PHOTO STORY: Niles, Dowagiac featured stops in Lemon Rally vehicle race

Published 9:47 am Tuesday, July 27, 2021

DOWAGIAC — Residents of both Niles and Dowagiac may have noticed interesting vehicles roll through town on Friday afternoon.

What they could not have known at the time was that the two communities were featured stops on the Lemon Rally’s Rust Belt Ramble, which saw cars of all shapes, sizes, makes and models making their way through both cities to visit key landmarks.

A series of long-distance races that take participants driving eccentric, beat-up or otherwise old vehicles across the country, Lemons Rally is one of the most unique racing experiences around.

The Rust Belt Ramble was a three-day journey that took participants on a journey that started in Chicago/Gary on Friday and ended in Pittsburgh Sunday, exploring some of the region’s most storied industries along the way. Local stops included the location of the first Dodge Brothers’ home in Niles, the Thompson Road Bridge in Niles and the Round Oak Stove Company foundry in Dowagiac.

Unlike a traditional race where a winner is decided based on who crosses the finish line first, Lemon Rally officials issue points based on criteria including how old the car is, where it was built and the condition of the car. Points can also be awarded if participants are using a theme, social media posts and more.

The Lemon Rally’s uniqueness is what inspired couple Brandy Collard and Steve Abramski to travel from Syracuse, New York to participate with their 1983 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale.

“It’s been great so far,” Abramski said. “We drove 12 hours to get here and haven’t regretted it yet, so that’s a good time.”

“I’m all about themes,” Collard said. “I have a prom dress in the trunk, and I have a tiara to take pictures in. People really get into it and that’s what makes it fun.”

The Rust Belt Ramble was not Matt Rhoda’s first Lemon Rally. The northwest Indiana native and his friends have participated in rallys before and the sense of adventure keeps him coming back. Rhoda and his group Smokey and The Vandits took part in the rally riding in a 1971 Chevy G-20.

“We’ve done Route 66 twice and the second time was just as fun,” Rhoda said. “Seeing new places and meeting new people. The vehicles, drivers, all of it.”

For participants like Abramski and Rhoda, the Lemon Rally events are more about the journey than the race itself.

“If you’re into old cars, and you’re into themes and being a little weird, you know, it’s a good excuse to get out and see the country,” Abramski said. “You get to see some of the lesser known landmarks and get in touch with more local history on a budget. This is not an expensive thing to do and you get to meet a lot of great people.”

“There’s a lot of neat history around here,” Rhoda said. “To think that places like this were the center of the world for what they made. It was a huge deal back then and now you drive past, and you don’t even realize it was special at the time. Local history like this is what makes up America, the story of the small town and what made it.”

More information regarding Lemon Rally can be found online at