I met Michael Dingman on May 15, 2006, a few weeks before the big auction of his car collection. He was 74 years old at the time. Not many reporters could get close to him, but because I was on assignment from Automobile Magazine, instead of, say, a business magazine, he welcomed me to his collection in a building called The Powerhouse, near Hampton, New Hampshire. I had heard that he had been on the board of Ford Motor Company for a long time and owned lots of Ford stock. He had built a business fortune that allowed him to indulge in his car hobby. Not far from where the collection was kept, he owned a farm said to be modeled on Ford-style utopianism, and there was a replica Shell gas station and a 1930s diner. He was reputedlyfussy and demanded perfection. But I found him to be relaxed and gracious when we talked that morning. Here’s the transcript of ourconversation:
Q. In your family, had you had Fords?
A. No. My father was a Buick guy. I grew up loving Fords, like any kid in the Thirties. That was the greatest thing. It had the noise and the sound and everything that I just loved. And of course every other kid that was around it, loved it. I started with a Model A ’cause that’s all I could afford. Went to the junkyard and my dad bought me a two-door sedan without an engine, and I built up another engine with another friend of mine and put it into that. But my love was flatheads—learned how to deal with babbitt bearings.
A. I always wanted the V-8 but that was an expensive deal. That was when a Model A was twenty-five bucks.
Q. And you worked toward the flathead.
Q. Was this when you were sixteen?
A. Before I could drive. I guess I thought about it my whole life, from the minute when I was a little kid looking out the car window.
Q. What year were you born?
A. ‘Thirty-one. September the twenty-ninth. I can remember looking at the Ford V-8 billboards in those days, and the beauty of them, [they] were always my dream. They talk about the puff of wind, the coldest seasons of the year and things that would go on… When I got my V-8 was a big day. I used to go down and hang down the street with a guy that had a ’35 roadster. We had a ’35, what I’d call, race car, in those days. We’d go off to the racetracks before I ever had a license. We’d go off to the racetrack, and I’d sort of help lift things and pull things around. This was in New Jersey … I’d go and help. But they were all flatheads and just the most remarkable things in the world.
Q. This would be after World War Two?
A. Just at the beginning of World War Two. I was born in ’31, so in 1941 I was ten. But I still knew a lot about flatheads. Then as we went through the war, of course we futzed with them still. And the more I futzed, the more I loved them. And then I went away to college and I had my flathead with me in those days. I had a ’41 two-door sedan—always wanted a convertible. I swapped that out with a guy for a ’40 Ford five-window coupe, which he chopped and did a nice job on it. Then I got more serious and I had a ’47 Ford five-window coupe, which was really my love. It was black, overdrive. I was in Pennsylvania in those days, and Maryland—I was in college.
Q. You were in college in Pennsylvania?
A. University of Maryland. But we lived in Pennsylvania.
Q. I thought you were from New Haven.
A. I was born there. My dad worked for the phone company, was an engineer, talented guy. He liked cars, but he didn’t like cars like I like cars. Cars were my thing, next to business.
Q. Which you weren’t so interested in as a kid, unless it was a paper route.
A. Well, I had paper routes and magazine routes, all those things … Remember these midgets? They used to race on wooden tracks, you know. We used to go to Newark to watch the races with midgets. And the smell of the castor oil used to get me. You know Roy Naskewitz? Lives [indistinct]. Long-time Ford employee. Great collection. Some of my cars came from Roy.
Dingman continues: David was my navigator first. Patrick will be sixteen this June. David of course will be twenty-one in [indistinct]. This is David’s car. This is a great car. ‘Thirty-four Indy car.
Q. This raced at Indianapolis?
A. The kind that raced at Indianapolis. This particular one did not. The evolution that came from a lot of the work Ford had done in racing.
Q. As a kid, had you followed the Indy 500?
A. Oh, yeah. But not as much as dirt tracks and roundy-rounds that we looked at in those days. Indy was pretty sophisticated for a kid like me.
Q. Had you longed to be a racing driver as a kid?
A. I wanted to be able to drive, I was excited about it. But I was really excited about the mechanics of it. I had never given much thought to being a race car driver except an occasional dream. But it was never part of my early aspiration.
Q. It seems as though they’d be so fused together.
A. I have to have some degree of reality.
Q. What about the legends you would have been exposed to like Barney Oldfield?
A. I knew his name and knew a lot about him but didn’t really follow him. I was more interested in … NASCAR, I guess, would be closer to it.
Q. The real grass-roots experience.
A. That was what we had.
Q. A lot of that other stuff was just out there.
A. If I didn’t read it in Popular Mechanics or Popular Science, which in those days were the things that I thrived on, then it just didn’t come into my life. How to take cars and make them better were the things that I would look at.
Q. We call those the screwdriver books.
A. That’s interesting. I mean, Automobile, elegant magazine, really a great magazine.
Q. You’re a reader?
A. Oh, yeah. I love it. You guys do a super job.
Q. I wasn’t sure I could get an interview with you. It was almost a whim to ask. So I was glad that you accommodated us.
A. Have you seen the catalog? [Talks about the making of the auction catalog and flips through pages, talking generally about collection.] My commitment to my family was that I’d sell half.
Q. What prompted the sale in the first place?
A. I’m a cancer survivor. When I went through the ravages of cancer of the tongue, which is what I had, and my family was my salvation, along with my church, the trauma that that created was beyond belief.
Q. The treatments and so on?
A. Everything that went with it. I didn’t really appreciate how much … I’m a big collector. Pieces and parts all over the place that I know and I understand, but nobody else does. When they looked at the day coming, they said, “What are we going to do with all this stuff, Dad? What is it? What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I have to think about that. But somebody has to pull it together.” And I made a commitment that if the Lord shined on me, and I survived it, I would clean it up. And that’s really what I’m doing. So I said I’d clean up half, which is what’s happening, and that still leaves plenty to think about. But we then set the pattern of what do to and how to do it. It’s taken away the mystery. And that’s the commitment that I’m living up to. Now people are both happy with that and sad about it. There are two sides to it.
A. My family. [Adds something indistinguishable.]
Q. And how about you?
A. My heart is broken. But by the same token, I’d rather do it myself than have somebody else do it. I’ve loved these cars. I still have plenty to love. But I like to drive them. That’s the other side of it. I really do enjoy the smell, the sound, the thrill. I’ve got many more than I could drive. Just letting them sit was not a good substitute for that.
Q. Do you know how many cars you have altogether?
A. The thing that’s hard to know is that I have a number constantly in restoration, and as you probably know, getting the proper guys to do restoration is an art form in itself. They’re staggered out five and six years, just because of the number of people that are involved and the length of time it takes to do it properly.
Q. Can you just put a round number on it? Is it six dozen, or two hundred?
A. No, I got a hundred. And I’m selling fifty. And a few cats and dogs.
Q. How about the sale day that’s coming up in a month—what’s that going to be like for you?
A. They tell me it’s going to be very well attended. And a lot of the people I know and a lot people, I don’t. I’m sort of excited to see it happen. I’m anxious to know who is going to get the different cars, for whatever reasons they decide that they want to go for… And the signs are another part of the same thing. Because to me the flathead was an era. I guess, mine, too. It was not only the evolution of a radio in a car. It was the evolution of cars really going across the country, of Route 40 and Route 66, of diners, and motels, and new jobs, and moving to California, Hoover Dam, all sorts of things that happened in America, that a lot of people just haven’t focused on. Those are all my… I get turned on by that stuff. That’s how I started collecting signs.
Q. And that’s a pretty recent thing, right?
A. Yeah, it started six years ago. Maybe a little bit longer. I brought in one sign. And then I brought in three or four, and my wife came in and she said, “Boy, these are beautiful.” She said, “It’s really changed it. What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know.” She said, “You gotta buy more.” She said, “More is better than less.” So she got me started with it. I just kept going, and then I just accumulated a lot of signs. Then I was going to build a new building. Then I saw the magnitude of that. I said, “I should be throttling back here. I shouldn’t be stepping on the gas. So, what I’m doing is cleaning it up.
Q. [Looking at Ford V-8 sign.]
A. The other thing that fascinates me are Lincoln Zephyrs. As you know, the first unitized body. I mean, they’re really an engineering marvel.
Q. Didn’t Edsel really push for that?
A. He sure did. But the genesis of that, and the people that worked on it, came from the same guys that did the Volkswagen. That’s why there’s a resemblance, if you’ve ever noticed that. Rear-engined cars, as opposed to front-engine cars. Front-wheel drives. The styling. The Art Deco part of it that is just extraordinary. They’re well-built. Very well-built.
Q. They only made them for three or four years?
A. Nineteen thirty-six to nineteen forty-one. The war really took care of that. That was the end of it.
Q. It wasn’t a big seller.
A. It was a major breakthrough for Ford because they owned Lincoln, as you know, and Lincoln was strictly high-priced and not many of them. They needed something to really build out the line. That’s what Zephyr was: a poor-man’s nice car.
Q. It fits right in there with the Airflow from Chrysler.
A. Exactly. [Some talk of other similar cars.] They had their genesis with not just architectural things but mechanical: air-cooled engines, styling, unitized body construction, front-wheel drive.
Q. [Shows Dingman the Knudsen letter to HFII.] You probably later, as an adult, developed an interest in Henry Ford, the man?
A. No, I had that in the beginning. That was part of it. My early days in school, I would write papers on Henry Ford, the beginning of the automobile, all the things that went with it. Just by pure circumstance that I was always a devoted kid that loved automobiles and in particular Fords. To become a director of the Ford Motor Company with that kind of a background was one of those things that was really a gift beyond belief, and a privilege. That’s how I got into it.
Q. Being driven by that deep interest.
A. I had that deep interest and knew a lot about it, historically.
Q. What I understand is that outside the Ford family you’re the largest individual holder of Ford stock.
A. No, no. For the twenty-one years that I was a director, I accumulated all of my earnings from the Ford directors [?] into Ford stock. I just saved it and saved it and never sold a share.
Q. How did you come to be on the Ford board of directors?
A. I was invited by HF Two and Phil Caldwell, who was the CEO back in the early ‘Eighties.
Q. So you got onto the Ford board during … I think of them as the Fairmont years.
A. There was a crisis in those days [indistinct]…
Q. And you stayed till the Ford GT.
A. I have, as a matter of fact, a memento of that. When I retired… [picks up statuette] this was from Bill [Ford]. That was his gift.
Q. [Reads] Michael D. Dingman, director, Ford Motor Company, 1981-2002.
A. And the deal was…
Q. Michael Dingman has the right to purchase the first new production Ford GT40—they were still calling it at that time—Bill Ford, March 13, 2002. Beautiful!
A. That’s it right there. That’s where it came from. That’s the whole history of it. That was a great gift.
Q. The sculpture, not the car.
A. Just to have one.
Q. As far as the board goes, you had to retire at age seventy. Otherwise you’d probably still be doing it if you could?
A. Oh, I’d love to think. Sure, I mean, those were wonderful years. I enjoyed it.
Q. That must have been tough, but a twenty-one year period of the Ford board of directors, that’s twenty percent of the company’s history.
A. It was a great time.
Q. [Looking at collection] So any one of these, you could probably start it up and drive it?
A. Oh, they all drive perfectly. They’re mechanically as good as they are beautiful.
Q. [Tour of collection continues] So you lived in New Jersey, and your father worked for AT&T
A. He commuted downtown on the Jersey Central Railroad.
Q. I was thinking that Bell Labs had their…
A. He was part of Bell Labs, too.
Q. [Looking at Trans-Am Mustang by Jack Roush] In the 1993 race at Belle Isle, you finished tenth or eleventh.
A. Pretty good for an old guy. I had a lot of good luck.
Q. When I first saw the results I thought it was Michael Dingman, Jr. they’re talking about.
A. An old guy.
Q. I added it up and you were sixty-two years old.
A. I had the time of my life.
Q. It’s unbelievable that you could be that competitive.
A. I had great teachers. Tommy Kendall, Max Jones, Dorsey Schroeder, they were my teachers.
Q. You first began road racing when?
A. In 1988, 1989.
Q. [Now in the Range Rover en route to the farm] Go right ahead about the Bondurant School.
A. Betsy, my wife, for a birthday present, made reservations with Bob Bondurant for me and Betsy to go to a racing school in Sonoma, California, at Sears Point. And I didn’t want to go. I said I’ve got too much to do. I haven’t got time to do this. She’d set it up for five days, and I’d cut it off to three. We went off together, and I had a wonderful time. I learned at least the beginnings of driving a race car. I said, “This is so much fun, I could really get into this. But I just don’t have the time to do it now. Someday, I’m going to go start that as a hobby.” So two years passed, and I got involved with Steve Saleen. Steve let me try out for his team. He was driving a Mustang. I forget the class, but basically stock cars. … In any event, I started, shifted over to Jack [Roush], and Jack said, “You’re such a big guy, Mike. We gotta build a car for you. So he took Willy T. Ribbs’s car—remember Willy T. Ribbs?—and he reconfigured that so I could fit in it. I got Willy’s car and went off weekend racing. I started in Michigan and traveled across the country with a car team and a rented bus and had the time of our life. I had to get my license and I went through what they call regional racing. I went to Nevada—this is the farm. I’ll take you to the barn. I just came in the back way.
Q. So that’s how you got to know Jack Roush.
A. I met Jack at a test track one day when we were meeting on some other subject.
Q. [Seeing the diner] Wow! Beautiful!
A. Our diner.
Q. And that is an authentic period piece that was trucked in?
A. That came from New Jersey, and a guy in Ohio restored it for me… Gas station, 1930. That sort of crosses V-8s and…
Q. You have several hundred acres here?
A. Six hundred acres.
Q. Six hundred? In this part of the country, that’s a pretty big farm, isn’t it? Do you have a name for the farm?
A. It’s called Hogg Hill. H-o-g-g.
Q. Which would be an old family name?
A. Well, it’s the family name of a hill. [Mentions artesian well.]
Q. Well, about the Great Race… The Wall Street Journal article, which I read at the time—the reporter went along—
A. Terrific guy.
Q. He quoted you saying—
A. Great family thing.
Q. You said it was “seeing America in all of its greatness.”
A. Absolutely true. One hundred percent correct.
Q. That’s how I feel when I do my cross-country drives. It’s a great country, and people who feel so overwhelmed by problems need to get out and drive across—
A. Absolutely right.
Q. The problems are concentrated in the television.
A. Right. Exactly right.
Q. [After looking at sign collection in barn] This would be your chance if you want to say anything about Ford–today’s situation.
A. Ford is just doing the best they can under the circumstances. Tough problems. I’m sure they’re going to do well. A lot of good people.
Q. I’m struck by the style and elegance of your cars from the Thirties. Comparatively, today, no mass-produced car has the individualized stylishness that you find on your wooden bodies or your convertibles. It would be great if they could do something like that.
A. They always talk about it. Theirs were brave decisions [indistinguishable] comes out with new models like Ford did in the Thirties and what Ford did, certainly, in the Eighties.
Q. With the Taurus.
A. Really brave design decisions, and not the kind of things that big organizations are prone to do—the risk is high. I think that’s what Bill is doing now is taking some more brave decisions, but it’s taking a while before you see them.
Q. You’ve said pretty supportive things about him in the past.
A. He’s a super guy.
Q. That he went out and got some seasoning and then came back to the company with a new perspective. I thought that was pretty generous because he’s taken an awful lot of criticism.
A. A lot. It’s a high-visibility job.
Q. [After mixed discussion] The Great Race takes a different route every time?
A. There’s only so many routes over the Rockies. But it’s really … when you hit those mountains. The things I enjoy the most are going across the Mississippi River, which is just like a marching band, it’s so powerful. And when you think of the American history that was written on the Mississippi River! I mean, everybody thinks—that’s how we got around, how things got built in the Midwest and shipped out.
The interview ended here. Dingman had to get on his Falcon jet and fly to Ireland to be with his family.
Interview with Dorsey Schroeder on his friendship with Dingman: https://baggyparagraphs.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/dorsey-schroeder-on-michael-dingman/