Archives are the foundation of historical research. Without access to primary material—be it documents, photographs, financial statements, engineering or test reports—historians lack the building blocks necessary to write the chronicles that inform our understanding of the past and illuminate the future. To their credit, America’s automakers have gone to great lengths and expense to preserve and protect the historical documents which chronicle and define their existence. Until recently. As Chrysler and GM plunged into bankruptcy, they turned their back on their own heritage and destroyed a priceless part of our collective past.
Chrysler was incorporated on June 6, 1925. Over the following decades, the automaker centralized and organized its archives, records dating back to the very beginnings of the American automobile industry. And then the company’s new owners decided history is bunk. Cerberus eliminated its archivist position. They stopped funding the documents’ maintenance. The company limited access to their archives and then stopped it altogether.
Worse was to follow.
With little notice and no planning, Cerberus literally abandoned the engineering library at the Chrysler Technical Center. The library was shuttered and the librarian laid off. And then the real crime: all the library’s books and materials were offered to anyone who could carry them away. I repeat: the documents were free for the taking. Within a week, a collection spanning decades was scattered to the winds; the books and other materials will never again be available in any coherent, comprehensive form.
The rest of Chrysler’s historical archives remain intact in a central location. Intense work by dedicated archivists has, over the years, provided organization and access to historians. Will FIAT consider these archives worth preserving? Do they even know they exist?
The situation at GM isn’t quite so dire—yet. While GM continues to fund a Heritage Center, the center has sold off hundreds of their historical vehicles. It’s a travesty that denies writers (and GM insiders) a hands-on link to the company’s best—and worst—work.
The location and status of GM’s paper archives is unclear. Historically, GM has allowed each division to keep or discard archival material as they pleased. Some, like Oldsmobile, transferred many of their key documents to an independent museum. Upon enquiry, it’s clear that many of the remaining GM divisions no longer know the location of their historical documents, much less how they are organized or how researchers can gain access.
Rumor has it that GM Research (at the GM Tech Center in Warren) has a library of technical papers dating back to its beginnings: a treasure trove of information about the development of the automobile. Who’s protecting this legacy? In fact, who owns it: Old GM or New?
These irreplaceable records must not be lost in the confusion of bankruptcy and reorganization. There are a number of potential homes for the material. The National Automotive History Collection in Detroit, the Benson Ford Archives, the archives at Kettering University, the Ransom E. Olds museum, or the University of Michigan, are all possibilities. There are others in and around Detroit.
It will take two things to make this happen: money and talent.
All of the archives and records could be transferred to a safe haven for under $2 million dollars. That’s roughly 0.04% of the latest check the feds cut GM to ensure the company’s “reinvention.” As the federal government has already underwritten the reorganization of GM and Chrysler, as Uncle Sam more or less owns these carmakers, underwriting the preservation of their archives is the least our elected representatives could do for our money.
Detroit has plenty of talent to make the rescue. The National Automotive History Collection, the Society of Automotive Historians, and countless other museums and libraries all have employees with the knowledge and the motivation to safely transport and secure the archives. With a little financial support from the federal government, and a little “empowerment” from the same place, teams of historians could ferret out the records within GM and protect them for future generations.
Ironically (given Henry Ford’s supposed view of history), Ford has shown us how it should be done. All of the company’s records have have been transferred to the Henry Ford [Museum] and to the Benson Ford Archives—and made accessible to researchers. Ford’s actions should be a blueprint for saving the rest of our automotive heritage.
Thanks to the $100 billion plus taxpayer Detroit bailout, Chrysler and GM’s historical records now belong to all of us. I urge you to e-mail your congressmen and senators, asking them to ensure that Chrysler and GM’s records are preserved in the public’s interest.
Few politicians, if any, are interested in automotive history. Witness President Obama’s absurd assertion that “America invented the automobile.” But all elected officials are interested in votes. Let them know you care. Let them know that the companies that failed to learn from history shouldn’t lose it for those who can.