Of the nearly 350 classic cars registered for the 13th annual Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti, Michigan, something like 50 of them were Hudsons. That only makes sense -- 2009 marks the 100th anniversary of the Hudson Motor Car Company.
Only five of those nearly 350 cars at the Orphan show were Coles, yet this year also marks the centennial of the Cole Motor Car Company.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of Joseph Jarrett Cole’s car company, which the successful carriage salesman founded in 1909 but which ceased production in 1925, the year J.J. Cole died at the age of 56. Or, perhaps like me, you’d seen Cole on the list of cars that paced the Indianapolis 500 (a Cole V8 paced the race in 1924), but then forgot about the brand, which produced only 40,717 vehicles, of which only 75 are known to survive.
But the Cole, especially the 7-passenger, 1916 model 860 Touring owned by Terry Cole of Holbrook, Pennsylvania, exemplifies the spirit of the Orphan show, which is staged by the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum and which has grown into the largest and most significant annual gathering of orphan vehicles in the country.
In case you’re wondering, an orphan is a vehicle produced by an American brand no longer in business, or by a foreign brand which no longer offers its vehicles to American consumers. The one exception is the Chevrolet Corvair, because it was produced in nearby Willow Run.
Terry Cole got interested in the Cole brand because he’s related to J.J. Cole. Both are descendents of an Englishman who immigrated to the Maryland colony in the 1680s, though J.J.’s branch of the family later moved to Indiana while Terry’s left Maryland for Pennsylvania.
Terry spent 25 years looking for a Cole, and when he finally found one, it was nothing more than a collection of some 2000 separate pieces. The car had been parked in 1929 and had stayed in storage until 1950, when it was purchased but almost immediately was put back into storage until 1993, when its owner, now in his 70s, took it apart in anticipation of its restoration.
The owner died before the reconstruction process got started. Terry Cole acquired the car and two years ago he and a friend started to reassemble it.
Fittingly, that’s pretty much what J.J. Cole’s company did. Cole wasn’t a manufacturer. It didn’t produce any components. Instead, J.J. went out and bought the best components from various automotive suppliers and assembled them into what today we’d call luxury cars. Cole was among the first to offer a V8 engine and balloon tires, and cars such as Terry’s 860 had an on-board air compressor so you could refill those tires rather than be stranded by the side of the road.
Unlike J.J.’s assembly plant crew, it took Terry Cole and his friend quite a while to put those 2000 pieces together. In fact, they finished only recently, with the car making its first public appearance in some 80 years at the Orphan show.
Before turning our attention from Coles back to Hudsons, we have to mention yet another Cole, Leroy Cole of Goodrich, Michigan. While Leroy is not related to the J.J. or Terry, he has been the leader in the effort to find those 75 surviving Cole cars and making sure they find good garages. Leroy had his 1923 Cole 890 Coupe on display at the Orphan show.
“Leroy has kept this alive,” acknowledged Margaret Gavit, J.J. Cole’s great granddaughter, who was proud to see several of her ancestor’s cars parked side by side at the show.
Though a very low-key and basically local event, the Orphan Car Show is gaining a national reputation. Even though it’s held the same weekend as the prestigious Greenwich Concours d’Elegance, among those bringing cars this year were Myron Vernis, of Ohio’s prestigious Glenmoor Gathering concours and a participant last year at Pebble Beach, and Martin Swig, founder of the California Mille.
Swig got so into the Hudson centennial that he went online, found a 1949 Hudson Commodore 6, spent an hour on the phone with its owner, negotiated to buy the car and had it shipped, sight-unseen, from the East Coast to Michigan, where he saw it for the first time the day before he displayed it at the Orphan show.
Here’s the kicker: After the show, Swig spent the night in Michigan, then got behind the wheel of his newly acquired 60-year-old car, and headed home, driving across Michigan, taking the ferry across Lake Michigan, and then turning north to follow historic U.S. Route 2 all the way to the West Coast.
Like Terry Cole, Martin Swig exemplifies the spirit of the Orphan show, for that matter, of all true classic car collectors.
Mark Your Calendar
20 – Kruse Smokey Mountain, Kruse at Boston, Mecum at St. Paul, Minnesota
26-27 – Mecum Bloomington Gold at St. Charles, Illinois
10-12 – Kruse at San Jose
17-18 – Mecum at Des Moines
24-25 – Kruse at Denver
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