By on September 27, 2014

This past weekend, the big annual Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti was augmented by the grand opening of the National Hudson Motor Car Museum, also in Ypsilanti. While I’m usually excited about the opening of new car museums, though the region is gaining what appears to be a fine, professionally run museum, the development means that you can no longer see a unique display of automotive history.

What it looks like now. Full gallery here.

What it looks like now. Full gallery here.

The new museum, a project of the National Hudson Essex Terraplane Historical Society, will be located in the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. The Ypsilanti museum is housed in the building of  what eventually became the last surviving Hudson dealership, Miller Motors. Jack Miller, the son of the founder of Miller Motors, started the YAHM in 1996, to honor both his family’s history and the history of making cars in Ypsilanti. As a result, the YAHM has been focused on Kaiser-Frazers (built at Willow Run) and Tucker (Preston Tucker lived in Ypsi and much of the design and engineering of the Tucker car was done there), in addition to the Hudson and Nash marques that the Miller’s sold as well as Corvairs and GM Hydramatic transmissions, also built in Ypsilanti. Over the years the museum has expanded beyond the original Miller Motors walls and now also occupies an adjacent former post office.

Miller Motors' repair department in as-was-in-1959 condition. Full gallery here.

Miller Motors’ repair department in as-was-in-1959 condition (2011 photo). Full gallery here.

The Miller Motors building has been used as a car dealership since it was first used to sell Dodges in 1916. In the late 1920s it switched to Hudson and in 1932 Carl Miller, Jack’s dad, and a partner bought the shop and ran it as a Hudson store until the brand died in 1957 following the creation of American Motors with the merger of Nash and Hudson. Miller eventually bought out his partner and the store sold 30-60 cars a year, a reasonable number for a single brand dealership in a small city. The Millers continued to sell AMC Nashes and Ramblers until 1959 when they were pressured by AMC to modernize the vintage showroom that only had room for one new car. Carl Miller decided to drop the franchise and concentrate on service and used car sales. Later Jack used the firm to sell parts to Hudson collectors and the dealership’s service bays were used to restore cars. Miller continued to sell at least one restored Hudson, Essex or Terraplane every year to maintain the shop’s status as “the last Hudson dealer” until he sold off his stock of parts when he started the museum.

IMG_0345

The same space today. Full gallery here.

Since the Orphan Car Show is penciled in as a must see for me every year, I used the opportunity of being in Ypsi to visit Miller Motors and the new Hudson museum and I’m sorry to say that I came away rather disappointed. The development of the new Hudson museum is related to the fact that Jack Miller retired. When Miller and his team of volunteers ran the museum it was very much a grassroots and family operation. The displays, however, although definitely worthwhile, were a bit haphazard. It was not the most sophisticated operation but it was charming. Also, the YAHM allowed you to see something that you weren’t likely to see anyplace else, what a car dealership in the 1950s looked like. The service department and the parts counter appeared pretty much as they did when the shop stopped selling new Hudsons and Nashes.

People used to be frugal and had spark plugs "serviced" with a sand blaster instead of just replacing them.

People used to be frugal and had spark plugs “serviced” with a sand blaster instead of just replacing them. Full gallery here.

Now I’m not naive. I’m sure that it wasn’t exactly as it was in 1959 and that over the years the Millers added artifacts and memorabilia but the vibe was authentic, as were the grease stains on the floor. Now everything is shiny and clean.

Preston Tucker lived in Ypsilanti and much of the engineering and design for the Tucker automobile was done there. This is one of three replica Tuckers used in the filming of the Tucker biopic. Full gallery here.

Preston Tucker lived in Ypsilanti and much of the engineering and design for the Tucker automobile was done there. This is one of three replica Tuckers used in the filming of the Tucker biopic. Full gallery here.

Unless you had an interest in the specific marques or had a thing about automatic transmissions, I thought the building itself was the best part of the museum. I try to be a bit of a booster for local museums and I’d encourage people to drive out to Ypsilanti just to see the Miller Motors service department and parts counter. Those attractions, though, no longer exist as they have for years. As part of the new Hudson museum the former parts department has been redecorated as a vintage sales office and the service department now is display space for Hudson cars. While there is still vintage repair equipment, like a spark plug refurbisher and a hand cranked ignition key grinder, it’s just not the same. It used to look like a functioning repair shop. Now it looks like a museum.

A section of the museum devoted to Kaiser-Frazer cars, which were assembled in Ypsilanti. Full gallery here.

A section of the museum devoted to Kaiser-Frazer cars, which were assembled in Ypsilanti. Full gallery here.

I don’t want to be Debbie Downer here and I understand that museums can’t be static, they have to change with the times. There are many advantages to the establishment of the Hudson sub-museum. The rest of the museum is a bit more organized and things are displayed a bit better, though it seems to me that the Tucker display is smaller and less comprehensive. Though Tucker enthusiasts have lost, Hudson enthusiasts have gained. The NHETHS is thrilled to have a museum less than an hour’s drive from where Hudsons were built in Detroit. Cars like Herb Thomas’ #92 “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” NASCAR racer (made newly popular as the Paul Newman voiced “Doc Hudson” in the animated movie Cars) are now properly displayed and there are plans to use the original one-car showroom to highlight significant Hudson cars over the years.

IMG_0342

Significant Hudsons will take turns on display in what was Miller Motors’ one-car new car showroom. Full gallery here.

I’m sure that Hudson enthusiasts are happy, but I walked away from the Ypsilanti museum, which I’ve visited regularly, disappointed for the first time. They’ve unquestionably set up an impressive museum devoted to one of the more important independent automakers. In the manner in which they set up that museum, though, I believe that the National Hudson Essex Terraplane Historical Society did a disservice to automotive history. Don’t get me wrong, the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum and the National Hudson Motor Car Company Museum are certainly worth a visit, particularly if you have an interest in American independent automakers, Corvairs or automatic transmissions, but I get the feeling that in their zeal to set up the Hudson museum organizers didn’t realize they were changing something very special.

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 get a parallax view 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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23 Comments on “National Hudson Motor Car Company Museum Opens, Obscures History...”


  • avatar
    rudiger

    Agreed. This is akin to the tribute cars where someone will take an otherwise really nice, old, original, lower-tier model car and ‘improve’ it by making all sorts of trim and equipment changes that deviate from the way it came from the factory.

    They may think they’ve improved the original Miller Motors building by artificially cleaning it up, but they’ve really made it worse.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      “Artificially cleaning it up”…as opposed to doing it naturally? Call in the forest animals to do an overly-rehearsed song-and-dance number? :P

      But, yeah, with all due respect to the work those “tribute artists” put in, screw them. The average Dodge Challenger was more often than not an SE with a vinyl top, wire wheels, puke-green exterior and a 318 or even a Slant-Six, and to take all that away to fit one’s personal view of 1970 being a year when everyone had a 383-powered R/T in Plum Crazy is just wrong.

  • avatar
    Drzhivago138

    It could be an unfortunate side-effect of our litigious society. I’m sure more than a few things in that period-correct 1950s garage would be considered hazardous to the average visitor. Hell, more than a few things in a 2010s garage could be considered hazardous to the average visitor…but all it would’ve taken was a cord stretched across a walk-space and an overzealous visitor whose brother-in-law was a personal injury lawyer and the whole place could’ve been shut down for good.
    Which, admittedly, would be an incredibly unlikely occurence, given the genial nature of most antique/vintage indie car fans, but it’s better to have a sterile version of the original than nothing at all.

  • avatar
    George B

    My brother used to live about a block from Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. Glad I visited it in 2008 and 2010. Too bad they didn’t preserve the parts department and garage feel of the museum. Could have kept the parts display case and stained floors while organizing the exhibits better. It was an unorganized mix of Hudson, Corvair, GM automatic, and Tucker. Maybe they should have moved cars in and out of a representative shop instead of building a larger static display.

  • avatar
    zifster

    I stumbled on the original shop while on a business trip, in the mid eighties, and actually met the owner as he was having lunch at the bar next door. He was such a nice guy, showed me all the cars, I especially remembered the Corvairs, and what a great person he was to take the time to talk to a young guy from New England. The shop was packed to gills, with every conceivable auto part and tool. There would no way in this litigious society that the original shop could be made into a museum.

    We should all be thrilled that a group of enthusiasts found a way to preserve automotive history, so that some young guy can again experience automotive history, because isn’t that the most important facet of all of this?

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Another good article Ronnie, thanks.

    Number 92, the Hudson Hornet. I did some research into Ypsi, it was quite an industrious town.

    Here’s an interesting link that tells the tale of how the Hudson Museum ended up with the Number 92 Hornet.

    http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2014/05/05/original-fabulous-hudson-hornet-nascar-racer-to-be-added-to-national-historic-vehicle-register/?refer=hccweekly

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Ronnie and the rest of TTAC contributors,
    This site looks fantastic. It looks like it has some great historical content. Enjoy!

    https://www.historicvehicle.org/

    I only just read the 10 best drives. One drive which is only 30min from my mother’s I will do, again. Route 40 through Egg Harbor, just west of Atlantic city.

    I might do the 10 drives when I retire in a couple of years.

  • avatar
    Xeranar

    As a Historian who went through the MA side of a great program that also did public history I can say it is a loss but only in the respect of showing how a 1950s dealership/garage looked. We’re still rather close and sadly under appreciating our rapidly disappearing pre-war/inter-war/post-war history. We have historically accurate places like Old Economy Village & historic Williamsburg to represent our 19th and 18th century periods but sadly the 20th century is being left in the dust. I would say though that in this particular case it was a worthwhile trade off. There are other places still left intact ready for the restoration not to mention whole towns devoid of people that are left unchanged from the 1950s/1960s when industrial patterns shifted.

    Driving through central Texas this summer showed me atleast 2 or 3 viable towns that could be turned into early-20th century or mid-20th century show pieces. PA is littered with them as well. It’s sad to see change in some respects but it seems like it was a reasonable accommodation simply because you need to reach the average citizen visitor. Car enthusiasts are going to go either way, you need to rope in little Suzy or Jimmy with the better displays.

    • 0 avatar
      jimbob457

      Literature and the visual arts are, imo., usually the best media for capturing local history in its heart. Preserving Colonial Williamsburg, the Tower of London or the Liberty Bell is one thing. Preserving some dismal, no account, rural town is another. Disney does it far, far better.

      Have you actually visited any of the myriad small town historical museums across America? They are, with few exceptions, strictly for the locals and are usually closed.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Too bad you have a closed mind .

        I travel America by ground as often as I can and stopping in to the myriad tiny local Museums is fascinating and allows one to learn just why America is such a great country .

        History is great , if you can appreciate it .

        -Nate

      • 0 avatar

        It’s funny that you mention small town historical museums. In addition to the Orphan Car Show, I regularly attend two or three other car shows every year in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park. If the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, adjacent to the park, is open when I’m there, I’ll stop in. As I said in the original posts, I like museums.

      • 0 avatar
        Xeranar

        I have, in fact I try to visit atleast a few every year. My general rule of thumb is about 100-125 miles in any direction is game. In Arizona I did only a few, not much in the desert, but in PA I did tons in various states near by. Now in Louisiana I’ll probably visit a few dozen.

        The point you’re arguing is one of funding. The Smithsonian or the Carnegie Museums have millions if not billions in public and private funding. A tiny museum like the Hudson one mentioned above probably has about a million dollar annual budget at most. It isn’t that they aren’t trying it’s that they have to work within their means. It’s the causal issue with all systems of growth (i.e. if you’re small you tend to stay small & large stays large).

        I’ve actually had a few museums opened by the sole curator for a museum who’s paid 40K to run the whole operation and they’re wonderful passionate people. They provide the best that they can and we expect too much sometimes from limited operations. I may not see eye to eye with Ronnie on issues of political difference (and our interpretations on history vary) but I can recognize the historical values we should be preserving in these mini-museums.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    What a shame as it’ll never come back again .

    The local Metropolitan Nash Shop and Museum was ever so carefully crafted by Jimmy to look like a 1950’s Nash Dealer and parts room , it worked just fine but when he sadly passed away not long ago , the entire parts dept. facade was ripped out complete .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Toad

    Ronnie, I really enjoy your automotive history articles and learn something from every one. However, although I have never been to this Hudson Museum, I disagree with you about the updating.

    Virtually every town has an old garage or car dealership full of a combination of old stuff, interesting memorabilia, and junk. The problem is that it is generally a mess that few people want to sort through in order to see the good stuff. The insurance liability on that kind of place must be a nightmare.

    The pictures of the updated Hudson museum look like a clean, well organized display of period cars and relevant dealership related memorabilia; it looks like a car museum instead of grandpa’s garage. If making it clean, organized, and neat draws more visitors that is a big improvement for the Hudson Museum, fans of the Hudson brand, and automotive history in general.

    Progress can come at a price, but from your pictures it looks like the Hudson Museum folks did a very good job that will make their collection more accessible to more people. Ultimately that is a win.

    • 0 avatar

      You make good points, and I noted in the post that the new setup is, in general, an improvement and the museum is still worth a visit. I just wish they could have kept some of the old vibe. I think they could have kept the parts counter as is and in the service department they could have cleaned it up and made it less lawsuit friendly but still keep the look of a real service department while also using it as a display area for cars.

      Readers complain when car reviews are uniformly positive. Just because I like history and museums doesn’t mean that I’m uncritical about how history is portrayed at museums.

      I didn’t say so in the article but the housing of the Hudson Essex Terraplane club’s museum in the YAHM is likely part of a trend. The Gilmore car museum north of Kalamazoo houses a number of individual marque museums affiliated with national clubs like Pierce Arrows, Cadillacs, Franklin, their recently opened Ford Model A museum and the Lincoln museum they’re building. It makes a lot of sense.

      Museums change, they can’t remain static, and yeah it’s a drag when you expect to see something and it’s not there, either because displays have been changed or something’s out on loan. I’m happy that I was able to get photos and video of how it used to be.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    I was in these stores when they were functioning businesses. I am all for the updating of these to keep the shorter attention spans engaged, just wait to do it for about 10-15 years. Then the Disneyfication of history will be complete and everyone alive to call bullshit will be gone.

  • avatar
    relton

    I’ve been visiting Miller Motors ever since I bought my first Hudson in 1971.

    I think the new museum is a great improvement, in several ways.

    It makes the story of Hudson, and some of the important things Hudson did, much more accessible to a lot more people. Hardly anyone knows that Hudson invented the adjustable driver’s seat, something I’ve made sort of a career out of for the last couple of decades.

    The new museum also weeded out a lot of stuff that was totally unrelated to Hudson or Hudson dealers.

    I think Ron Bluehm, who now runs the place, and all the people who created the museum, and the Ypsilanti Automotive History Museum, deserve congratulations.

    Bob

  • avatar
    I've got a Jaaaaag

    Ok I’m a little confused here, for a few years there was a Hudson Museum in Shipshiwana IN, it closed a little while ago and when I was at the Gilmore Museum in August most of the collection was on display there. Has that collection been moved once again? Are there 2 astounding collections of Hudsons?

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    So Hudson and Nash were equivalent to ______ GM marque, roughly? I was thinking Nash made a name for itself making high-powered sedans relative to others, in the 40s.

  • avatar
    mdensch

    I usually visit the museum on the way to the Dream Cruise every August but for some reason skipped it this year. I’m anxious now to see the changes for myself. A big part of the charm was being located in an old garage and it looked, felt, and smelled like it—because it was the real deal.

    On the other hand, I did visit the Henry Ford for the first time in many years and was delighted to see that the rail car diner is no longer just a static display but actually serves food now.

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