National Hudson Motor Car Company Museum Opens, Obscures History

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

What it used to look like. Gallery of 2011 Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum photos here.

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.

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 (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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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4 of 23 comments
  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Sep 29, 2014

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Sep 29, 2014

      @Bangernomist Thanks!

  • Mdensch Mdensch on Sep 30, 2014

    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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