Lady Drivers: A Closer Look at the Auto Collections of Two Local Women

The automotive collections of two Detroit-area women could hardly be more different in scope or content but yield commensurate satisfactions.
Mendelson’s collection is in a rehabbed industrial shop in Royal Oak. It includes 30 vehicles, 11 of which are Ferraris. // Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

When it comes to award-winning automotive collections, those of Karen E. Breen and Lauren Mendelson couldn’t be more different. You might call Breen’s the sleeper, while Mendelson’s is outré and exotic. Either way, the owners have realized childhood dreams.

Breen, of Birmingham, and Mendelson, of Huntington Woods, met in 2022 while exhibiting in the Speed & Style Expo during the American Speed Festival at M1 Concourse. Breen won the City of Pontiac Award for her 1978 GMC Royale motor home, a local product, while Mendelson reaped a People’s Choice Award for her 2020 Ferrari Monza SP1.

“I cannot believe that our paths had not crossed all those years,” Breen says. The centerpiece of her collection is a vacation palace on wheels with walnut cabinets and a smoked-glass oven door. For her own part, Mendelson treasures 11 Ferraris among 30 cars living in a rehabbed industrial shop in Royal Oak. It used to be “dumpy, horrible!” she says — but now includes office and entertainment space.

When Breen displayed her 26-footer, it was a homecoming. From 1973 to 1978, the GMC Truck & Coach Division made 13,000 on the present site of M1 Concourse. Borrowing a name used by Bugatti, the Royale was a futuristic contrast to the shed-like Winnebagos of that era. The aerodynamic face and tandem rear axles — a six-wheeler! — gave reason to sing around the campfire.

The Royale sleeps six, especially if four of them are kids. The gray-and-yellow Monza SP1 seats one daring voyageur behind a 12-cylinder engine. Take your pick: Michigan bomb or Italian bullet.

Breen has good taste and a feisty attitude, says Tim McGrane, CEO of M1 Concourse, where at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of GMC motor home production, she promoted a conclave of Royales among other models last September.

“Lauren is on the other extreme,” he says. “She’s built a significant, spectacular collection.” He ranks them among the female automotive leaders of Detroit with collector and Ferrari Challenge series competitor Melissa Kozyra and Andrea Robertson, who with her husband, David, scored a 2011 podium finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in their privately entered Ford GT — the first woman on the podium since 1931.

Cruising along Route 66 would be more Breen’s style. “I was actually the son my dad never had,” she says. He was in hardware wholesaling; she was the oldest of four girls growing up in South Bend, Indiana. “I could not wait to get my driver’s license.” (She passed the test in her dad’s 1977 Chevrolet Impala.) When she’s not behind the wheel or handlebars — the nastiest thing she picked up during the COVID-19 pandemic was a Kawasaki motorcyle — Breen distinguishes herself with polished contributions to the newsletters of two GMC clubs.

Through her own clubs and owner-exclusive opportunities, Mendelson has hit the asphalt at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and California’s WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. “I’m an Italian girl at heart,” she says while finalizing arrangements for a screening this past March 24 of Ferrari in her collection’s lounge area. Ele Bardha, a stunt driver in the film, was to be a featured guest; the list also included members of the DAC Car Club.

The start of Mendelson’s collection about 20 years ago, while she was still driving two daughters to school by minivan, was a 2003 BMW V8 Alpina Roadster that remains cherished. The wickedest car since is a Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series P One Edition coupe with a fire-breathing 800-horsepower monster under the hood. Only 24 examples were built for the U.S. market.

This is a long way to come for a girl whose mother was “a proper, perfect librarian” and whose father ran Allied Auto Parts at 3600 Mack Ave. Mendelson would go out back in the wrecking yard, sit in a junked Hudson or Olds, and play driver. Formal training came at age 12 from her dad in the vast parking lot of Northland Center in Southfield. Later, as she told The Jewish News, when her parents went out, she commandeered the family’s second car, loaded up her friends, and cruised Woodward Avenue or made the Oak Park scene. “I did it a million times and never got caught.”

In contrast to Mendelson’s former bastion of rust, Breen pinpoints her enthusiasm to an Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Festival with her dad. Looking at those big classics, some of the finest American cars ever made, she had an epiphany. “I knew it was something novel, and I’d never seen so much chrome.”

An employee of Ford Motor Co., Breen also prizes a 1979 Volkswagen Super Beetle Epilogue Edition convertible, the final Beetle produced in Germany. Only 900 examples, all in triple black, went to the United States. Her zesty daily runabout is a 2013 VW Golf R.

Breen and Mendelson concur on the belief that anybody can express themselves through a car collection. To get started, they say to visit a car show or museum, do some research, start to accumulate what you love, and see what happens.

This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on June 6.