Northern Michigan: 1948. Detroit was rebounding from World War II, and automobiles, not bomber planes, were once again rolling off the assembly lines. Among the cars: 10 shiny black Ford convertibles, headed north through the heart of the mitt, past grazing dairy cows, panfish lakes and trout streams, through deep green forests and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them towns, to one of the tiniest of them all, Glen Haven, set on the Lake Michigan shore in the shadow of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
The vehicles were paragons of the company Henry Ford founded, right down to their whitewalls, silky wooden trim and impeccable leather interiors. But these 10 cars were different. They didn’t have radios or heaters and they were outfitted with balloon tires—just the way Louis and Marion Warnes, owners of Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile Rides, ordered them. Detroit was again making what it was built for, gas rationing was over, Americans were back to the business of vacations, and the Warneses were trading their hodge-podge of dune cars for the sleek new fleet.
Luckily for a Detroit boy by the name of Frank Hagerty, his family’s vacations Up North hadn’t ceased during the war years. Thanks to the wartime economy, they improved. Frank recalls the day his father came home from his work as an automotive paint salesman and said to Frank’s mother, Evelyn: “Well Ev, I’m going to buy the piece of property on Glen Lake with what I did today. I sold three tank cars of olive drab paint to the bomber plants.”
That summer the Hagerty family exchanged camping gear for their very own lake cottage. Through the quiet war years when tourism slowed to a trickle, young Frank got to know the characters and places of the Sleeping Bear Dunes area in living color. From the old guy who hid from his wife’s cast iron frying pan behind the bar at Glen Arbor’s Art’s Tavern to Sparky the Leelanau County deputy sheriff who made his rounds on the quiet, dusty roads in an old green Studebaker, his wife quietly crocheting in the back, a rifle over her knee, Frank the summer kid fell in love with Up North. And as many times as he could each summer, he snagged a ride on the Warneses’ dunesmobile rides. As jaw-dropping Lake Michigan and Glen Lake vistas rolled by, Frank sat on the edge of his seat waiting for the driver to crest a dune and gun the engine. When that happened, the car soared through thin air. Frank remembered that thrill long after he’d gone home to Detroit for the school year, and even long, long after that.
Frank beat it down to Glen Haven in 1948, the year he got his driver's license, to apply for a job as a dune car driver. There was prestige in working for the Warneses’ well-run operation, and over the years, plenty of young men—some 115 in all—took their turn behind the wheel of a dunesmobile. Louis had begun his career as a chauffeur for Marion’s father, D.H. Day, a prominent Michigan lumber baron whose operations were based in Glen Haven, and Louis treated his dune cars and his staff like a chauffeurs brigade.
Dune car drivers wore dress pants, white shirts and ties. Dune car drivers wiped down their cars after a ride, right down to the tires. Dune car drivers were attentive to their passengers (no radios in those cars!), acting as tour guides as they drove past the original knoll the Indians named the Sleeping Bear. Dune car drivers had a well-rehearsed routine that included stopping so that passengers could climb out of the car and dig through a couple of inches of sandy insulation until they found snow in the summer. Dune car drivers always caught a little air along the trip to thrill the kids.
Sure as shootin’, those drivers were all spit and polish, yes ma’m, no ma’m, by day. But local legend has it that after the sunset tour, the last ride of the day, the ties came off and the drivers partied like rock stars. A favorite ritual was to head out to that sand cliff at night with a bunch of beer and with tires soaked in kerosene. One match turned a tire into a rolling torch that teetered its way pell-mell down that sandy scree to fizzle out in the lake below. Yeeha!
Louis fired all of his drivers several times a summer, then hired them all back the next day.
The lure for young Frank Hagerty was understandable. But there were more than just the dunes and the men he would work with that summer of 1948. There were those spanking-new Fords. And if Frank had a permanent case of Sleeping Bear sand on his brain, he also had Detroit running in his blood. His grandfather had been a bodyguard for Henry Ford, and Frank was introduced to the auto icon on a number of occasions. The kid understood the connection between genius, power and history—in both the man and his cars. Even as a youngster, he just got it.
Diz Dean, a dune car driver and Louis Warnes’s second in command, hired Frank. For one week in the summer of 1948, the young driver showed up for work in Glen Haven sporting his flawless white shirt, neat tie and pressed khaki pants. The sweet, fatty scent of bacon and pancakes hot on the griddle at Sleeping Bear Inn across the road melted into the morning fog off Lake Michigan. Gulls wheeled and screeched over fishing boats putting from the pier out to Sleeping Bear Point, where fishermen cast their lines into the lake, right through the sandy face reflected in the mirror-water. And Frank, assigned No. 9 from the new fleet, climbed into that big shiny Ford, purred it out of its garage and parked it in front of the crisp, pale yellow-painted dune car headquarters. There, he filled ’er up from the Mobile pumps next to the porch and waited for his passengers.
The magic ended all too soon. At the end of the week Louis called Frank into the office and asked him if he had his chauffeur’s license. “I had my driver’s license, but not my chauffeur’s license,” Frank recalls, still, after all these decades, with a blink of disappointment. “I wasn’t old enough for a chauffeur’s license.”
Reluctantly, Louis let Frank go—and the kid started a lawn mowing business that stood him in good stead throughout his teen years.
For the next three summers a driver named John Travis took over Car No. 9. At least once on John’s day off, Carl Andresen, one of Louis’s substitute drivers, took the wheel of No. 9. Just as it had been for Frank, John and Carl found the combination of a powerful new Ford and Sleeping Bear summers potent; a union you’d remember your entire life. John, for one, still has a photo of the car hanging over his mantel at his home in Northport.