Like Mr. Toad from “The Wind in the Willows,” retired attorney Sinclair Powell is never so happy as when he’s out on the open road behind the wheel of a car – especially when the vehicle is a historic automobile.
The Ann Arbor resident, an active automotive historian for more than three decades, is the proud owner of a 1928 Pierce-Arrow, a 1940 LaSalle, and a 1929 Franklin – his pride and joy. Of 150,000 Franklins built in Syracuse between 1902 and 1934, it’s estimated that just 3,000 remain. Powell is the owner of one of the gems.
“The Franklin is a unique car,” he says. “It’s the only American-built car successfully powered by 4-, 6-, and 12-cylinder air-cooled engines.”
Powell, whose family emigrated from Canada when he was a small boy, grew up in the downriver Detroit area where he quickly absorbed and assimilated the automobile culture of the area.
“I’ve always loved cars,” he says. “My Dad used to get tired of being dragged around to lots of car shows.”
At 16, Powell bought his first car, a 1928 Victory Six sedan, produced by Dodge to honor the 10th anniversary of the ending of World War I.
“I did a lot of restoration, and took the Dodge on long trips,” he says. “That car got me started with my passion for old cars.”
When World War II came along, the car went to the steel mill furnaces as part of the war effort – and Powell, who earned his undergraduate degree at Michigan State University, interrupted his studies there to serve in the U.S. Army.
After the war, he was awarded his law degree by Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and embarked on a career specializing in land use, urban development, transportation issues and related state, regional and local government problems. After being admitted to the bar in 1949, he worked as assistant legal counsel for the Maryland National Capital Parks & Planning Commission, and was one of the early attorneys involved in land use and urban and regional planning.
Returning to Michigan, he had a private practice in Cassopolis in southwest Michigan, and in Ann Arbor. He helped draft charters for several cities in Michigan and other states, did legal and administrative studies for the state government in Lansing, and worked on problems involving the City of Detroit, Wayne County, and the surrounding region. The work was primarily sponsored by the Citizen Research Council of Michigan.
His passion for automobiles echoed in some of his legal work.
“I traveled around the country studying and evaluating regional and metropolitan transportation systems, and worked on such matters as automotive safety, highway signage, and truck regulations,” he says.
In 1969, he bought a Pierce-Arrow, made by an American automobile manufacturer based in Buffalo and active between 1901 and 1938. He has owned the car for more than four decades, and has had it on display for the past six years in the Gilmore Car Museum at Hickory Corners, north of Kalamazoo.
He and his wife Suzanne recently visited the Gilmore Museum for the dedication by the H.H. Franklin Club, Inc., of a new 7,000-square-foot facility with 20 Franklin automobiles on permanent display, which features a very early Franklin Model A runabout, one of the first four-cylinder production cars built in America; a 1932 Model 17, a 12-cylinder sedan; and a 1931 Pursuit (a semi-sport vehicle).
“My own Franklin is a 1929 six-cylinder Victoria Brougham – a short-coupled body style,” Powell says. “It has been driven to Syracuse on several occasions.”
Powell doesn’t just drive a Franklin – he writes about them. In 1999, the Society of Automotive Engineers published his 484-page hardcover book, The Franklin Automobile Com-pany: The History of the Inno-
vative Firm, Its Founders, the Vehicles It Produced (1902-1934), and the People Who Built Them.
“A friend whose father had worked as an engineer for Franklin twisted my arm into doing research on the company,” he says. “Out of 12 years of research came the book.
“The company went bankrupt in the 1930s, and all the records were destroyed. It took a lot of literary detective work to get background information. It was fascinating, a very interesting project. I think I wore out a modern car traveling to Syracuse...so often.”
Powell interviewed about 125 people – octogenarians and older -- who had worked for Franklin, or whose parents had worked there. “One gentleman was 101, and very sharp,” he says. “He had been a printer at Franklin, producing brochures and pamphlets.”
Powell, who later co-authored a second book about the Franklin automobile, has spent the past few years working on another book, The Rise of the Automobile in Detroit, spanning the period from the 1880s to the mid 1920s. The book is near completion.
“It’s about the organization and growth of the automotive companies, and how that related to the city of Detroit’s huge population increase,” he says. “The interesting thing is, at one time there were hundreds of little auto companies, and [they] were pushed out by the Big Three.”
Powell shares his passion and experiences by giving numerous talks on automotive history, including to the Ann Arbor City Club, and in Syracuse, most notably at the Syracuse University annual Salzburg Seminar on Transportation. He attends many conferences, and has received several awards.
For years, he has enjoyed displaying his Franklin at the Rolling Sculpture Car Show in Ann Arbor. This year’s event, hosted by Bill Crispin Chevrolet and the Main Street Area Association, will run from 2-10 p.m. on July 9. He also attends Ypsilanti’s Orphan Car Show. “The show commemorates cars that are no longer built,” he says.
Powell belongs to numerous car clubs – “Too many, my wife says” – including the H.H. Franklin Club Inc., the Pierce-Arrow Society, Cadillac- LaSalle Club, and the Antique Automobile Club of America. He served as president of the Society of Automotive Historians from from 1997-99. Powell recently retired from service as a board member at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing.
Powell and his wife will head back to the Gilmore Museum for other events this summer, including the Pierce-Arrow “Gathering at Gilmore” in August. Powell is enthusiastic about the Gilmore Museum and its overall approach to automotive history.
“The facility is extremely well-run, and presents vintage motor cars as a key part of American transportation history,” he says. “Gilmore’s long-range plans include several more auto display buildings. Pierce-Arrow is already there; Lincoln and Cadillac-LaSalle are coming soon, and a good-sized building which will feature an archive and library open to historians researching the development of the automobile.”
Powell notes numerous other events featuring vintage motor cars take place in Michigan. Greenfield Village in Dearborn sponsors two major car shows annually. The Woodward Avenue “Dream Cruise” attracts tens of thousands of spectators.
“For the auto historian, the Benson Ford Archives and the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library offer fine collections for researchers,” he says. “And the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn does a splendid job of recognizing key figures in automotive history.”