Our current age is one of multistate megadealers, Carmax, Ebay, and an ever-growing number of other depersonalized ways to buy a car. In these giddy times of direct sales experiments and apps for online vehicle purchases, it’s easy to forget that local franchise car dealers were pillars of American community life for decades. At the Bob McDorman Automotive Museum in central Ohio, however, the days when car dealers were more than just a place to buy a shiny new consumer product are alive and well.
Located in the village of Canal Winchester, the Museum is a monument to the legacy of one of area’s most well-known Chevrolet dealers. Bob McDorman, 82 years young, began his career in car sales in 1953 when he was hired by a Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealer in London, Ohio. The first Corvette was also released that year, sparking McDorman’s lifelong fascination with America’s sports car. After he became a Chevrolet dealer in his own right in 1965, Corvettes formed the backbone of his own car collections. He was inducted into the National Corvette Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2012, in recognition of his contributions to both collecting and promoting the Corvette brand. McDorman has been in Canal Winchester since 1968, and his dealership is still a going concern.
The word “collections” isn’t a typo. Over the years McDorman accumulated three successive collections of GM cars, Corvettes, and memorabilia, which were then auctioned off. McDorman describes the thrill of the chase as his favorite aspect of collecting; the Museum represents his fourth collection of cars. Some of them were sold new by McDorman and were tracked down many years later. Others were cars that McDorman previously owned, but bought back when he decided to open the Museum. The Museum is in the process of adding more memorabilia to the walls, including vintage Chevrolet signs and other automobilia. Many of the light-up signs aren’t hung yet, but will be in place within the next few months.
The Museum isn’t enormous, but it has plenty of rarities and mint-condition originals. The 1957 Cameo you see above is one of one, the only truck produced in that color combination for that model year. My personal favorite is the 1960 Corvair Monza Club Coupe on display. A 10,000 mile unrestored original, the car is also one of McDorman’s favorites. There are several other mint 50s Chevrolets nearby. They might be the finest unrestored originals of their kind, including a delivery-mileage ’53 Corvette. McDorman states that the goal is to fill up the permanent display spots in the museum, while also having a few consignment cars for sale in the middle. McDorman sold a majority stake in his dealership to megadealer Jeff Wyler in 2011, and plans to retire fully in 2015 after fifty years with GM. Even so, he’ll keep his dealer’s license so that he can sell cars within the museum.
Although there are plenty of fantastic cars in the museum, they aren’t the reason that you should go to it; McDorman himself is the most compelling part of the exhibit. He’s seated at the desk in the first picture, flanked by the third and last production 1978 Corvette Pace Cars. He plans to be there, ready to talk to any visitor, whenever the museum is open (usually Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 10 am to 5 pm). This is the part where I admit I was more than a little overawed; he’s had more than twice my lifetime worth of experience in the car biz and he’s still sharp as a knife. Even so, he has a genuine approachability and affable disposition that must account for some of the endless number of customer satisfaction and GM dealer awards that carpet the walls. As a kid I went every year to the massive car show he would throw on his huge lot on the outskirts of Columbus. He’d have a large part of his own collection on display, and street rodders and Corvette people would come from near and far to take it in. Now he entertains a steady stream of visitors in his own museum. How many car dealers can claim that level of community rapport? Even dealership skeptics like me should enjoy chatting with McDorman, who is a genuine enthusiast and still quite knowledgeable about industry goings-on. It’s an opportunity you simply won’t get in most other car museums. As an experiment in living history, the Museum excels.