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Motor Show at Fort Wayne offers one-of-a-kind look at Detroit history

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — In its fifth year, the Motor Show at Historic Fort Wayne has come quite a ways from its humble beginnings.

While some 200-plus classic cars were scheduled to make at least brief appearances at the show on Sunday, the fort's first effort attracted just one vehicle, organizers said.

"That guy walked out with every trophy we had," joked Tom Berlucchi, chairman of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition.

Three generations of Gambinos, from top left, Todd with his father, Sam, a pinstriper of cars since 1956, and son, Chris, 13, in front of Todd's 1953 Ford Sunliner at the fifth annual Motor Show at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit on Aug. 11, 2019.  Todd and Sam attended a car show at Historic Fort Wayne in 1989 and 1990 and thought it would be fun to come back.
(Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Since 2001, the coalition's corps of volunteers has raised money and operated the fort. The motor show was presented in partnership with two car clubs, SuspectS Motor Club, and Roadents Car Club. While guests paid $5 to enter, people exhibiting their classic cars paid $20.

And so an event that brought in beer money in its earliest days now hauls in thousands for the crumbling fort, or about one-third of the $50,000-or-so a year it runs on, said Bob Hovansian, lead preservation carpenter for the fort and a co-chair of Sunday's Motor Show.

But the motor show serves more than a financial purpose; it's a means to lure visitors.

Kim Davidson of Detroit kneeled, stepped back and twisted herself to get just the right angle. On her cellphone, she was shooting pictures of an old Mercedes that was as much rust as painted metal, as much a piece of art as a means of getting to Point B. 

Hosting a car show on the fort's grounds "connects the two" elements of the city's history, Davidson said.

"(Guests are) going to see the cars, and then they get out and see the tunnels and the old buildings, and look around," she said.

The Woodward Dream Cruise will celebrate its 25th anniversary Saturday in Oakland County. In the run-up to the cruise, a number of related events have popped up on thoroughfares in recent years, including Gratiot on the east side and Telegraph on the west side.

The Motor Show offers guests a look at two Detroit's unique contributions to American military history — some 900,000 soldiers passed through it between the Civil War and Vietnam, Hovansian said — and to American automotive history.

Detroit famously "put the world on wheels" in the early 1900s. A century later, automotive companies and their suppliers remain major employers in the region. Many people's livelihoods in southeast Michigan owe to the automobile.

Car culture 

August is the only month that historical vehicles outfitted with historical plates can be driven on the roads for routine transportation, according to the Michigan Secretary of State office. Not just for car shows or meetings of car lovers, but to pick up the grandkids or get groceries.

The warm months are when Metro Detroit celebrates its car culture most, and that affinity will only deepen next year as the North American International Auto Show moves from January to June.

Historical researcher and tour director David Jamroz, left, gives a tour during the fifth annual Motor Show at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit on Aug. 11, 2019.

Matt Grigsby, 37, of Wayne said he didn't fully appreciate his white 1959 Ford Thunderbird when his father passed on the vehicle he drove in high school to his then-teenage son. It took him about a decade to grasp the gravity of the gift, and another decade to invest in getting it show-ready. To an extent, it is. The vehicle has no windows on the driver or passenger side as yet.

Even then, it was "not until this past year" he was able to put any real money into the vehicle. 

"My wife said I could spend some money on it if I got it into the Autorama last year," Grigsby said. "I said, 'OK, challenge accepted.'" It's been a couple divorces, a barn fire, all kinds of stuff."

On either side of the vehicle, just behind quarter-windows, the Thunderbird features a quote from the late writer Hunter S. Thompson, in red text: "Faster, faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death."  

He "didn't win any trophies or anything," but the investment of time and money, along with the "nods and thumbs-up" from passersby, fostered an appreciation of the gift and what it represents some 60 years after it first hit the road. 

A new life for the fort?

Area politicians have made grumbles in recent months about turning Historic Fort Wayne into a national park. Hovansian said officials with the National Park Service have visited and surveyed the site in recent months. 

"Fort Wayne suffers from the fact that it was never an active fort, where it was attacked or people fired shots in anger," Hovansian said. "But they've taken interest lately, and expressed interest in combining with River Raisin National Battlefield Park."

If the feds assume control of the site, it would get a needed "infusion of money," Hovansian said. The facility has a $200 million need for repairs, he said, due to "40 years of deferred maintenance" that its modest annual haul in donations can't even chip away at. 

While volunteers give their time and raise the money it takes to accommodate some 23,000 visitors per year, its leaders feel many more people could take advantage of the resource. In the 1980s, more than 90,000 visitors pass through the fort each year.

Nowadays, "when I tell people I'm going to work at Fort Wayne, they ask me why I'm working in Indiana," Hovansian said.

Logistics have become a challenge of late, as land reserved for the coming Gordie Howe Bridge between Detroit and Windsor means that guests can only use detours to reach its gate, as the straight-shot road, Livernois, is fenced off.

This means drivers must overshoot the facility to the east or the west, drive toward the riverfront, and double back. One street in southwest Detroit, Military, had train barriers down on both sides, forcing drivers to maneuver through them.

"Now we're landlocked," Berlucchi said, between the forthcoming bridge north of the fort, the river south of it, and Zug Island to the west. 

While more than a dozen buildings on the 90-acre site, which pose safety hazards, need to come down, Berlucchi believes expansion of the fort's learning opportunities is viable, and hopes to open a museum on the site. 

Tours went on as usual with the car show Sunday. The fort also hosts school tours, weddings and even overnight stays for youth groups. 

"It's not a museum. This is your history," Berlucchi said. "You can touch it, you can feel it. This is where it happened."

Berlucchi is a tireless steward of the facility, who can recite even the arcana of window design or material sourcing of the national landmark off the top of his head. 

For years, blight in the neighborhood would scare off guests from the suburbs, Hovansian said. By now, much of it has been eliminated. 

"When they get here, and they get to see the place, they come back," Hovansian said. "We just have to get people in that first time."