It’s a fine line between culture and kitsch, buy the Bavarian-themed city of Frankenmuth, Michigan — about 90 miles north of Detroit — appears to straddle it well. Yes, there are cheese shops and fudge shops and famous fried chicken dinners served by waitresses wearing traditional Bavarian Dirndl dresses, but the town hosts a number of events throughout the year that have nothing to do with schnitzel or lederhosen.
Autofest is one of the biggest, drawing more than 2,500 vehicles to the city’s leafy park along the Cass River during the second weekend in September. It’s been an end-of-the-season draw for four decades and remains popular because the nearby shops and restaurants provide options for those in the family who inexplicably don’t want to spend 48 hours gridding to grounds to take in every last square inch of chrome.
That includes Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, a building at the edge of town that covers nearly 7.5 acres and is said to be the largest all-Christmas store in the world. It’s a spectacle like few others.
“I enjoy the cars, but there’s more to see and do here,” said Carrie Ciaffone, who was only a spectator (and shopper) for a day with her husband and teenage daughter, who also brought a friend. “That’s what makes it more fun for all of us. Our daughter has brought her friend with us for years. It’s a tradition.”
And so are the cars. Autofest draws just about everything on four wheels, including the amphibious. The event has also become a traditional gathering for Amphicars, the owners of which drive into the Cass River repeatedly during the weekend for an alternative style of cruising. There were about 10 Amphicars this year, by our count.
There is no shortage of great car events each summer, but few are as easy-going and family-friendly as the Frankenmuth Autofest. Come for the cars, stay for the schnitzel.
Held at Heritage Park, along with Cass River, the small city of Frankenmuth hosts one of the biggest events in the Midwest, drawing more than 2,500 vehicles. Photo: Barry Kluczyk
Autofest is a draw for Amphicar owners, who use a nearby boat launch on the Cass River to plunge their vintage amphibious cars into the drink and go for a cruise. Photo: Barry Kluczyk
With the border only about 100 miles away, Autofest also draws a good number of Canadian enthusiasts who bring unique home-market vehicles, such as this 1969 Beaumont, which was marketed as its own brand. Beaumonts featured an exterior largely lifted from the Chevrolet Chevelle and an interior from the Pontiac LeMans.Photo: Barry Kluczyk
Ron Shaw’s 1966 Impala Super Sport is a former Hemmings Muscle Machines cover car and is powered by a fuel-injected 540-cubic-inch big-block engine that’s rated at 730 horsepower. Shaw also painted the car himself. Photo: Barry Kluczyk
Contrasting the big-block muscle cars at Frankenmuth were the 300cc/13-hp powerplant of Marty and Marybeth Abramson’s 1957 BMW Isetta and the 356cc two-stroke engine of Ken and Vicki Seifker’s 1970 Subaru 360 Sambar, which was rated at less than 20 horsepower. Photo: Barry Kluczyk
Built by Corey’s Hot Rods, this gasser-style Tri-Five is a 1956 Chevy with a ’55 Chevy fiberglass flip nose. It has a straight axle front suspension for a great period nose-in-the-air stance. Photo: Barry Kluczyk
Tom Haberek purchased this 440-powered 1970 Chrysler 300 in 1974, when he spotted on a dealership lot and was immediately drawn to its sleek lines and sporty features such as bucket seats and console. It was also loaded with air conditioning, cruise control and more. Photo: Barry Kluczyk