Cruising can be more nightmare than dream for car lovers

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Bill Haas of South Lyon was rear-ended 15 years ago as he was driving his 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible to be displayed at the Glass House in Dearborn. The filler from the repair is beginning to crack.

You love your kids, too, maybe even as much as you love your Dream Cruise car. But if your kid gets a scratch, you can fix it with a Band-Aid.

A cruise-worthy car is more complicated.

More than 40,000 envy-inducing automobiles will take to Woodward Avenue Saturday for the 24th annual drive down memory lane. That means 40,000-plus drivers with either tales of woe, or fear of a tale of woe. And, ideally, good insurance.

Andrey Tomkiw stands next to his 1947 Cadillac that was being repaired at the B&B Collision shop in downtown Royal Oak.

Andrey Tomkiw of Pleasant Ridge will be in the scrum in his gorgeous 1947 Cadillac convertible, but he almost went north for the weekend instead of north-south on M-1. He wasn't waylaid by road debris or a pothole or a fender-bender; rather, he was nearly done in by a belt.

Not a fan belt. A belt, the one holding up his mechanic's pants. That's how easy it is to have something nightmarish happen to your dream car.

"I have very few people I let work on my classic cars," said Tomkiw, 52, an attorney. One of them is a historically reliable and thoroughly remorseful Ferndale technician who was tasked with replacing the coil, which is attached to the firewall.

Inexplicably, the technician did not drape a protective cloth over the wide, burgundy metallic fenders as he leaned under the hood two Fridays ago. His belt buckle raked them both.

In fairness, it's not as though the rest of us don't value our 2012 Ford Fusions. But beyond the 100,000-mile mark, the dings and dents stop seeming important.

When you buy a rolling artwork at auction from the collection of a museum, as Tomkiw did, everything matters — and few things are easy. It took eight attempts, for instance, before B&B Collision in Royal Oak was able to match the Cadillac's paint color.

"If it was looking like the day it was painted," said Randy Booden, B&B's second-generation owner and a former Dream Cruise committee member, the process would be simpler.

Factor in the effects of age and weather, multiply that by up to half a dozen variables in any paint formula, and things get troublesome. Booden made no promises, but "he has a magic wand," Tomkiw said, and the Cadillac will be in its rightful place Saturday.

"It never fails," Booden said: at some point every year when it's logically too late to make a repair, bad luck befalls one of his customers.

Last August, the victim was a 1968 Camaro. The owner was parked in a Woodward strip mall on Monday of cruise week and watched in horror as someone backed into it: "He told me he felt so helpless, he couldn't even yell."

No one wants to see the engine of a 2012 Fusion, but a '66 Mustang attracts the curious. Unfortunately, a cruise fan didn't close Carol Walsh's hood correctly, and the hinges bent when it flew up while she was driving home.

Bob Haas of South Lyon was looking at the traffic in front of him, so he didn't see trouble coming.

Haas, 77, bought his red 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible to drive, not gaze at. He's taken it to the top of Pikes Peak and the far end of Route 66.

Ford Motor Co. chose it as one of 100 cars to display in front of world headquarters during a centennial celebration in 2003. As he was driving through Plymouth on his way to Dearborn, "a girl came up behind me and pushed the back end in."

A retired Ford engineer, Haas improvised a solution when he limped the Sunliner into the exhibition: "I backed it into a bush so nobody could see."

On Sunday, the front bumper of cruise week, Cruisin' Carol Walsh of Redford Township brought her red 1966 Mustang to a Michigan Veterans Foundation benefit show at Shield's Pizza in Southfield.

Walsh, 66, was parked next to her friend, Sally Smith, of West Bloomfield Township. Left to right, that made them "Mustang Sally."

Walsh said she lives in fear of Michigan potholes, a particular indignity in a cruising state.

She once had her alternator fail during the Downriver Cruise, but that was only an inconvenience. Her central problem now is her ill-fitting hood, not what's under it; somebody opened it during a cruise at a church and didn't close it properly, and it flew upward and bent the hinges as she drove home.

Smith, 66, personally swapped out the alternator in her dark blue 1957 Chevy Bel Air on Saturday. More problematic was the time the Bel Air's engine caught fire at the end of a cruise in a K Mart parking lot.

Her late husband, Joe — he was 20 when they married, she was 15, and they stayed together for 49 years, 3 months and 20 days — popped into the store, bought a toolkit and some electrical tape, and worked enough wizardry to get them home.

It helps to be mechanically inclined if you're going to own a car whose date of birth is closer to a Ford Model A than to that 2012 Fusion. It also helps to have a talented buddy, or a swarm of them.

Doug Belanger, 59, a retired Chrysler toolmaker from Warren, keeps 13 cars in a 7,000-square-foot garage in the Thumb. "Five miles north of I-69," he said. "Make a right at the tree."

He was on I-696 near Hoover when he hit an undetermined chunk of something-or-other in his baby blue 1975 Olds 98. It missed the left headlight, connected with a few other things, and gave one of his handy friends something to occupy himself with for awhile.

"The problem with these things is, you can't get parts," Belanger said. Or if you can, they're pricey. But that's what insurance is for.

The Hagerty agency, based in Traverse City, has become the first name in protecting classic cars — more than a million of them in the U.S., United Kingdom and Canada.

"Some of the claims are heartbreaking," said company vice-president Angie Gallo.  "Some are maybe slightly humorous," but only down the road.

Picture, for example, a man detailing a 1969 Ford Mustang in his garage. Picture him bonding with his 4-year-old son. Picture him losing track of the lad for a moment, and the young sprite finding a wire brush: "Look, Daddy, I'm cleaning the car!"

"The paint on the entire side was destroyed," Gallo said. "But at the end of the day, it can be repaired, and there's a great story with it."

Gallo has a 1978 MG Midget, a 1966 Mustang and a natural empathy for people who treat their cars like pets.

One couple, she recalled, had a 1967 Camaro that had figured into every significant milestone since their senior prom. Their son totaled it. But they'd purchased what's known as Cherished Salvage coverage, and they were able to keep what was left of the Chevy after it was declared a total loss. 

"Surprisingly," Gallo said, "most of the accidents we see are single-car." There might be a deer involved, or there might be a mouse: a car stored for the winter can be an inviting home for a rodent with a taste for brake hoses.

Hagerty recommends early season safety checks. Some issues, however, are truly beyond prevention.

Gallo said the company took a call Monday from a flash flood victim in Pennsylvania who owns six collectible cars.

With 15 minutes' notice, he was able to move two Mustangs and a 1972 Ford Bronco to higher ground. But the water claimed a 1969 Corvette, a 1972 Chevelle and a 1965 Chevrolet C-10 pickup, and he wanted to make a claim.

He was calling from the roof of his house while he waited to be rescued. The man needed a boat — but he loves his cars.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn