By on December 1, 2012

Chrysler Thunderbolt and Newport Show Cars in the atrium of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum

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

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33 Comments on “Walter P. Chrysler Museum to Close to Public – Chrysler Buys Collection to Preserve Heritage...”


  • avatar
    -Nate

    A sad thing indeed ~ what about corporate pride ? .
    -Nate

  • avatar
    JK43123

    Maybe the feds will bail the museum out!

  • avatar
    ultramatic

    Don’t forget the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Township. I don’t know if they have much of a car collection of their own, but they do host shows on the grounds now and then. It’s very much a work in progress, but there is a lot of fascinating history associated with the buildings. When I was there last time, there was even a small collection of WWII-era engines for tanks and ships that were manufactured by Packard. The historical information is pretty well curated, but it’s clear that it needs support to avoid being turned into a subdivision like the majority of the property already has been.

    • 0 avatar

      Ultramatic,

      The PPG is s great site but it’ll be a while before it’s on the level of, let’s say, the Model T factory on Piquette Ave, as a museum. A work in progress for sure, but every time I’m out there, they’ve made some progress.

      If you check the TTAC archives you’ll find a recent post of mine about a Duesenberg replica that was at the Packard Proving Grounds’ fall open house. I’ve also written about the PPG over at Cars In Depth a few times. It’s one of my favorite places in the Detroit area and I’ve visited it and shot photographs there about a half dozen times. If you’d like to see them, just go over to CID and search for the Packard Proving Grounds.

      The PPG is, I believe, the only place where Albert Kahn designed both residential and industrial buildings and unlike the decaying Packard plant out on Detroit’s East Grand Blvd, it’s not falling apart. The Packard community, the club and foundation, are role models for how they’ve purchased and started to restore the facility.

      I don’t think there’s any risk that the site will be turned into a subdivision. The Packard Motor Car Foundation owns it now, in essence they saved the facility with the cooperation of Ford Land Management, which owned it.

      One of these days I’m going to check out the west side of the original high speed oval where an industrial building is being demolished. In addition to the ~500′ of the test track that the Foundation owns and is preserving, if you check the satellite view on Google maps you can see that there is still quite a bit of the original concrete from the test track that still exists. I’d love to scavenge a chunk or two of concrete. It’d go with the red bricks that I scavenged from the site of the Studebaker factory down Piquette from the Model T plant, which burned to the ground a few years ago.

  • avatar
    jhefner

    My other interests is aviation and steam engines of all kinds; and the story is similiar across the entire preservation/museum industry. There are more museums and public collections than there are tourist dollars chasing them; and closings and consolidations will probably be an ongoing thing in the future.

    The larger museums will likewise have to rotate some exhibits, or jointly host other events (like antique car shows or military equipment events) to draw repeat visitors. The Henry Ford used to have a much, much larger steam engine collection than it does now; some were scrapped in the metal drives during WWII; and others were sold off I believe in the 1970s to make room for more contemporary and pop culture exhibits. It is something that angers and frustrates lovers of old iron; but as you point out, the Henry Ford continues to do great, even if it deviates a little from old man Ford’s original collection.

    What is getting slammed hard is the maritime and ship preservation field. The high price of scrap metal, coupled with the cubic dollars it takes to preserve them; has resulted in tremendous losses in the 10+ years I was researching the “Surviving World Steam Project.” Warships used to be the easiest to find funds and volunteers to support, but even they are in danger of closure and scrapping. Consider the U.S.S. Olympia — built in 1892; it was Admiral Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, where he uttered the famous words “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley;” and went on to wipe out the Spanish fleet in a major victory. It is a National Historic Engineering Landmark, and one of the only intact pre-dreadnought battleships still remaining; but it now needs millions in repair work to stay afloat, or it too will be closed and sold for scrapped.

    @JK43123; you may have been kidding; but musuems as a whole can also no longer count on dwindling government funds to help keep their doors open. If they cannot stay afloat from donations, gift shop sales, admission fees and facility rentals; they will be in trouble.

    Ronnie has the right idea; museums are an inexpensive and educational place to visit and take family. They also don’t have to be boring; the good ones do a good job of drawing you in to tell their story. Visit your local museums while you still can; many may not be there in the future.

  • avatar
    AoLetsGo

    Nice summary Ronnie and color me negligent regarding the Chrysler museum. I will get over there sometime this month though. A good follow-up piece would be Michigan auto themed bars and restaurants. A brand new one opened this week in Northville called the Garage it is in a converted 1940’s art deco gas station and they did a nice job with the theme.

  • avatar
    KalapanaBlack

    The Henry Ford is a truly awesome place to visit. They have something for everyone. They Dymaxion house was sweet, as were the JFK limos and the timeline of automotive history with the first-gen Accord, the original Curved Dash Olds, first-gen Escort, and the original Taurus tested by Motor Trend for their Car of the Year award (which it won).

    I’m also rather partial to the Automotive Hall of Fame. It’s a pretty well-kept secret with a very clean and inviting if somewhat smaller layout than the gargantuan Henry Ford, friendly staff, a top-notch collection, and some very interesting factual displays. It was also quiet as a tomb everytime I went, which happened to be during the NAIAS and cannot be said of the Ford. I hope it doesn’t suffer this same fate.

    • 0 avatar

      Good catch, sorry I forgot that one. I’ve written about the AHoF here at TTAC before. It’s on the edge of the Henry Ford Museum site, about a minute’s drive from my cousin’s ophthalmology clinic in Dearborn where my mom goes for some regular treatments. I hate sitting in doctors’ offices so I’ll drop her off and hang out at the AHoF. The director of the AHoF is Bill Chapin, the son of Roy Chapin Jr. who ran AMC and Roy Chapin Sr. who ran Hudson.

      The AHoF doesn’t have a large number of cars on display, probably fewer than a dozen – it’s focused more on the personalities, but it’s worth a visit, particularly if you’re already visiting the Ford museum or the adjacent Greenfield Village.

  • avatar
    W.

    While the “Henry Ford Effect” might be a very real thing, there are a lot more aspects to the museum world that people in the for-profit world just don’t understand. Having worked in museums for the last ten years, the conceit that admission can in any way shape or form can fill the coffers for a museum has been debunked. Facility rentals and grants are the two major ways that museums raise money, and if those two areas are lacking, then there is no hope.

    The other flaw in these ideas is that there has to be coordination and cooperation between institutions like this. It’s fortunate that The Henry Ford museum is as well off financially as it is, and in turn they should do everything they can to help the smaller organizations. In fact, they may very well be doing this, but if the operating structure of these other organizations isn’t there, then no amount of outside help can matter.

    The biggest downfall of the Walter P. Chrysler museum, if I had to guess, is Chrysler itself. Instead of providing operating resources to the museum, when Chrysler was on the ropes they probably slashed to near zero their contributions, and that was the end of the story.

    It’s a sad day for sure that this collection is closing to the public, but it’s better than a few years ago when Chrysler destroyed it’s archive (http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2009/07/editorial-chrysler-destroys-its-historical-archives-gm-to-follow/)

    History is important folks, just as important as math and science.

    • 0 avatar

      Facility rentals are important, even the GM Heritage Center can be rented out for some events. I once asked the GMHC if they’ll rent it out for a wedding and they said no, but you can have a charity fundraiser or corporate meeting there.

      You can get married at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, which has a banquet room and catering facilities.

      Ironically part of the competition for charity event rentals are the private collections and museums who allow the use of their facilities for charity events. Back when collector Richard Kughn had his private CarRail museum I attended a fundraiser for Bar Ilan University there. I know that Ken Lingenfelter opens up his facility in Brighton to charities, and the Stahl’s museum (whose curator was a jerk to me), which is only open to the public for three hours a week (can we say “rich guy’s tax sheltered car collection”?) also works with charities.

      Chrysler didn’t destroy its archives. That was one particular library, I think an engineering library, at the HQ in Auburn Hills. Chrysler Historic Services, which is still located in Detroit, houses the corporate archives and historical records. Also, the corporate car collection is not housed in Auburn Hills but rather in warehouses elsewhere.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Chrysler destroyed much more of its historical treasure during its first brush with bankruptcy.

    My boss, a normally very intelligent guy, once told me how in those days, they threw all the engineering drawings for the early marques, like Maxwell, into dumpsters… The rally cry was something like “say goodbye to the old Chrysler corp. because we are the new Chrysler corp.”

    Pity, they probably could have given them to the Detroit historical, or the automotive history collection at the Detroit library, both of which were wealthier and healthier then.

  • avatar
    Colinpolyps

    Having been fortunate enough to tour both the Henry Ford and the ACD in Auburn In, I feel I have seen the best. Add Greenfield Village to the Henry and you have a great slice of Americana. Thank God for preservationist and collectors.
    As I recall the Henry Ford does not limit itself just to Ford brands which I felt was most kind of the trustees. Note to summer visitors– Henry built the museum without a provision for air conditioning. At least there was none on my visit some ten years back and also at that time they had the Motown Museum on display within its confines for a real bonus.

    • 0 avatar
      css28

      They air conditioned it a few years ago, so no worries on that count.

      I live about 4 miles from the Walter P, so I’ll give it a last visit after Christmas.

      I was sad to see the Meadowbrook Concours move out a couple of years ago. Things change.

      – Chris

      • 0 avatar

        The Concours is doing just fine at St. John’s. I live in southern Oakland County so both locations are about the same 25 minute drive for me. Apparently, after raising quite a bit of money for the maintenance of Meadow Brook Hall, the concours organizers were put off by actions of Oakland Univ., which owns the Dodge estate. They actually have more room to work with at St. John’s and the event seems to be thriving there.

  • avatar
    Omnifan

    Ronnie, thanks for the list of museums. I’ve lived here most of my life and haven’t touched too many of them. Was at the WPC last August, little did I know that it was going to close. I worked at Chrysler in the late 70s when it was going down. They did shutter the corporate library along with anything else that cost money. I’m sure that a lot of history went out with the trash. They did a massive head count reduction in salaried staff through a buyout. 90% left on Friday to be rehired as contractors on Monday. But it saved money.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    While I will regret the loss. The Chrysler museum was a disappointment to me when I visited a few years ago.
    Not enough cars due to very little space.
    I`m sure that Fiat will find a way to keep it alive in one form or another.
    Can`t kill the cash cow!

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Ronnie, this post should be a “sticky” at the top of the page, along with the post on the Brain Melting Colorado Junkyard. The others are just old hat and need to be replaced anyway.

  • avatar
    ranwhenparked

    I think too many people are missing the broader point here – the collection was saved and the museum will continue to exist, it just won’t be open to the general public, which is a shame for the people who care, but it’s not actually that big of a loss, because the general public wasn’t visiting it anyway.

    Chrysler likely doesn’t want to take on the expense of having to fully staff the museum for regular public hours, but at least by owning it and preserving it, the option of opening it back up later on, even for limited hours, still exists. I don’t think it would be totally out of line for Chrysler to wind up maybe doing Saturday hours for the public at some point. The WPC Museum was specifically designed and built to handle large crowds as a public museum, so it doesn’t have some of the logistic problems GM might use as excuses to keep the Heritage Center closed.

  • avatar
    Loser

    Very good info, one of the most interesting/useful posts I have read on here.

  • avatar
    slow kills

    In the days of the 800 word limit, I probably would have read this entire article. I have no idea why that was dropped.

  • avatar
    acuraandy

    No offense to MoTown, but the entire city proper is about to become a museum of American glory lost in globalization.

    Did I hear correctly the other day about a Michigan state assemblyman proposing UNincorporating the City of Detroit? Wasn’t Detroit a city before the US existed?

    That said, I would really like to take a few days and check these museums out. Good info, ill be bookmarking this.

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    Post industrial Detroit is awesome, it allows for things like this:

    http://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/December-2010/On-Track/index.php?cparticle=1&siarticle=0#artanc

    And this:

    http://thunderdrome.com/

    It’s much more complicated that globalization. Much of the work has just shifted around in the US. And an even larger factor is automation.

    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/10/technology-explains-drop-in-manufacturing-jobs

    Even China had more manufacturing jobs in 1996 than it does now.

    http://andrewmcafee.org/2012/09/mcafee-rapid-productivity-growth-us-china/

  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    This breaks my heart.

    I had the opportunity to visit the Walter P. back in 2008. I guess I’ll be heading back there in a few weeks. Who here will I be seeing on the Saturday before Christmas???

    In related news, I toured the Henry Ford last in October, and the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum in September. They are both well worth the visit.

    I’ve been to the A-C-D Museum in Auburn, and it is an incredible collection. I’ve been three or four times, and I’d definitely go back.

  • avatar
    George B

    Sad, sad news. I’ve visited the Walter P. Chrysler museum twice in recent years and enjoyed both visits. Best display of classic cars I’ve seen with lots of natural daylight. The admission was very inexpensive. I would have gladly paid twice as much. The main disadvantage was that the location wasn’t very tourist-friendly with a long drive north from the airport and other automotive sites. Lots of traffic if you leave the museum late in the afternoon.

  • avatar
    AJ

    Wow, this is sad news. I’ve been to WPC. It’s certainly worth seeing and what a bummer that all of those classics will be hidden away from the public.

    I too recall how little it cost to get in. Should have charged us more!

  • avatar
    Scottie

    for anyone looking for the one in Spring Arbor, MI. it’s lloyd ganton not lloyd gaston


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