By on November 11, 2010

Occasionally, when talking to other car folks, I’ll hear, “well, you live in Detroit”. It can mean different things. Sometimes it’s an accusation of jingoist bias in favor of the domestic automakers. I plead guilty in not wanting to see lots of my neighbors and customers unemployed. Other times, it’s more wistful, more envious. For a car guy, Detroit can be Mecca and nirvana on Christmas morning with a cherry on top. I don’t have to fly in for press events at the Big 3 and because there are so many automotive writers around here, even the foreign brand press fleet is stocked pretty nicely.

Though not as common as they once were, you can still take a factory tour at Ford’s [not quite so] giant [anymore] Rouge complex, and while you’re in Dearborn it’s definitely worth your while to visit the Henry Ford Museum. Just one note, you won’t find it listed under that name. A few years ago, for some insane marketing reason, the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village decided to rebrand itself, choosing “The Henry Ford”. I suppose that goes over big with museum curators – I’m sure that everyone in Manhattan knows what the Guggenheim is, but in a region that has hospitals and schools named after Henry Ford (I & II), dropping Museum from the eponymous Henry Ford, is just confusing and a little too precious.

The Henry Ford Museum (see, I refuse to comply) has an outstanding automotive and automobilia collection, but it’s really more about modern life than anything else. The Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills is a bit more focused on cars. Though not generally open to the public, GM’s Heritage Center surely is of interest to any car enthusiast, GM or otherwise. But there’s one point of automotive interest in Detroit that, though not nearly as well known as the OEM-associated museums,  is truly a treasure. The National Automotive History Collection at the Rose & Robert Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library is the largest publicly accessible automotive archive in the world. The collection’s oldest book was published in 1896, and with help from The Friends of the NAHC, the collection continues to grow with a good selection of recent automotive titles.

Even the building that houses the NAHC has an automotive link. The firm of Smith Hinchman, and Grylls, who did much of the architectural work for Dodge Brothers, designed that library branch, and its successor firm did the recent renovation.

In addition to a variety of automotive books, the NAHC includes domestic and foreign factory service manuals, owners’ manuals, brochures and other sales literature, advertising, automobilia, original artwork, business papers and manuscripts. The personal papers of industry notables like Charles Duryea and the Knudsens are also part of the collection, as are a large number of factory photographic images and motorsports photography.

The NAHC is an invaluable resource to hobbyists, restorers, automotive historians, writers… simply anyone with an interest in cars. If you’re researching an automotive topic and can’t find the book or photo that you’re looking for, the NAHC probably has it. The NAHC deserves our support. Any time you are in the Detroit area, it’s worth a visit.

Actually, there’s an event coming up at the NAHC itself that’s worth a trip to the Motor City. On November 20, 2010, the Friends of the National Automotive History Collection will be hosting the 5th annual Automotive Authors Day at the Rose and Robert Skillman Branch, 121 Gratiot Avenue, in downtown Detroit (right behind the Compuware Headquarters). At the time of publication, 25 authors have agreed to participate. The authors and their works are varied, including academic and popular histories, as well as cultural and more graphically oriented books. Perhaps the best known is Paul Ingrassia, who’s written about the auto industry for the Wall Street Journal, and will be flacking , Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road From Glory to Disaster. Charles Hyde, author of a number of fine academic automotive histories will be promoting Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors. There are authors who have written about Mustangs and Corvettes, Mopar racers and Yugos. There is even something for the Booth Babe, Margery Krevsky and her Sirens of Chrome, The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models. Bring your checkbook or credit card because I’m sure you’ll find at least a couple of books that you’d like to buy and have autographed. Make sure you also make out a donation to the NAHC.

Press release below.

Fifth Annual Automotive Authors Day
Saturday, November 20, 2:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Detroit Public Library
Rose and Robert Skillman Branch
121 Gratiot Avenue
(In downtown Detroit behind the Compuware Headquarters)

Historians and motor heads of all ages are invited to attend Detroit’s largest gathering of automotive history writers. Over twenty authors who write about the world of cars and their societal impact will assemble in the Skillman Library, home to the National Automotive HIstory Collection, to share with the public their passion for all things automotive. Books will be available for purchase.

Attended parking is available in the Compuware visitor lot south of the Skillman Branch on Farmer Street. This event is free and open to the public. For a complete listing of participating authors, and maps of the area, please visit Other inquiries may be directed to The DPL Friends Foundation office at 313-481-1357 or [email protected]

Participating Authors Include:

Lindsay Brooke, Ford Model T: The Car That Put the World on Wheels

Mark Cantey, Driving Style: GM Design’s First Century

John Clor, The Mustang Dynasty

Tom Cotter, The Corvette in the Barn, The Cobra in the Barn and other “Car in the Barn” books

Mike Davis, Detroit Area Test Tracks

Arthur Einstein, “Ask the Man Who Owns One”: An Illustrated History of Packard Advertising

Patrick Foster, Kaiser-Frazer history; Studebaker: The Complete History; and books on American Motors and Jeep

Robert Gabrick, Go the Greyhound Way: The Romance of the Road and Sterling Trucks Photo Archive

Robert Genat, Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip

John Heitmann, The Automobile and American Life

Charles Hyde, Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors

Paul Ingrassia, Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road From Glory to Disaster

Margery Krevsky: Sirens of Chrome, The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models

Randy Leffingwell, Muscle: America’s Legendary Performance Cars and Legendary Corvettes

David Lewis, The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company

Jim Luikens, Standard Catalog of Mercedes-Benz

Walt McCall, City Service Hook-&-Ladder Trucks, Encyclopedia of American Fire Engine Manufacturers

Thomas McPherson, Miller-Meteor: The Complete Illustrated History and The Henney Motor Company

David Newhardt, Art of the Muscle Car and books on Camaro and GTO

Timothy O’Callaghan, Ford in the Service of America

Tracy Powell, American Auto Legends and Cadillac at 100

David Rockwell, We Were the Ramchargers: Inside Drag Racing’s Legendary Team

Jim Schild, Maximum Performance: Mopar Super Stock Drag Racing, 1962 – 1969 and Proving Ground: A History of Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth Racing

Jason Vuic, The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

Anthony Yanik, Maxwell Motor: And the Making of Chrysler Corporation

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16 Comments on “A National Treasure: The Detroit Public Library’s National Automotive History Collection...”

  • avatar
    Almost Jake

    I live in the greater Detroit area, just blocks from the Ford engineering and development center. Believe me, I do not have a Detroit bias, far from it. Also, having my Scion vandalized on the street in front of my house because its a Toyota product just drove that wedge deeper. (I had only lived in the state for 6-7 months, so its not like I pissed someone off.)

    Also, if you ever think about visiting the Automotive Hall of Fame, its geared toward pioneers of the auto industry. I expected to see great automobiles, and instead only found 3 or 4 cars. No wonder the parking lot is always empty.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s an interesting idea, an automobile hall of fame where the hall honorees are all cars and trucks.
      If there was such an automobile Hall of Fame, which ten cars would you nominate for the inaugural  membership class? Should it have different classifications, like the baseball HOF has for broadcasters? One problem with the NASCAR hall of fame is that they mix drivers, promoters, team owners, etc. all in one pot.
      Off the top of my head for street cars:
      Ford Model T
      Buick  Model C
      VW Beetle
      Austin  Mini
      1964 1/2 Mustang
      1963 Corvette Sting Ray
      1957 Chevy
      Lotus Esprit
      Ferrari F40
      1959 Cadillac
      Chaparral 2E
      Lola T70
      Jaguar D-Type
      Lotus 38 (the Indy winner, too lazy to double check the Lotus model number)
      Lotus 78
      Mercedes 1930s racers
      Auto Union 1930s racers
      Marmon Wasp
      Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America
      Porsche 917-30

    • 0 avatar

      For street cars you must include:
      Jeep Cherokee (XJ)
      Chrysler minivan
      Range Rover
      There are many more

  • avatar

    When I was an engineering student, I spent a couple days of one summer off  hitch-hiking from Evanston IL to Dearborn, so I could take a look at the Ford Museum’s MB W196.  I went to the museum director’s office and asked for a personal tour of the car, and some of the stuff that is in storage, like X-engines, machines, cars, etc.  Was well worth the trouble of riding 700mi or so on my thumb in 1972

  • avatar

    Thank you for this, Ronnie.
    Every spring I keep promising myself a couple of days in Detroit for Greenfield, NAHC, Detroit Public Library, etc. This is the year I’ll do it — hopefully with an eventful Tigers game as icing on the cake.  Again, much appreciated.

    • 0 avatar

      One of the things I like about TTAC is that we can be arguing tooth and nail about politics on one thread and be complimentary on another. Thanks.
      When I visited the NAHC recently, I was going there to look at Bruce Mohs’ autobiography (about what you’d expect from a self-promoter like Mohs), but while I was there I ended up looking up another obscure automotive personality, Sol A. Dann, and it turns out they had a couple of clippings. A very cool place where you can do some truly old school research.
      I don’t know if Ed’s going to run my review of Lawrence Gustin’s book about David Buick, but Gustin said that the original manuscript was 50% too long for the publisher (it’s more of a popular than academic history), and he donated the full text to the NAHC.

  • avatar

    The Ford Museum is awesome, worth a trip for anyone who loves automobiles or trains or just about anything that moves. E.g., you can see the Ford GT40 Dan Gurney drove at Le Mans, with “Gurney bubble” in the bodywork to accommodate the 6′-3″ driver. There are many other one-of-a-kind items, all beautifully restored and displayed.

  • avatar

    a little known treasure is the Richard P Scharchburg Collection of Industrial History at Kettering in Flint.

  • avatar
    Almost Jake

    I agree, the Henry Ford Museum is something every car enthusiast should see. The Ford Plant tour is pretty good too. They bus you to the eco-friendly state-of-the-art F-150 plant which is next to the famous Rouge plant (the dungeon). They show you an amusement park style video (with motion activated chairs), and then let you walk the F-150 assembly line. Worth the money, but once is enough.
    I often tell my wife that Ford used to allow tours of the Rouge plant. As a 6th grader, my class was taken on the tour. Imagine 35 6th graders walking a dirty cat-walk suspended 50 feet above molten iron-ore as its being poured, cooled, and shaped into steel. We loved it, but I remember that the teachers were terrified that they would lose a kid. Imagine the conversation with a distraught parent, “I’m sorry to inform you that little Timmy had an accident today on the tour. He was accidentally added to the new Mustang model line. Sorry.”

    • 0 avatar

      I had the opportunity to serve as guest to a group of kids down here. They were in average 4-6 years old. It was Awesome.
      I would like to repeat the experience with kids more or less of 6th grade age. I think at that age they can be wowed more by a car plant.
      I’d also love to take my boy to one, and when it arrives, my next son/daughter.

    • 0 avatar

      The catwalk at the Rouge steel mill. What a sensory experience. I was 7 when I first did the Rouge plant tour. A distant cousin of my mom’s was visiting from Israel, he knew less English than my three years of Hebrew day school Hebrew, so I was pressed into duty as a translator. A couple of years back during the NAIAS press days, they had a shuttle over to the Rouge plant tour. Ford’s bending over backwards to be green. They try to impress you with a sound and light show but nothing compares to a real steel mill. 110 degrees, molten steel, real sparks, everything a little boy could want.
      And the actual assembly plant. Sure the Dearborn Truck Plant shows you a body drop, but in the old plant tours, other than the steel mill, you walked at floor level. I guess the nannies and insurance companies won’t permit that stuff anymore. Once Hershey’s figured out that people would pay money to take an amusement park ride through an ersatz chocolate factory, real factory tours were doomed. Heck, in Detroit you used to be able to take tours at all the car companies, Vernor’s bottling plant, Stroh’s beer. Now I think the Rouge “tour” is the only one.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a shame. Every kid (of some age) in elementary should have the chance to see how cars are made. Or other products. But visiting local factories and see how products are made is very nice.
      Manufacturing is neither a dirty word or job. Is actually awesome, more so with the current available technologies.

  • avatar

    I left Detroits forever in June ’09…but that building was boarded up forever…Vicente’s Cuban Cuisine is pretty close…if you go to library, check out Vicente’s

  • avatar

    For a car guy, Detroit can be Mecca and nirvana on Christmas morning with a cherry on top.
    Ditto. So much that I still preserve at home Kettering’s (or GMI or whatever is called now) brochure for studying over there.
    I know one “internet friend” from over there. He posts pics of the city building from time to time, and it’s saddening how they’re abandoned and vandalized, example, the train station.

  • avatar

    I will make it a point to visit as much as possible when I am there fior the Auto show this winter.

  • avatar
    Almost Jake

    Blight can be seen everywhere. Below are two links, one has a number of pictures of homes of the automotive pioneers in Detroit. You’ll see homes from Edsel Ford, Henry Ford, Charles Nash, Oliver Leo Beaudette, Lawrence Fisher, John Dodge, etc. The other link shows the locations of historic neighborhoods in the Detroit area, including the Boston-Edison district, where a number of these are located (just off Woodward Ave. near downtown).

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