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Convertibles aren’t as popular as they used to be, but they’re the most important cars on the road on Memorial Day weekend, as they transport many elder or injured veterans in parades across America.
Other classic cars and trucks often join them, turning some events into all-out car shows, but with a noble cause.
“Memorial Day weekend is a national holiday and the surrounding parades and celebrations are a way for Americans to honor the fallen and celebrate, patriotically, the beginning of summer,” Jonathan Klinger, vice president of culture at automotive lifestyle brand Hagerty, told Fox News Autos.
“Along with July 4th and Labor Day, Memorial Day parades have become a deep-rooted, organic part of the tradition and pomp.”
The 1942 Plymouth convertible coupe that carried Vietnam veteran John Farrell and World War II veteran Bill Beckman during the Memorial Day parade at the Presidio in San Francisco was one of the last new vehicles built before the auto industry was transformed to help the war effort. (Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
“The automobile is a signature achievement in U.S. history, so it’s no surprise that cars take center stage during these patriotic moments,” Klinger said.
The Presidio parade features a variety of vehicles, from the Depression-era Ford Model A to the 1960s Ford Mustang. (iStock/Anna Bryukhanova)
Gerri Rice’s family has been helping to organize the parade in Amherst, Ohio, since her father Mort Plato and his brothers in arms returned home from World War II.
Its history mirrors that of those in many American towns and cities.
Classic convertibles like the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro SS provide the perfect perch for veterans to receive salutations from the crowd in Commerce City, Colorado, home to the state’s largest Memorial Day parade. (Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
She said it started out with just the veterans visiting the five cemeteries in town to salute their fallen comrades. Over the years, though, they were joined by a drum corps, poppy girls, members of the town’s service organizations and sports teams. “Eventually, it became a full parade.”
The route they followed ended with a road that led uphill to Crownhill cemetery, and that’s where the cars started coming in.
“As the guys got older, that hill got bigger, and later on the veterans who were unable to march were put in cars,” she said.
Everybody in town wanted to help and Gerri and her siblings were called into service as soon as possible.
“When you turned 16 and got your driver’s license, you were given the name of a veteran you would be picking up and taking to the parade.”
A local car dealer lent them vehicles to use in those days, including muscle cars like Pontiac GTOs and Dodge Chargers.
“The weekend of the parade we’d go over to Hall’s Motors and they’d lend us all these great convertibles, and we’d use those in the parade driving the veterans and he’d let us drive them the whole weekend,” Rice recalled.
Today there’s no shortage of drivers, but the convertibles are getting harder to come by. “Modern cars are not made to sit up and be seen in, so it’s nice when the people that have convertibles volunteer,” Rice said.
The post-war Chrysler Town and Country was a celebration of American excellence and makes a grand platform for the country’s heroes at Naperville’s parade. (iStock/EAGiven)
The scene is similar in Naperville, Illinois, just on a larger scale.
The Chicago suburb hosts one of the state’s largest parades, where organizer Tom Parker said 30,000 to 40,000 people show up to watch each year.
Ford sold over 600,000 1966 Mustangs and they are a common site at parades across the country, including Naperville’s. (iStock/EAGiven)
Parker is a West Point graduate whose two decades of service in the U.S. Army and reserves as an aviation officer and helicopter pilot included an 18-month tour of Iraq.
He said the city “has an unparalleled level of support for the veteran community” and that he never has trouble finding people who want to drive.
The retro Naperville Trolley fits right in with the parade’s antique cars and helps transport veterans and Gold Star families. (EAGiven)
“When they hear what we’re doing, people step right up,” he said.
Along with the cars, the city’s retro tour trolley is used to carry veterans and Gold Star families.
Perhaps no vehicle is more fitting for chauffeuring a WWII veteran than a Willys MB that also served in the war. (iStock/EAGiven)
“The turnout is amazing and humbling.”
Rice, who was given a community service award this year for her work on the parade, feels lucky to have the day to honor the vets, and thinks Amherst is a wonderful community for what it does for them.
“If I were looking for a place to live again, it would be here,” she said.