I’m an unabashed booster of Detroit area institutions so it was with some sadness that I read that the Walter P. Chrysler Museum on the Chrysler campus in Auburn Hills will be closing to the public at the end of the year. Apparently admission fees and facility rentals were not sufficient to sustain continued operations.
The museum opened in 1999 and about 35,000 people visited the facility in 2011. Chrysler Group LLC, which already owns the museum’s building, will be purchasing the 67 vehicles in the museum’s collection in order to, as Bryce Hoffman of the DetNews put it, “protect the company’s patrimony.” The museum’s diverse collection reflects the many companies and brands in Chrysler history. Chrysler will continue to use the facility for corporate events and make it available for charities and special events so it appears that the facility will continue to be maintained as a museum, albeit a private one, similar to GM’s Heritage Center. I’m not just sad, I’m frustrated because the WPC Museum’s closing to the public is symptomatic of a number of Detroit area locations and institutions that are of great interest to car enthusiasts but end up not getting the attention they deserve. I called it the Henry Ford Museum effect.
If you say “cars”, “museum”, and “Detroit”, people will mention the Henry Ford Museum. Now the Ford Museum’s recently renovated Driving America exhibit (and the accompanying Racing In America display) is indeed one of the great car collections with about 140 vehicles on display (about 40% of the museum’s vehicle collection). Besides all of the historical Fords you’d expect to be there, and an outstandingly curated collection of other brands’ vehicles representing almost 120 years of automotive history, where else can you see a Bugatti Royale, a Tucker, a Cord and a Duesenberg, all just a few steps away from Jim Clark’s Indy 500 winning Lotus? The museum bills Driving America as “The World’s Premier Automotive Exhibition” and while there might be other museums and collections that would argue the point, it’s not just hyperbole.
The Henry Ford Museum’s car collection, while by itself is worth a visit, is only one facet of the entire museum, which is one of America’s great museums, with a pretty broad scope well beyond the world of automobiles. While gearheads will also appreciate the planes, trains and powerplants (Henry Ford’s primary interest was power generation, he was the chief operating engineer of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company before he started tinkering with automobiles), it’s a museum dedicated to the history of America so there are artifacts like the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was shot and the “Rosa Parks bus”, in addition to a large section devoted to the development of American domestic life.
On any weekday you can drive by the Henry Ford Museum and the parking lot will be full of families’ SUVs and minivans as well as buses for groups. When the Driving America exhibit was opened last winter, there was a gala banquet attended by Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood. If I’m not mistaken, the Ford Museum is the single most popular tourist attraction in the state of Michigan. That’s a problem for all the other lesser known museums in the Detroit area. It’s the 800 lb gorilla of museums around here and car museums in particular. While everyone is looking at the magnificent silverback, there are some very interesting chimps, baboons and other simians getting ignored.
I can think of about a half dozen museums and collections open to the public that would be of interest to just about any automobile enthusiast, just in the Detroit area alone. If you include western Michigan and northern Indiana, that number just about doubles. Some are more modest, others are significant collections with many rare and valuable cars and trucks, but they are all cool places to check out if you’re a car guy visiting Detroit or Michigan.
In southeastern Michigan, in addition to the Henry Ford Museum and the Walter P. Chrysler Museum (while it’s still open to the public), there’s the Piquette Avenue Model T factory, where the Model T and Ford’s assembly line were first developed. It’s now a museum with scores of early Fords and other marques. The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum is in what was the last surviving Hudson dealership and it’s in time capsule shape from the 1950s. The YAHM is the place to go to check out Hudsons, Nashes, and Kaiser Frazers, all cars built in Ypsi. Along with Corvairs, GM Hydramatic transmissions (also locally assembled) the museum also has a nice section devoted to Tucker and Preston Tucker, who lived and worked in Ypsilanti. Stahl’s Automotive Foundation in Chesterfield Twp has a fine collection of cars (though the curator was a jerk to me when I was there), and there’s even the small, but very cool single marque Wills Sainte Claire museum out in Marysville. The Detroit Historical Museum, which just reopened after a renovation and now has free admission, happens to own about six dozen very significant automobiles but doesn’t have room for all to be on display. Of course you can see cars at lots of museums but the DHM does have a singular installation. A two story wing of the museum has been installed with the body drop section of Cadillac’s former Clark Street assembly plant. In Livonia out at Nankin Mills, there’s a museum dedicated in part to Henry Ford’s “Village Industries” project of small, often hydro powered, factories that employed rural workers.
Those are all within an hour’s drive of Detroit. Going farther afield, in Spring Arbor, near Jackson is Ye Ole Carriage Shop, a private museum of cars, pedal cars and Coca Cola stuff owned by Lloyd Gaston. Tours are available by appointment. North of Kalamazoo, in Hickory Corners, is the Gilmore Car Museum. The Gilmore really deserves its own post. It’s a fabulous place with eight historic barns filled with cars of every era. A number of national clubs have affiliated with Gilmore so it now houses special collections of Pierce Arrows, Cadillacs & LaSalles, Franklins, and they are finishing construction on what will be a Model A museum.
Heading almost due south you get to South Bend, where the Studebaker National Museum is. Don’t forget to go down into the basement, where they keep cars in storage. As you drive from South Bend to Auburn, you might want to stop in Elkhart and visit the RV Museum and Hall of Fame to check out Mae West’s motorhome and vintage Winebagos and popup campers. Why drive to Auburn? Well, if you consider yourself a car guy and you’re near Auburn and you don’t visit the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, turn in your car guy card. Housed in the former Auburn headquarters and magnificent Art Deco factory showroom, the ACD museum has an unparalleled collection of America’s finest classic cars. It’s worth a drive to Auburn just to see the Cord E-1, but then you can probably say that about a couple dozen of the cars in the ACD museum. Next door to the ACD Museum in the former Auburn & Cord factory buildings is NATMUS, the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States, which is a bit lower rent than the collection next door, but it’s still worth a visit. To begin with, it has an outstanding museum within a museum, NATMATMUS, National Automotive & Truck Model & Toy Museum. A collection of pedal cars, scale models and other automotive toys dating to the 19th century. Their eclectic car collection ain’t bad either with the US road racing champion Essex Wire Cobra, a Curtiss-Wright Wankel powered Mustang and a Devin three wheeler. The museum has an emphasis on commercial vehicles so truck lovers will like it, particularly if they’re International Harvester fans. You will never see a more rust free Scout.
If you’re coming to Detroit next month for the 2013 NAIAS, it’ll be too late to visit the Chrysler Museum. As mentioned, that closes to the public at the end of the year, but if you do have the time I would urge you to visit any of the other museums mentioned here.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS