The Ann Arbor Convertible Car

The Ann Arbor Car was born in 1911 in the Huron River Manufacturing Company building located on Wildt Street just north of Summit Street and west of the Ann Arbor railroad tracks in Ann Arbor, MI.  The building housing the Huron River Manufacturing Company was one story high, of brick construction and was 40 feet wide and 256 feet long. In later years, the building housed the Parker Chuck Company, Huddy Manufacturing Company, and the Arbor Phone Company (makers of the Arbor Phone Radio). Fire destroyed the building in 1929. 

The Ann Arbor Car was designed by David Chipman to be a utility car and light truck for farm use .  There were 3 rows of buttoned leather seats inside. By taking out the two rear seats and lifting off the top, the car became a pick-up truck! It featured a Muncie planetary transmission with 2 gears forward and 1 reverse, and a Davis 4-cylinder engine, double-chain drive with force-fed lubrication that reached a top speed of 25 miles per hour.  The car weighed 2,140 pounds. Acetylene lanterns on each side showed the way as it “sped” wide-open downhill.


The advertised cost of the Ann Arbor was $975 new, plus $50 for the canvas top, side curtains, and a “transparent stormfront”–windshield.  However, high labor and shipping costs pushed the selling price closer to $2,000, which was not competitive with the versatile Ford Model T.

The Huron River Manufacturing Company was Ann Arbor’s first and only automobile factory. The car was  a failure almost from the start, according to the local history.  Only 7 cars were sold. In winding up the company’s business, there was some unfair dealing and several respectable investors lost money in the venture to the extent of thousands of dollars. 

Victor “Jean” Wheeler, a Webster Township wheelwright and blacksmith, became associated with the Huron River Manufacturing Company possibly because he was a wheelwright.  At any rate, he assisted in building the 7 Ann Arbor cars between 1911 and 1912. The 1912 models had a smaller box and only 1 removable seat. It was believed that Jean received this 1911 model, the only remaining Ann Arbor car known to exist today, in payment for work he did for the company. However, records for the car show it was originally purchased by a Northville family. How did Jean come to own this car? In any case, Jean was the owner of an Ann Arbor Convertible Car which he drove until his death in 1924.

After Jean’s death, the car passed to his brother Stearns Wheeler who did not drive. However, his 7 sons had many adventures in the “Gray Ghost” as they called it.  The car ended up being stored in Stearns’ grandson Lawrence Wheeler’s barn–without its engine, which was buried in a gully out in a field.  Around 1950, the Ann Arbor was sold to Ted Balmer of Chelsea for $50. Mr. Balmer restored the car in the 1950s. During this process, the wheels were restored and re-spoked by an Amish company in Ohio.  Once restored, Mr. Balmer drove it in parades. Ted later offered it to anyone in the Wheeler  family for $5,000, but there were no takers. It was later sold by Ted at auction on August 28, 1965 to Ben E. French of 100 Underdown Road, Ann Arbor, for $4,500.  Mr. French stated that he bought the Ann Arbor Car “in hopes that some of the other folks (Ann Arbor residents) would be interested in keeping it in Ann Arbor.” It remained in the French family and is now owned by Chandler French, son of the late Arthur and Kathy French.

Art and Kathy French spent much time and money having the car restored for the second time. The restoration was completed by Wysocki Enterprises of Ypsilanti, MI. It should be noted that Otto Moehrle, a regular exhibitor at the Webster Fall Festival, was the only one who could figure out how to restore the Muncie transmission. Over the following years, Jerry Wysocki assisted Art and Kathy in their efforts to display and promote the Ann Arbor in many car shows.  Jerry continues to help Chandler care for the car today. 

During the French family’s ownership, the Ann Arbor was shown all over the US at many major automotive events. On July 5, 2005, an Ann Arbor News article displayed the further restored car with its owner, Art French of Ann Arbor, at the annual Rolling Sculpture Car Show in downtown Ann Arbor, MI.