“There is someone you need to meet,” Bill Martin says. On a cold Sunday morning, the developer and former U-M athletic director ushers me into his Lincoln SUV at the downtown Sweetwaters. We head out Newport and pull into a long driveway. Martin leads me, not toward the house, but to one of the garages. There are three.
Dan Walters is expecting us. Now seventy-two, he used to own an auto body repair shop. Today, he tends his collection of vintage cars and motorcycles. This immaculate garage holds, among others, a 1963 Ford Falcon, a WWII Jeep, and a 1942 Harley-Davidson that’s actually a “caliper copy” of a German BMW. The Milwaukee motorcycle maker “built about a thousand of ’em,” Walters says, “and so did Indian,” another U.S. company. As he understands it, the government was going to buy a lot more until someone did the math.
The motorcycles, Walters says, “cost the army $360, and this” he points to the Jeep, “cost them $520.” And, unlike the motorcycle, the Jeep could “haul four people around, pull a trailer, machine gun, whatever, and you didn’t need special skills to drive it–and you couldn’t fall over if you tried to shoot somebody. So the army told Indian and Harley to pound sand–go away. They did buy from Harley about 80,000 conventional V-twins for courier service.”
Nearby are a green 1906 REO (for R.E. Olds, who also founded Oldsmobile), and a beautiful 1909 Ford Model T that Walters recently bought and that needs attention for “a bit of noise in its motor.”
Martin points out that Walters is working on an even older Ford in another garage, a Model N. He was asked to put it together by a group of enthusiasts calling themselves the Early Ford Registry.
“Out of a bushel basket, literally,” says Martin.
“Floor sweepings,” jokes Walters.
“They had been acquiring pieces for this car for about a decade, and it was kind of stalled,” Walters explains. “I said, ‘Why not?’
“That’s a two-year project. They have been at it for ten, so if I do it in two, I get a hero star.
“The engine and transmission were essentially assembled,” he adds. The rest currently exists as somewhere between 500 and 1,000 parts–not an insurmountable challenge for someone who’s put together about a dozen old Fords. “It gets easier,” Walters says.
“They want to take it to the old car festival at Greenfield Village, and I said, ‘That’s a real possibility. Which one?'”
(It won’t be ready for this year’s fall festival, but maybe in 2016.)
Walters owns another “old beat-up Model T” that he keeps in Florida. And there’s an even earlier Ford, a 1907 Model K, in his third garage.
On the wall is a photo of Walters with auto enthusiast and former Tonight Show host Jay Leno. On an adjacent wall, above a line of historic motorcycles, is a photo of Walters’ daughter, Dana, with race car driver Danica Patrick, whom she spotted at the Monterey airport. Another shows Martin in a Sports Renault, an entry-level race car Walters and Martin built together. “And we both raced it,” Martin says. “The Grand Prix in Detroit. You know, we had a lot of fun.”
Born in Carmel, California, Walters moved here as a child. His dad worked for the former local radio station WPAG, then went into real estate.
“He used to take me to the DIA, Greenfield Village, Detroit Historical Museum–places like that, which I really enjoyed,” Walters recalls. “He imbued in me an interest in automotive culture.”
Walters was just fourteen when he got his first driver’s license, limited to vehicles with no more than five horsepower. “So the first thing I bought was a Whizzer Sportsman [motorcycle], which is a little bitty thing.”
Martin chimes in that he had one of those too when he was younger. His is now “in Casey’s [Tavern], on the wall.”
“They were cheap,” recalls Walters. “I bought this Sportsman from a dealer. It was used, and it cost me $125. Boy, the freedom.”
After high school, while many of his friends were “running off to Harvard and U of M,” he says, “I fiddled around and got a job in a gas station,” Grapp and Reed’s, then on Huron where City Hall is now. He pumped gas and worked on cars. “They gave me a penny and a half [for every gallon pumped], and I think it was fifteen cents for every quart of oil I sold.
“I was honest, but I was making pretty good money. I was getting paid the princely sum of a dollar and a quarter an hour. This is 1960. I was living at home.
“Then I landed in Tuomy Hills,” at Washtenaw and Stadium, “where pumping gas was an art form. Higher-class people. Higher-class cars. Pretty girls. All that stuff.
“From Tuomy Hills I went to work in a garage. I was making six to seven thousand a year. That was what my peer group was making.
“I didn’t mind being greasy. The rest of the world may not want to invite me to their party, but it didn’t matter to me.”
Things got even better when he went to work for the local Ford dealer, then still located downtown. “I worked for him for eleven years,” Walters says. “He fired me twice. I quit twice. Best part about firing, or quitting, was the first three times he really groveled to get me back. And groveling meant money. John Henderson was his name. A colorful lunatic.
“The last time he fired me–by then I was living off Delhi Rd.; my ex-wife had run off too–I had the two kids. He came into the house. He had about three or four guns with him at all times.
“He’s waving one around. The kids are inside having lunch. He is threatening to shoot our dog.”
As Walters tells it, Henderson wanted Walters to resign. “I said, ‘I want you to fire me so I can collect my last paycheck and unemployment.'” Henderson finally agreed to do it his way. A couple hours later he collected his check, cleared out his desk, and went to the unemployment office.
Walters even remembers the cars driven by the plainclothes Michigan State Police officers who arrested him for selling marijuana. In the early 1970s, he says, he and an ex-girlfriend picked some Kansas weed–“which doesn’t do anything, by the way”–and brought it back in Michigan to sell. But “someone ratted on me.
“They came when I was doing some garage work in my driveway. This AMC Hornet showed up in my driveway. I thought, ‘That’s an unusual car.’ When a clone pulled up in the driveway, I said, ‘Uh oh.’
“I put my hands up. They went behind their [car] doors and were pointing guns at me. I said, ‘Calm down, fellas.'”
He served his time at night and worked during the day. “I thought I should look employed, so I was working for a guy named Gary Ross, who had a shop on Beakes St. But he had terrible credit. If you [bought] a cotter pin, you had to pay cash for it. I worked for him for a while, paid all his bills. Got his credit established again, and he said, ‘Well I’m closing this place next week unless you buy it.’
“So I bought it. That worked out real well.” In addition to providing a good living for many years, it was through the body shop that he met Martin, whose office is just down the street on Depot. And that’s how he ended up as an early investor in a couple of Martin’s businesses–Casey’s Tavern and the Bank of Ann Arbor.
Walters moved Ross-Beakes Collision to W. Ann St. in 1986, and sold it in 2007. His wife, Sue, still works there, but since then, Walters has spent most of his time restoring historic machinery.
To put it mildly, he has a thing for the past.
“Any problem befuddle you, confound you?” I ask. I’m thinking about fixing cars.
“Life,” says Walters.
Martin lets out a big laugh.
“Its beauty and magic,” says Walters.