Chevy Cabriolet restoration born of strife and love

Episode 358

April 18, 2021

She’s a beauty for sure yet was born in a historic moment

When Putnam Gulf Oil owners Fred and Mary Pearce Putnam watched the unloading of her brand-new 1937 Chevrolet Cabriolet from a railroad car in Houlton in 1937, little did they know the car would one day go on to be a show stopping winner.

The Cabriolet was General Motors upscale car loaded with interesting new features which included a redesigned inline 6 engine displacing 216.5 cubic inches and sporting higher compression pistons which helped produce 85 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes were new as was the sporty cars light weight, second lightest in the GM car lineup at 2,790 pounds making it quick on the road. Spoke wheels added a nice touch as did the three-speed floor shifter.

That was the statistical line on Mrs. Putnam’s car, however, the Cabriolet made history in a different manner. GM only produced 1.724 Cabriolets that model year. The rumble seat took much of the trunk space which helped diminish the popularity across all manufacturer’s lines not just GM.

One of labor unions most significant strikes

By far the largest story line with the Cabriolet is the famous 44-day sit down strike at GM’s Flint, Michigan Fisher Body works plant 2. The fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW) in December 1936 started secret talks with workers at the Flint plants and decided to deploy a sit-down strike because it was less dangerous to workers than outside picketing and they hoped to catch GM napping.

The strike was set for after New Year’s in 1937 since workers would safely have Christmas bonus checks in hand and would be better able to survive what they believed might be a prolonged battle with GM.

GM had many internal spies which reported union activities to help suppress membership efforts. The spies got wind of the proposed strike and on December 30, 1936, two trucks showed up to move critically important body dies used to change flat steel into fenders, door skins, and other body panels.

The trucks were prevented from loading the body dies and the strike date was moved up two days beginning at that time. Workers sat down on the job and made the factory their home for the next 44 days.

UAW workers participating in a sit-down strike at GM’s Flint, Michigan Fisher Body plant in 1937. (Bettman Archives photo)

Wives, farmers, and other community activists provided food and other necessities to striking workers. All was not pro-union however, as locals against the union wanted to form vigilante groups to help displace UAW workers with violence.

GM shut off the heat 13 days after the strike began on January 11, 1937.  With temperatures near 16 degrees, some factory workers came out to pick up a food drop and to find out what was going on. The police and for-hire security forces moved in with tear gas.

Workers inside fought off the invaders at the entrance gate with whatever they could throw or use as barricades in addition to using high pressure fire hoses. They were aided by the wind which blew the tear gas into the face of police and security forces which retreated.

In the retreat from the fence, guns were drawn and 14 union workers were wounded with no deaths.  Eleven of the estimated 30-40 police were injured in the 20-minute battle. The riot forced the hand of newly inaugurated Michigan Governor Frank Murphy who ordered 4,000 National Guardsmen to maintain peace around the Flint complex. A key factor was that the governor did not order guardsmen to take back the factories from the union members.

Governor Murphy asked President Franklin Roosevelt to intervene when talks between GM and UAW were stalled in the courts and on the ground. Roosevelt asked the two sides to negotiate and on February 11, 1937 the strike ended with the following historic concessions and agreements:

  1. Recognition of UAW as sole bargaining agency.
  2. Abolition of piece work in favor of straight hourly rates.
  3. A 30-hour week and 6-hour day, with time and a half for overtime.
  4. A “minimum rate of pay commensurate with an American standard of living.”
  5. Seniority rights based on length of service.
  6. Reinstatement of all employees “unjustly discharged.”
  7. Mutual agreement on “speed of production.”

It was estimated that GM lost production of 280,000 cars. Before the historic strike, GM’s market share was 43% of domestic production as well as the most profitable automaker. Post-strike auto sales were lower for a couple years yet exceeded one million in 1941 just before tooling up for war material production.

UAW Sit-Downers Memorial depicting the 1937 Flint, Michigan strike. (Unattributed photo)

Mrs. Putnam’s Cabriolet

Mrs. Putnam drove her new Cabriolet for a number of years before her grandson, Joe Inman became the primary driver. Inman drove the car, which was showing some wear and tear, to school at Ricker College in Houlton.

The 1937 Chevrolet Cabriolet owned by Dave Wakem. Eventually, Wakem would have Martin Morin paint the car dark green.  From the photo one can ascertain that the Cabriolet was a sporty car for its time. (Greg Roderick Collection)

Dave Waken from Caribou was driving his Volkswagen Bug to school at Ricker College when he noticed the Cabriolet parked beside the road. The Chevrolet had been stored in a potato house and had 37,000 miles on the odometer.

It was during Wakem’s junior year at Ricker College in 1960 that he made the contact to purchase the car. He asked Inman, “What are you going to do with that car?”

The next day, Inman said the magic words, “I will sell it.”

Wakem paid for the car and brought it to Houlton based mechanic Ralph Tozier to see if thought the car would make the 60-mile trip to Caribou. Tozier deemed it okay.

The college man made a run for it with no registration or insurance. He drove it directly to Reynold Nelson’s garage in Caribou.

The car needed a clutch and the rear fenders were in rough condition. After replacing the clutch, Dave found some used fenders south of Houlton. The fenders were for a 1937 Coupe not a Cabriolet, however, they were all he could find at the time so they were installed. He installed Gulf brand tires that he bought from Gerry Drake.

Dave owned the car from 1960 until fall of 1967 when he got married. During the period of ownership, he had Martin Morin paint the car dark green. The car sat on blocks from 1961 until late 1963 when Wakem resumed work on the car.

Milton Adelman ownership and Greg Roderick restoration

Part II of the story of the limited-edition Chevrolet Cabriolet will start with Mars Hill’s Milton Adelman purchasing the car from Dave Waken in the fall of 1967. The story will include a five-year restoration by Northern Auto Body owner Greg Roderick in 1988 as well as a story of Aroostook County’s only World War II Medal of Honor winner Eddie Dahlgren.

Stay tuned for Part II

Palou wins IndyCar 2021 series opener

Alex Palou, #10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, winner at Barber Motorsports Park in 2021 season opener. (Honda Racing photo)

Spaniard Alex Palou completed a “Hat Trick” of international racing victories for Honda today by claiming his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Palou’s win at Barber Motorsports Park completed the weekend sweep for Honda, which included wins by Max Verstappen in his Red Bull Racing Honda in the Formula One race at Imola, Italy; and the Jeff Procter-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team claiming the Class 7 victory in the SCORE International San Felipe 250 in Baja, Mexico.

Starting third in today’s season-opening, 90-lap contest, Palou was flawless in claiming victory in just his 15th INDYCAR start, and his first with Chip Ganassi Racing.  At the checkers, Palou held off former series champion Will Power by four-tenths of a second to claim the win, with his Ganassi teammate and defending series champion Scott Dixon, third.

. “We knew we’re with the best team, and had a great car today,” said race winner Palou. “So, we knew a win was possible.  Everyone on the team did an amazing job.  The team was telling me on the radio ‘keep doing what you’re doing’.  It was one of those days when everything went well.  We had good fuel mileage, good tire management and good pace. This team is amazing.  Honda gave us a great engine.  Honda and Chip Ganassi Racing, what else can I ask for?”

Let’s go racing,

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Matthew 5:16)



Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine