Frank Hagerty Remembers Car # 9

Cut to the turn of the millennium. The National Park Service, now stewards of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the breathtakingly beautiful tawny swales and undulations that Louis had so lovingly watched over, closed the dune rides in 1978. Gradually, the Park Service restored Glen Haven’s enclave of historic buildings. Louis died in 1988 and was buried with the D.H. Day family in Maple Grove cemetery, tucked beside a quiet, forest-fringed stretch of M-109 near the dunes. And until 2006, Marion was alive and strong, and made the pilgrimage daily to water the flowers around her family’s graves.

Meanwhile, Frank Hagerty had gone from mower of lawns, to State Farm Agent, to founder and owner of Hagerty Classic Boat and Car Insurance, a business that he co-founded with his former wife Louise and, with their children, grew into the largest insurer of classic boats and cars in the world. (Son McKeel Hagerty is now the company’s president and CEO.) Over the decades, Frank had taken to riding his motorcycle out from his home and office in Traverse City to Sleeping Bear country, always looping along M-109 to skirt the cemetery where his parents, too, were buried.

One day as he whirred past Maple Grove, he spotted Marion puttering among the graves. He slowed, parked his motorcycle and ambled over to say hello. The two old friends greeted each other and—perched on the old Day family tombstones—got to chatting about Glen Haven history.

After that, Frank timed several drives to Marion’s cemetery schedule. Cruising along, he recalls, “I’d try and think of something new that we hadn’t talked about—about what Glen Haven used to be like.” They’d meet, sit back on the headstones and Marion shared her memories. As lumberman D.H. Day’s youngest daughter, her recollections reached as far back as the lumbering era and included the steamer years when wealthy resorters from Chicago and Detroit debarked from huge boats moored at the Glen Haven wharf.

Those graveyard talks inevitably segued to the dune car era, and that got Frank thinking about Car No. 9. Again. Finding the dune car and restoring it was something Frank had thought about often enough since 1956 when he heard that Louis Warnes had traded the fleet of ’48s to an auto dealer in Traverse City for a set of brand new red and white dune cars. The hearsay by anyone who followed those old cars was that No. 9 was the only one of the original 10 still in existence, at least intact. The rest had been converted to passenger cars and probably junked long ago. But supposedly a collector had purchased No. 9.

For decades, once he got the wherewithal to purchase a collector car and restore it, Frank tried to track down Car No. 9. As if to tease him, an old postcard of No. 9, posed atop the dunes in the summer of 1948, resurfaced as a poster-sized print some years back. One hung on the wall of Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor; Frank couldn’t get a burger there without looking her in the windshield.

But try as he might, Frank couldn’t come up with Car 9’s whereabouts. Until the summer of 2011, when he found himself in a discussion with Jill Cheney, who is active in the Leelanau County Historical Society. She wanted his thoughts on some vintage boats she was dealing with. At the end of their conversation he asked her if by any stretch she’d heard of the whereabouts of Car No. 9. She said, well, yes, she had, that it was in the J & R Vintage Auto Museum in New Mexico, and then produced a brochure to prove it.

How had a Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile ended up 1,700 miles across the country? Remember Carl Andresen, one of the other young drivers who’d been as enamored with those Fords as Frank? Around 20 years ago he moved, winters, to New Mexico where, being a classic car buff, he took a job at J & R. Six years ago, the owner of the museum, Gab Joiner, began looking to acquire a 1948 Ford convertible. Andresen said he might know of a winner. On vacation in Leelanau County in the summer of 2007, he tracked Car 9 to Mike May, an antique car collector in Northport. May had acquired the car in the early 2000s from a Northport cherry farmer, who’d purchased it off the Traverse City used car lot back in the 1950s. The car had been used in the summer, but never driven further from Leelanau County than Traverse City.

Joiner purchased the car and put Andresen in charge of a crew of experts who performed a body-off restoration. “We took the car apart, right down to the last bolt,” Andresen says. The upshot was a restoration of Number 1 condition—meaning that the car is in as good or better shape than when it rolled off the line in 1948.

The dunesmobile proved a big attraction in the museum. But when the call came in about her from Northern Michigan, Joiner, says Andresen, knew she needed to go home.

And the Hagertys were more than ready to get her here. Within days of finding No. 9, McKeel flew to New Mexico to authenticate the car. Frank had told him he’d know it was the car No. 9  if she was radio and heater delete. McKeel called Frank from New Mexico and said simply: “It’s the real thing.”

Father and son decided the most fitting end to, at least this chapter, of the car’s history was to make it a part of their company’s classic car collection. “We are proud to bring the dunesmobile back home to Northern Michigan so future generations can enjoy this part of our local history,” McKeel says.

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