2007-11-01 / Front Page

Car Made First Crossing of Bridge in '57

The long journey of Mr. Carter's Chevy...
By Karen Gould

George Ferris of Grand Rapids and a group of friends have restored the first private car to cross the Mackinac Bridge November 1, 1957. The 1951 Chevy wagon is a permanent exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Standing by the vehicle, Mr. Ferris points to the transparent window screen that features an oversized photograph of the bridge. George Ferris of Grand Rapids and a group of friends have restored the first private car to cross the Mackinac Bridge November 1, 1957. The 1951 Chevy wagon is a permanent exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Standing by the vehicle, Mr. Ferris points to the transparent window screen that features an oversized photograph of the bridge. If Al Carter had his way in 1970, his Chevy Styleline De Luxe would have been dropped into the Straits from the deck of the Mackinac Bridge. A fitting memorial, thought the Chicago man, since the 1951 vehicle was the first private car to cross the bridge November 1, 1957.

Environmentalists objected, and now the green station wagon, with its original Illinois license plate, 18930, is parked just inside the entrance of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Behind it, a dramatic picture of the bridge covers a transparent window screen more than 18 feet tall.

"The museum," said Curator of Collections and Preservation Marilyn Merdzinski, "is excited to have been able to put this very special automobile out on permanent display in the fun and engaging "Collecting A to Z - A is for Automobiles" display at its downtown Van Andel Museum Center, where its legacy as the first passenger car to drive over the bridge in 1957 is celebrated."

A blanket covers the worn seat of Al Carter's Chevy Styleline De Luxe station wagon and the open door gives visitors a glimpse inside the 1951 vehicle. Period items, including a map and camera, were added to the exhibit. A blanket covers the worn seat of Al Carter's Chevy Styleline De Luxe station wagon and the open door gives visitors a glimpse inside the 1951 vehicle. Period items, including a map and camera, were added to the exhibit. Initially, the car was loaned to the museum by the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) July 22, 1970, until a museum could be built in St. Ignace. The move was made "providing the Grand Rapids Public Museum would consider the vehicle on loan and return same to the Authority upon request," the MBA's meeting minutes recorded.

Ten years later, museum director W.D. Frankforter asked for the car become a permanent part of the museum's collection. Responding in a letter, Larry Rubin, executive secretary of the MBA, said he would make the recommendation to the board.

"Of course," wrote Mr. Rubin, "by this time we anticipated that we would have had our own museum here at the Straits, but it has not come to pass."

The board approved the gift September 26, 1980. Former-governor Murray Van Wagoner, who was on the Authority at the time, made the motion that the car be given to the museum with two stipulations: The Bridge Authority retain the right of first refusal should the museum decide to sell or dispose of the car, and the Authority can temporarily borrow the vehicle.

The car, said George Ferris of Grand Rapids, a museum volunteer, remained in a museum storage garage for about 20 years.

Then in 1995, Mr. Ferris and his friend, Wes Myrick, planned to return to St. Ignace to display the car at the 20th anniversary of the St. Ignace Antique Automobile Show.

"We hauled it out after lunch one day," he said of the six-cylinder Chevy with a three-speed manual transmission. "We had it running in 20 minutes."

Almost 38 years after its first trip, the car was back on the bridge, heading north for the St. Ignace car show.

Giving a brief history of the car to a bridge toll collector, Mr. Ferris hoped for a free crossing.

"I tried to talk them out of the fare at the bridge," said Mr. Ferris, "but they wouldn't do it. I said, 'Hey, here's the first car over the bridge.' They just stared at me.'"

He paid the toll.

At the end of the auto show, the men returned to Grand Rapids and the car was moved to a storage garage in St. Ignace, as hopes continued for a local museum that would house the vehicle.

Acouple of years later, Mr. Ferris was having lunch with his car buff buddies when the conversation turned to returning the car to Grand Rapids and restoring the old vehicle.

"Let's get that thing out for the 50th anniversary," he recalls one of the men saying. "We're going to be too old by that time, let's get it out now."

The conversation began a yearlong volunteer restoration project. The museum offered $1,600 for parts and chrome replacement. Donations, including tires, also helped reduce the project's cost.

"That car," he said, "was totally worn out when we got a hold of it."

The plan was to restore the vehicle to a the condition of a good used car in the 1950s, similar to what it might have been when driven across the bridge, said Mr. Ferris, a retired high school science and mathematics teacher, who coordinated the project. The goal was to restore the vehicle to look good for the museum display.

"It did not have to be a drivable car," said Mr. Ferris.

The restoration work was done, he said, mostly by students at the Kent Skills Center, now called the Kent Career and Tech Center.

A lot of body work needed to be done on the car, the chrome had to be replaced, and the car received a fresh coat of paint. Mr. Ferris was able to locate chrome that was in better condition from a vehicle he found in Montana.

"I didn't want it to look like brand new chrome," he said. "It won't look right."

The car has been disabled and was not mechanically restored, said Mr. Ferris, who performed the task himself, having safety concerns over the structural soundness of the vehicle. He doesn't want anyone taking it on the road in the future.

Early this year, Mr. Myrick, of Belmont, helped Ed Reavie of St. Ignace find 50 years of convertibles for the anniversary celebration of the Mackinac Bridge in July. A car buff for years, Mr. Myrick has attended every St. Ignace car show since the first in 1976, and has won awards for many of his own vehicles entered in the show. When he began looking for convertibles, he came up with the idea to bring Mr. Carter's Chevy back to St. Ignace for the celebration, however, details including transportation costs and insurance issues became road blocks to the plan.

"I felt bad that it wasn't there," Mr. Myrick said of the car. "That's an understatement, really."

While the museum promotes the car as having covered more than 300,000 miles, Mr. Ferris said there is no way of knowing for sure the exact number. One thing he will say is that on the side of the driver's car door is a grease service sticker from Anchorage, Alaska.

To set the time period for museum visitors, the car was outfitted with items from the 1950s. A camera sits on the dashboard, a state map lies on the seat, and a blanket covers the driver's seat, which is completely worn, said Mr. Ferris. Stacked in the back of the station wagon are a souvenir banner from Mackinac Island, a sleeping bag, and other camping equipment.

"Al Carter is a real character," said Mr. Ferris. "That car has been first in a lot of things."

Born on the 4th of July in 1915, Mr. Carter was a drummer, Cook County deputy assessor, real estate broker, and insurance broker. One of his hobbies was collecting "firsts." He was the first to drive on many Chicago expressways, including the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Dan Ryan, Stevenson, the Chicago Skyway, and I-94 between Chicago and Detroit. He was the first paying customer at many world fairs, and retraced nine historic trails and roads. Included in a long list of other firsts, Mr. Carter was the first passenger through the St. Lawrence Seaway, first visitor on top of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and first general public visitor on the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. He died in 1987 and is buried in Chicago, where his tombstone lists dozens of "firsts" he accomplished in his lifetime.

Mr. Carter's car can be seen at the Grand Rapids Public Museum on Pearl Street.

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