Graveside Classics: Auto Magnates and a Gloomy Day on Woodward Avenue


Is there a more American image than the one above, a late-model Mustang stopped at a traffic light on Woodward Avenue, one of the storied thoroughfares in automotive history?  Upon leaving the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, Dad and I decided to cruise up old Woodward, where we found some evidence of a renaissance, some heartbreaking decay, and some monuments for monumental men.


Detroit is in the midst of constructing a light rail system of sorts, so the Woodward, which was never exactly in fine physical fettle, is now a patent disaster.   If Dad’s Mustang doesn’t have a bent rim, I’ll be shocked out of my socks. Of course, Michigan’s roadway arteries are an unfunny joke statewide, not just in the Motor City.  Nevertheless, the rail system (and the Downtown District) demonstrates that there’s still some life in Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac’s inspiration yet.


Here’s a passing shot of the world famous Durant Building (now Cadillac Place), one-time home of corporate monolith General Motors. Today, it’s a state-owned entity, and one can only explore as far as the main lobby.  Still, there is a sustaining whiff of its latent magnificence.  Today, GM’s home is the Renaissance Center, which was largely financed by Ford, and is situated on the banks of the Detroit River.


Detroit is one of the most frustrating, inspiring, frightening places one can imagine.  The farther from Detroit’s hub one drives, the more complete the destruction becomes.  While many of the ruined historic edifices are elegant even in their death throes, others are graffiti-littered menaces to life and limb.  Detroit’s a living graveyard, a home for zombies, even though there’s hope yet of a revival.  Unfortunately, Detroit was also, for some, the point of embarkation to “put out to sea,” as Tennyson once wrote.


picture courtesy of

Occupying a colossal parcel of land amongst Detroit’s ruins is the home for the remains of famous and forgotten names from America’s automobile industry, Woodlawn Cemetery.   In fact, the men who occupy the four crypts illustrated below were perhaps more responsible for the success of Ford Motor Company than Henry Ford himself. Among the most significant are the Dodge brothers, John and Horace.


No fictional tome could concoct a story as romantic and moving as the story of these rough and tumble siblings.  I highly recommend Charles K. Hyde’s The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motorcars, and the Legacy.  It’s a fine story of a fascinating pair.

The Dodge Brothers’ role in early Ford history is well-trodden academic ground; their shop simply built almost all the parts of various Ford automobiles and shipped them to Ford for assembly.  Their shares of Ford stock made them wealthy men, wealthy enough to separate from Ford and produce their own Dodge Brothers automobiles beginning in 1914.


Henry Ford seemed to have a knack for alienating his business partners and friends.  His son, however, lacked the fortitude of those others due to familial bonds.  Some say this loyalty killed him; nevertheless, Edsel was largely responsible for Ford’s tardy Model T replacement, the beautiful Model A.  Henry, for all his other paternal foibles, trusted Edsel’s eye for styling implicitly.  Edsel didn’t disappoint.


And here, in a monument as humble as the man himself, lies the mortal remains of Edsel Bryant Ford, along with his wife Eleanor.  Little can be said of the man that has not been said, but even in death, he was elegant, with a simple marble stone that belies his earthly wealth.


While Edsel Ford’s name still rings bells, the above stone may leave you cold.  The “C” in C. Harold Wills stood for “Childe,” as in “Childe Harold” from Lord Byron’s long poem.  Apparently, Wills’ mother had a thing for Romantic poetry.  Wills was the metallurgist and engineer behind the Model T’s vanadium steel frame, and a driving force behind the Model T itself.

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He eventually left Ford to produce his own breathtaking, yet money-losing, Wills Sainte-Claire automobile.


A common legend maintains that Wills designed the Ford signature that even today graces the blue oval. Therefore, one may fairly claim that Ford Motor Company may not even be a shadow of its current corporate self if it weren’t for this man.


Another Woodlawn man who perhaps contributed more to Ford than Henry Ford himself was James J. Couzens, who rests high atop a hill in this majestic mausoleum.  Couzens was the guiding financial arm behind the Ford Motor Company until his resignation in 1915.

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His invariable hand lent stability to the infant corporation, and made Couzens fabulously wealthy.  After Ford, he became Detroit’s mayor, and ultimately, a United States Senator, a position he held until his death in 1936.


Thomas Gray famously penned that “the paths to glory lead but to the grave.”  That may be true, but not entirely.  A day in an old cemetery (which is also home to George and Earl Holley of Holley carburetor fame and Roy Chapin of Hudson Motor Car Company fame) may be morbid and disconcerting for some; however, remembering the great men who made a once great city great is one of the foremost honors man can pay; and I’m proud and happy to be a Michiganian, home to these titans, men who have made my life interesting and educational, men of my esteem.  Requiescat in pace.