'Dying breed' of enthusiasts celebrate car culture at Eastern Market
Detroit — The parking lot of Eastern Market's Shed 5 turned, for a few hours on Sunday, into a living museum, as a self-described "dying breed" of car enthusiasts gathered for Motors at the Market, a celebration of classic cars, and a chance for their owners to fellowship.
"Detroit is at the heart of automotive history," said Diane Flis-Schneider of America's Automotive Trust, a nonprofit "with a mission to be at the center of a movement to secure America’s automotive heritage," its website says. "This is where the automobile started, and this is where we should be."
The trust owns LeMay – America's Car Museum, in Tacoma, Washington. It has offices in Detroit as well and keeps three cars in the area, stored at Lincoln Ford in Troy.
The trust put on Motors at the Market, Flis-Schneider said, because "we're trying to grow the car culture."
The event was first held in 2017, and skipped a year in 2018 before returning this year.
"Even though we have a museum, we believe cars should be driven, not just left in a museum," Flis-Schneider said, before taking a reporter on a spin around Eastern Market in a red 1961 Chrysler 300G.
"You get more looks in one of these old cars than you do in a new Corvette, trust me."
The trust's educational arm is the RPM Foundation — RPM stands for restoration, preservation, and mentorship — which offers students scholarships so they can train in the skills necessary for repair work on classic cars.
The shows, the education and the camaraderie fostered by both are meant to grow the ranks of both car-lovers and a repair corps competent to fix them.
"It's great to have these cars, but who's going to work on them?" Flis-Schneider said. "We need the elderly people to teach young people how to do this work, or the only place you're going to learn how to do that will be a YouTube video."
Dozens of classic car owners popped their hoods and let passers-by in on their passion, and hundreds of car lovers happy to be allowed in. They'd ask the owners what year the car was built, what's been done to it, how long the owner has had it.
"Just enthusiasts enjoying each others' cars," Flis-Schneider said. And though she insists the car culture that people partook in Sunday "will never go away," there is a concern among owners, many of whom appeared to be eligible for AARP memberships, that their joy isn't being shared by younger counterparts.
"We're a dying breed," said Jon Milantoni, 55, of St. Clair Shores. "We've been into these cars since we were young. We've just always had them. We love the styling of them. We love the old school looks."
Milantoni has owned some 65 classic cars in his time, but sees the car culture dwindling around him, from both ends.
It's not just that young people aren't as interested in classic cars, he said, but elderly car lovers themselves who sometimes come to prefer the ease of modern technology.
"Guys get into their 70s and they don't wanna work — and these do take some maintenance," Milantoni said. "And now it's hard to find people who know how to work on them. Everything's computer this, computer that. They start selling cars off."
Milantoni displayed his aquamarine 1967 Buick Special next to the artisan turquoise 1966 Chevy Caprice owned by longtime friend Mike DeBacker, 54, of Macomb Township. Their vehicles appeared to be the same color, side-by-side, though their owners insisted they were different.
Milantoni described their vehicles as "six-month cars," meaning they can only be driven about half of the year, usually starting in April or May and ending some time before Thanksgiving.
Mud, road salt and even rain are viewed as non-ideal conditions, and when they appear, the cars remain sheathed and in a garage. Factor in life circumstances and there's not always an abundance of opportunities to take a classic car for a spin.
"It was a 12-month vehicle in 1966," DeBacker said of his car. But five decades later, they're only brought out certain times of the year, often on special occasions. "Big events, church, car shows, that's about it."
Flis-Schneider said that classic car ownership is "more affordable and obtainable than people think," and that a new owner would find themselves welcomed into the fold regardless of the condition of their classic car.
Even if it needs work, she said, other owners are often well-versed in their basic maintenance needs, and eager to provide guidance.
"We're always preaching the gospel of the classic car," she said, but these days it's tough to find young people who will listen.
"We always took our kids out in them, but they never showed a whole lot of interest," Milantoni said.
Nor do the young people who stop by shows like Motors at the Market express much interest in the how-to of it.
"We don't get a lot of that," he said. "That's the problem."