ALPENA — Detroit steel lives not just in the pole 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 remembered.
“Most of it is sentimental value — ‘I have a memory of this particular car with my dad,’ or, ‘My friend had one,’” said Jason Bravata, who’s restored cars for 30 years and recently opened his own shop in Oscoda. “There’s always a story. There’s always a past.”
Lydia Walker’s story begins in 1987, when she first met her husband, Dennis, when he came to Hillman to help build the Hillman power plant. After they married, Dennis Walker told his new bride 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. It was big.”
In that 34-foot-by-100-foot shop, Dennis Walker built classic car after classic car and collected automobile memorabilia.
“I just made a book recently of all the cars he had since I’ve known him, and it has to be at least 30 cars,” Lydia Walker said. “His shop is almost like a museum, he’s got so many collectibles. He was always working on a car project. He loved to talk about them. He loved to read about them. He loved to go to car shows and museums.”
In 2016, Dennis Walker beat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it came back twice more, the last time very aggressively.
In 2019, the Walkers and their friend, Al Price, and his wife took a Route 66 trip, driving from Hillman to California and back in a 1930 Chevy coach.
“In hindsight, I’m glad we did that then, because he passed away a month after that,” Lydia Walker said.
Dennis Walker left behind a 1934 Ford pickup still very much a work in progress. He’d found it in a rock pile. Three months after Dennis Walker died, Price called Lydia Walker up and told her, “I’d like to finish one of those cars for you.”
“Al and Dennis were best friends,” Lydia Walker said. “They talked to each other probably every day. I knew he would finish it like Dennis would have finished it. What better friend could Dennis have had than that?”
It took Price about two years. Dennis Walker had finished the chassis and had begun the process of installing the cab and the suicide doors. Price had to buy sheet metal and fabricate the hood and the bed of the truck. Lydia Walker bought vinyl and upholstered the interior. Dennis Walker had found a 1934 Louisiana license plate at a Texas swap meet. 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 “kind of like him riding shotgun with me,” Lydia Walker said. “He would have liked that.”
She and Price added more Louisiana to the truck by installing cypress wood from Louisiana into the bed.
“My plan is to take it to car shows this summer so we can show off all of Al’s work and Dennis’ work,” Lydia Walker said. “I’m looking forward to doing that, going to some car shows and seeing all my old friends. I always tell people that car shows and cars are not necessarily my favorite things, but they became one of my favorite things only because they were Dennis’s.”
Up in Alpena, Steve Watson took 20 years to finish his 1931 Ford Model A truck.
He lived in Kentucky at the time he bought it but found the vehicle online in Waterford, Michigan, where he and a buddy had to haul it out of mud halfway up its wheel wells. He had to gut it and rebuild the frame with stainless steel and reassemble the whole thing. He replaced the 40-horsepower native engine with a Chevy 327 V-8.
But, of everything he and his friends and partners did to that vehicle over the years, his favorite piece – in addition to the custom Kimberly blue paint job — is the custom gas tank in the bed of the truck, made of a whiskey barrel.
“It has a little Kentucky in it,” Watson, who lives now in Alpena, said. “The gas tank is the eye-catcher.”
Across town, Blake Brancheau has four projects in the works: a 1960 Chevy pickup, a 1936 Chevy two-door sedan, a 1967 Jeepster Commando he’s not sure he’ll ever get around to working on.
And he has the 1956 Chevy pickup that his wife’s grandfather drove.
“It’s really cool to have like a family heirloom like that that eventually is going to see the road again, that she can drive around, 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 hobby,” but they also live in his blood.
He first got into vehicle restoration in high school, egged on by his half-brother, whose father has restored cars in the Alpena area for decades.
Brancheau’s great-grandfather was a master mechanic, and Brancheau still has some of his great-grandfather’s tools.
Down in Oscoda, Bravata said he started his shop, Bravata’s Restoration, because his dad had a shop and Bravata remembered spending most of his youth with his dad, working on cars.
Now, Bravata’s “trying to keep the family name going” with his own shop.
Among his current personal projects: a 1967 Plymouth GTX, just like one his dad had years ago.
“It’s in your blood, hot-rodding cars,” Bravata said. “It’s just part of you.”
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or j[email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.