Neither The Election Nor The Pandemic Can Stop Detroit's Car Culture From Thriving

Illustration for article titled Neither The Election Nor The Pandemic Can Stop Detroits Car Culture From Thriving
Photo: David Tracy

Seventy-Four year old Lewis Emanuel had less than a dollar in his bank account, and just a quarter tank of fuel in his leaky, rusty 2003 Chevy S-10. But somehow, he managed to find a way to show up to a Detroit-area car show on Saturday. It is a testament to the power of car culture, even during a time of political, economic, and social unrest.

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I was a bit nervous when I set up Saturday’s Detroit-area car show for Jalopnik readers. Joe Biden had just been named president against the wishes of millions of Americans (millions are happy with the outcome, but the point is that the nation is divided), U.S. coronavirus cases had surged to their highest daily case-count ever, many people remained either without a job or furloughed, and tensions over social justice remain extremely high. In some ways, the country seems like a powder-keg, and as I had just returned from Germany a week prior, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

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What I learned, though, is that car culture trudges on even in the face of adversity, and that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

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Photo: David Tracy

As I wrote in my announcement post, I had planned to show up in my 1985 Jeep J10, but the car is struggling to make power under load, and a new accelerator pump, fuel pump, and changes to the ignition timing and fuel mixture weren’t enough to mend the ailment. So I showed up late in my “Holy Grail” manual Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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What I found upon my arrival surprised me, especially given that I’d only written a single post on Jalopnik to get the word out.

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There was a surprising number of cars in great variety. A rare TVR Chimera showed off its gorgeous red paint; a sweet white BMW E36 graced the Walmart parking lot with its huge wing; a gorgeous Dodge Viper GTS rested before taking a final stroll before Detroit’s salty winter; a Ferrari Testarossa owned by a West Point grad awed everyone with its strakes; an Austin Mini added requisite cuteness; a hoodless W123 Mercedes exuded Jalopy charm.

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In classic Detroit fashion, a nice Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser and beautifully-maintained Dodge Shadow also joined in on the fun.

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Such examples of well-maintained “normal” American cars are staples of any good Detroit show. Also a staple is an old Ford Model-T derivative (with a Chevy cylinder head, in this case) driven by a man in old-timey garb:

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Off to the side of that Model T sat a rusty 2003 Chevrolet S-10. It may not seem like the most fitting for a car enthusiast gathering, but it belonged there more than any other vehicle, simply because of who was behind the wheel.

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His name is Lewis Emanuel, and on Friday, shortly after I mentioned my plans for a small Saturday car cruise, he sent me this email telling me why he would not be able to attend:

While your Saturday Woodward cruise is very enticing, I’ll have to take a pass this time. My 2003 Chevy S-10 has less than a quarter of a tankful of petroleum distillate and my social security check balance is $0.87 (eighty-seven cents). Besides which, my S-10 has a serious power-steering leak, the automatic transmission is also leaking and the oil pan gasket, too, has developed a leak; the three leaks have combined to limit the usage of the vehicle, so it’s sitting in our parking spot, slowly returning to it’s elemental construction material via corrosion ... Sorry that I willn’t be able to meet up with you ... Good luck and have fun! I enjoy your articles and writing.

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I offered to help the 74 year-old, but he politely declined, citing how important he finds self-sufficiency; I can respect that. “I’ve been more or less self-sufficient for most of my life, (will be non-celebrating my 75th birthday next Friday - d.o.b. 11/13/1946 - thanks to the pandemic),” he told me, “so I think I’ll probably make it for the short time I have left, however long that may be.”

To my surprise, I received an email notification from Emanuel shortly before I arrived at the site of the car gathering on Saturday. “I am in the Walmart (well, probably more like Marshall’s lot), but I’ve forgotten what to look for. Please advise.”

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Eventually, I found Emanuel and his S-10 parked between a JDM Nissan 300ZX and the aforementioned Model T. The Michigander stepped from his truck and introduced himself to me. We chatted about his four-cylinder S-10, which Emanuel loves despite its many leaks, rust holes, and slipping transmission. Then he went around talking with others about cars—a big step for him, as he struggles with social anxiety.

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I emailed and called Emanuel after the event to thank him for participating. “I had a great time and it was a nice change of pace to get outside - both my apartment (pandemic has kept me a virtual “prisoner”, not that I really “mind”) and my “comfort level” (I am agoraphobic and a victim of social anxiety, all of which is ... er, ahem ... limiting, as you may very well imagine ...),” he wrote before thanking me.

In our call this morning, he told me more about how much the show meant to him, and why he’d spent his final dollars to show. up. He discussed how he’s been a car fan since he was just a toddler playing with AMC car models, and he reminisced about the moment his dad brought home a brand new Dodge over 60 years ago. Lewis was just 10 at the time, but that car—which Lewis later learned to drive—left an indelible mark. “I’ve just enjoyed cars my entire life,” Emanuel told me, his tone and words choice clearly communicated an embrace of life’s finality.

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The group of cars gathered in the Walmart parking lot followed me to Woodward Avenue, where we burned some gas before I pulled into an abandoned parking lot. There, random Michiganders taking their prized cars out for one final cruise before storage spotted our little group, and joined in on the fun.

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Check out this awesome Alfa Romeo Milano, which sounded incredible as it accelerated out onto Michigan’s fabled M-1:

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Behold this Extremely Detroit Plymouth Duster:

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Check out this Porsche Spyder replica:

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The Ford GT in the top photo wowed everyone with its perfect Gulf livery. Here’s a little video I took showing some of the cars that drove into the parking lot off of Woodward Avenue on Saturday night:

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The small car cruise meant a lot to me, and I could tell it meant a lot to other participants, too. It was clear that people were stressed out from the election, from the social exile brought about by the global pandemic, and from the uncertainty in our economy.

People at the gathering expressed how they’d been feeling lonely in the past few months, and how this beautiful November day was their first chance to get out and enjoy themselves around (but not too close to) other people.

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Nobody talked about politics and nobody talked about economic uncertainty, because though these things lingered in the background, it was during these few hours on Woodward Avenue that the power of car culture revealed itself.

People discussed how easy it is to replace a clutch on a Ferrari Testarossa, folks talked about how well their old Volvo 240 still hauls loads of lumber without a fuss, enthusiasts chatted about the oil lubrication system in a Model T engine.

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It was a beautiful moment, and a reminder that cars are a great equalizer in this world—something that I myself have forgotten of late. There’s more to life than cars, I’ve learned in the midst of my own struggles this year, but Saturday was a reminder of how uniting these four-wheeled machines can be. And that’s powerful.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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andrewdaisuke
Andrew Daisuke

“Joe Biden had just been named president against the wishes of millions of Americans”

And yet 5 million more of us got our wish granted.