From Detroit to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, a love story about a beautiful Ford dunesmobile and the men who loved her.

Featured in the July 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy. 

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.

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.

Summer, 2012. No. 9 is rolling again—from Glen Haven, down M-109 and onto M-22—as a featured part of Glen Arbor’s Fourth of July Parade. Frank is behind the wheel and he’s been tearing up since he drove past the Mobile pump in front of the old Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile office. Under its shiny hood, 9 is running like the fine-tuned machine she is.

But that, says Frank is not what he was thinking about as he drove past the cheering parade crowd—grinning at the callouts from people who remembered, or had heard of, the dunesmobile. No, Frank had history and connections and memories of people playing through his mind. “I thought about all the men who had driven this car. That’s what I thought about,” he says of that drive.

Family Movie: The Warnes Behind the Camera

Car No. 9 seems to fuel serendipity. Check out this series of coincidences: Justin Warnes, the young staff videographer at Hagerty Classic Boat and Car Insurance who was assigned to make a video for the company about No. 9 is a great nephew of Louis Warnes on his maternal grandfather’s side. On his maternal grandmother’s side, Justin and McKeel Hagerty are second cousins—a fact Justin didn’t know until he was interviewing for the job. Justin worked on the video “Finding Number 9” on and off over the course of a year. “I feel honored and proud to tell this piece of the story,” he says. The company uses the video as a display piece at car shows and it plays on the Hagerty YouTube channel. Watch it below.

The Man Who Shot Car No. 9

No. 9 the postcard, circa 1950, was taken by Fred Dickinson who photographed the dunes extensively for decades, beginning in 1938. Dickinson, a friend of the Warneses, took the photo using a Graflex camera set on a tripod, then printed the image from a transparency. A company in New York turned the image into a postcard. The names of the family in the car have long since been lost, and while there has been some dispute over the driver’s identity, Carl Andresen recalls driving the car up for the photo shoot for Louis Warnes. And besides, he adds: “It looks like Carl.”

Dickinson’s daughter, Grace, markets her father’s photos (including the No. 9 postcard shown below) as prints and posters. For more info:

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowksi