“Some people just don’t believe it,” says Art French, when he tells them that Ann Arbor once had a namesake automobile. But the proof is in his garage, parked next to his Buick sedan. On a snowy January day at his home on Warren Rd., he pulls back a cloth cover to reveal the gleaming light gray 1911 Ann Arbor Convertible Car–one of only seven sold by the short-lived Huron River Manufacturing Company. With three rows of buttoned leather seats, a retractable black top, a lantern attached to each side, and a classy script logo on the front grille, it is the last remaining of its kind.

When he got the car in 1996, it wasn’t in such pristine condition. His cousin, Ben French, had bought it in 1965 for $4,500 at an auction in Chelsea, and Ben’s wife, Joan, says it “sat in our carport exposed to the elements and critters,” coming out only for the occasional parade. After Ben died, Joan gave the car to Art, knowing he’d long admired it.

According to a 1988 Observer article by Louis Schafer, designer David Chipman envisioned “an entirely new style of automobile … a convertible car which combines a capable motor truck with a commodious touring car.” Schafer wrote that a confectioner, a plumber, and a saloon owner were among the buyers. The saloon owner removed its two bench seats to make deliveries, and on weekends and holidays he’d put the seats back in and use it as “a pleasure car for his family and friends.” The few records for Art’s vehicle show it was originally purchased by a Northville family, and later was owned by service station owner Ted Balmer.

According to a boosterish write-up in the Ann Arbor Times News, the Ann Arbor car was “a thing of utility and beauty, and a joy to the businessman and his family.” But though it was originally advertised at $975, high labor and shipping costs pushed the actual selling price closer to $2,000–woefully uncompetitive with Henry Ford’s rugged, versatile Model T.

French, now seventy-five, saw the car “as a project for me and my son to work on together.” But after realizing the job was beyond his skill set, he entrusted it to a local restorer. The work took about seven years–and an untold dollar amount. (He says his late wife, Kathy, paid the bills–and “I never asked, and she never told me” how much they were.) Since its restoration, French has entered the car in about a dozen shows–and in fair weather, he doesn’t hesitate to take it on pleasure rides. He can gun it “up to twenty-five miles per hour–going downhill with a tailwind,” he laughs.

Like his car, Art French was born in Ann Arbor and stuck around. He’s lived in only two houses: “three miles south of the courthouse and three miles north of the courthouse.” He grew up with his German mother and Scottish father–both native Ann Arborites–and a sister in a house on Packard and Rosewood. The home also served as headquarters for French’s Insurance, which his father started in the mid-1930s. It was a neighborhood where kids were free to roam and play and “mothers fed each other’s kids.” He’s sorry later generations haven’t had the same experience. “I wish people weren’t so scared–there was no fear like there is today.”

French went to Stone School, then considered “a country school,” on to Tappan, and graduated from Ann Arbor High in 1958, when “the ‘Pioneers’ was just our nickname!” he says. He took some business classes at U-M and joined his father’s company–a decision that he says “just came naturally”–before he signed up for the Air Force Reserves out of the Selfridge base during the Vietnam war. His mother and, later, his wife also worked for the insurance agency. “It paid the bills,” he says. “It put steak on the table.”

Although Ann Arbor is home, he’s traveled to Germany “more times than I can count ’em,” most often to visit his wife’s cousins who live in the Black Forest region. Kathy was 100 percent German–and although he jokes he speaks only “enough to get something to eat and a place to stay,” his German heritage has been central in his life. He recently retired after thirty-six years as president of the Schwaben Verein–an all-male Ann Arbor organization founded in 1888 by German immigrants, who then made up at least one-third of the city’s population. With about seventy-five members today, the social and philanthropic group continues to celebrate German heritage, including a Bockbierfest on March 7 (see Events).

French passed the Schwaben Verein presidency on to longtime vice president John Jarvis, whose grandfather founded German Park in 1938 (John’s brother Wally is German Park’s president). Jarvis admits the first time he met French, “I wasn’t too sure I liked him … he was abrupt and gruff.” But as he grew to “know him and appreciate his leadership,” Jarvis realized there was “no issue that would come up that would faze him.” One major issue during French’s presidency was the decision more than a decade ago to sell historic Schwaben Halle, the group’s headquarters building on Ashley Street.

Art and Kathy met at that hall when she knocked on the back door looking for her mother. Although it took him over a year to ask her out, they married not too long after that first date–when Art was thirty-six and Kathy was forty. Three years later they had their only child, a son, Chandler.

Art accepted his father-in-law’s offer to build a home “in his garden” on a couple acres–despite worrying that his wife might “run next door to cry to her parents whenever we had a problem.” But he says the arrangement worked well and his in-laws were good neighbors. French sold his business to the Aprill Agency in 2007, the same year Kathy died of a heart attack during the couple’s vacation in St. Bart’s. Since then he keeps a busy social calendar, meeting friends at Fraser’s, Washtenaw Dairy, Metzger’s, and Knight’s–where he enjoys a weekly dinner with a group that includes friends from Ann Arbor High.

In his dining room, surrounded by beer steins, collectible plates, and German figurines, he pulls out a snapshot of his son. The photo shows him at age six or seven, dressed in lederhosen and dancing at a German Park picnic. Chandler went to college at Lake Superior State, fell in love, and now lives in Sault Ste. Marie. Art sees him and his grandson every couple months.

As for his car, his goal is simply to “keep it running and keep using it.” One day he hopes to pass it on to his son and eventually his grandson. There’s not a market for it, “unless it’s someone like Jay Leno, who wants it to want it.” For now, just like its owner, the car will continue to call Ann Arbor home.