered Patak through articles written about his car, and called him for advice about restoring the Fury to match the one his grandfather drove in the picture he found.
“Because of the age of the picture, it wasn't easy for me to discern whether the car was black or a really dark blue, so he helped me clear that up,” Woltemate said.
Patak also explained what kind of siren and flasher to install. A stickler for details and authenticity, he said Woltemate added few embellishments.
“The lettering on the door, I think, is a little larger than it really should be,” said Patak, describing the “Detroit Police 675134” painted in yellow on the doors.
“He put a replication of the mounted patch on the back that the Detroit officers wore, and they never had those (on the cars).”
Woltemate didn’t have many stories from his grandfather’s time in law enforcement and didn’t know why his grandfather drove a Fury when mounted officers rode horses. But Patrick Muscat could fill in the gaps.
Now 77, Muscat joined the mounted division in 1962 and served under Woltemate’s grandfather.
“He was a very tough, strict sergeant. We had to be on our toes when he was around,” Muscat said.
Muscat, a retired Huntington Woods resident, wrote the 1992 book “The History of the Detroit Mounted Police.” When William Woltemate retired in 1968, Muscat said the unit was about 35 officers strong.
During the violence in July 1967, those officers switched to a mobile task force, he said, which explains why William Woltemate drove a Fury.
“Because of the fact there were a lot of gunshots being fired, they did not want to put us out there on horses because they thought we would be sitting targets,” he said. “So we went into a mobile task force where our unit went out with six cars and four people to a car.”
Muscat isn’t sure what role Woltemate had during 1967’s civil unrest, partly because he himself was stationed at Belle Isle, where he patrolled prisoners arrested for looting and curfew violations.
“They used Belle Isle as a temporary holding state for prisoners because they didn’t have enough room in jail,” he said.
Denis Woltemate isn’t in the police force — he runs a landscaping service — but several family members, including his father, who was a dispatcher, have held law enforcement positions.
“I remember my grandpa telling me that he loved his career,” he said.
The car restoration process only unearthed more family history.
On Friday, Woltemate will return with his Fury at Ferndale’s Lights and Sirens Cruise — when vintage police and fire vehicles loop around Woodward to officially start the Dream Cruise.
Patak also offered to play tour guide, taking Woltemate to Detroit locations the car would have been driven, such as the mounted barns in Rouge Park and Belle Isle.
“Those buildings are still there,” he said. “It might not be long before they get torn down, but I told him it would be a good idea to take the car around and get some pictures taken at the places it could have been.”
Yet this won’t be Woltemate’s first Woodward Dream Cruise. Woltemate brought the Fury to the classic car event last year, after learning about it through his journey to restore the car.
At one point during a red light, a black motorist slowed next to him in a Dodge Challenger.
Woltemate wasn’t sure how the fellow cruiser might react.
“I’m an outsider in your community driving a vehicle that could be linked to an event that there are a lot of emotions still over,” said Woltemate, describing the moment last year.
But he didn’t need to worry.
“He pulled up alongside of us and said, ‘Man, that’s a cool car,’ “ Woltemate said. “‘They had a bunch of them cars back in the riot in ’67.’”
The men chatted for as long as a red light allowed and then drove off.
“I had nothing but positive experiences when I was out. But I think you’re foolish if you’re not cautious,” said Woltemate in a call from Newark, a few weeks before his 10-hour drive to Detroit for this year’s cruise.
“Sometimes, just a car can be a trigger and raise a negative emotion. Certainly, that’s not my intent. My intent is to come out and enjoy myself, and to me personally, it’s a celebration of the legacy of the law enforcement and history of my family.”
Despite all the interest surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Detroit uprising, Woltemate doesn’t plan to advertise that his car marks a historic year.
As he puts it, “anybody who knows cars is going to be able to tell it’s ’67 because they only made that body style for two years.”