ALPENA – Detroit steel doesn’t just live in the barns and garages of enthusiasts or at car shows on hot summer nights.
For many it lives in the heart, in the memories of lost loved ones, in the passions of a youth that are remembered.
“Most of them have sentimental value – ‘I have a memory of this particular car with my dad,’ or ‘My friend had one,'” said Jason Bravata, who has been restoring cars for 30 years and recently opened its own boutique in Oscoda. . “There is always a story. There is always a past.
Lydia Walker’s story begins in 1987, when she met her husband, Dennis, when he came to Hillman to help build the Hillman Power Plant. After their wedding, Dennis Walker told his new wife that he wanted to build a shop on their Avalon Lake property.
“It wasn’t a pole barn,” Lydia Walker said in a recent interview. “It was a building. He was tall.”
In this 34-by-100-foot store, Dennis Walker has built classic car after classic car and collected automotive memorabilia.
“I just did a book recently of all the cars he’s had since I’ve known him, and there must be at least 30 cars there,” Lydia Walker said. “His shop is almost like a museum, he has so many collectibles. He was still working on a car project. He liked to talk about them. He liked to read about them. He liked to go to car shows and museums.
In 2016, Dennis Walker beat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but he came back twice more, the last time very aggressively.
In 2019, the Walkers and their friend, Al Price, and his wife took a trip down Route 66, driving from Hillman to California and back in a 1930 Chevy coach.
“Looking back, I’m glad we did at the time because he passed away a month later,” Lydia Walker said.
Dennis Walker left behind a 1934 Ford pickup still in the works. He had found it in a pile of stones. Three months after Dennis Walker died, Price called Lydia Walker and said, “I’d like to finish one of these cars for you.
“Al and Dennis were best friends,” Lydia Walker said. “They were probably talking to each other every day. I knew he would finish it like Dennis would have. What better friend Dennis could have had than this?
It took Price about two years. Dennis Walker had finished the chassis and started the process of installing the cab and suicide doors. Price had to buy sheet metal and fabricate the truck’s hood and bed. Lydia Walker purchased vinyl and lined the interior. Dennis Walker had found a 1934 license plate in Louisiana during a swap meet in Texas. Lydia Walker installed it on the interior wall of the ’34, next to the passenger seat, in honor of her husband’s home state.
It’s “kinda like he’s riding a shotgun with me,” Lydia Walker said. “He would have liked that.”
She and Price added more Louisiana to the truck by installing Louisiana cypress lumber in the bed.
“My plan is to take it to car shows this summer so we can show off all of Al and Dennis’ work,” Lydia Walker said. “I can’t wait to do this, go to car shows and see all my old friends again. I always tell people that car shows and cars aren’t necessarily my favorite things, but they’ve become the one of my favorite things just because they belonged to Dennis.
At Alpena, Steve Watson took 20 years to complete his 1931 Ford Model A truck.
He was living in Kentucky when he bought it, but found the vehicle online in Waterford, Michigan, where he and a buddy had to dig it out of the mud halfway up its wheel wells. He had to gut it and rebuild the frame with stainless steel and put it all back together. He replaced the native 40 horsepower engine with a Chevy 327 V-8.
But, of everything he and his friends and partners have done to this vehicle over the years, his favorite part – besides the custom Kimberly blue paint job – is the custom gas tank in the truck’s bed, made of a barrel of whisky.
“There’s a bit of Kentucky in it,” said Watson, who now lives in Alpena. “The gas tank is the focal point.”
Across town, Blake Brancheau has four projects underway: a 1960 Chevy pickup truck, a 1936 Chevy two-door sedan, a 1967 Jeepster Commando he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to work on.
And he has the 1956 Chevy pickup his wife’s grandfather drove.
“It’s really cool to have like a family heirloom like this that will eventually see the road again, that she can drive, that she can say, ‘My grandpa used to sit here and drive this truck,'” Brancheau said in a recent interview.
Brancheau, an engineer by trade, called cars “a fun pastime,” but they also live in his blood.
He first got into vehicle restoration in high school, pushed by his half-brother, whose father restored cars in the Alpena area for decades.
Brancheau’s great-grandfather was a master mechanic, and Brancheau still owns some of his great-grandfather’s tools.
In Oscoda, Bravata said he opened his shop, Bravata’s Restoration, because his father had a shop, and Bravata remembered spending most of his youth with his father, working on cars.
Now Bravata is “trying to keep the family name” with her own boutique.
Among his current personal projects: a 1967 Plymouth GTX, just like the one his father had years ago.
“It’s in your blood, hot cars,” Bravata said. “It’s just a part of you.”
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.