2006 Dodge Charger R/T in front of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum
2006 Dodge Charger R/T in front of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. Click image to enlarge

By Jil McIntosh

I’m a museum junkie. I love nothing more than prowling dusty corridors looking at glass cases full of artifacts; I am, after all, someone who spent her honeymoon at the Smithsonian. Combine that with a love of cars, and it was naturally off to Michigan, home of some of the world’s most fascinating automotive history.

I was driving a 2006 Dodge Charger R/T, and so my first stop was Auburn Hills. Here, DaimlerChrysler’s headquarters shares space with the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, named for the company’s founder.

1963 Chrysler turbine
One of the few remaining 1963 Chrysler turbine cars on display at the Chrysler Museum. It is one of three cars suspended and slowly spinning on a central pole in the museum’s foyer. Click image to enlarge

The modern, bright museum is smaller than I expected, but it’s still filled with a large number of vehicles, spread out over three floors. The building’s most famous feature is right inside the front door, where three vehicles slowly spin, suspended on a central pole and surrounded by a curved staircase with more cars parked at its base. The display changes, but during my visit it included a 1963 turbine car and the 1941 Thunderbolt show car.

Walter Chrysler in his workshop
A likeness of Walter Chrysler in his workshop; he was originally a railroad locomotive engineer. Visible in the lower right is a glass case containing his original toolbox and tools, which were displayed for several decades at the Chrysler Building in New York City. Click image to enlarge

The company’s story weaves loosely throughout the first floor displays, which include a Maxwell – the company Chrysler took over and re-named for his own – and an Airflow, a radically streamlined model introduced in 1934 and which turned out to be more of a sales fiasco than the Edsel. There are also several dioramas, including one of Walter Chrysler’s earliest days as a railroad locomotive engineer, and his Chrysler office. A plastic case preserves his original railroad toolbox and handmade tools, which spent many years on display in New York’s Chrysler Building, the skyscraper Walter built independently of the car company.

1929 Dodge Senior Six
A 1929 Dodge Senior Six at the Chrysler Museum. This was the first full year that Chrysler owned Dodge; it was also the first use of a downdraft carburetor in mass production. Click image to enlarge

The third floor display changes regularly, and at the moment, it’s devoted to Dodge; vehicles include a 1946 Power Wagon tow truck, 1929 Dodge Senior Six, a 1970 Challenger T/A and the concept car that became the 2005 Magnum.

But it’s the basement – known as the “garage” – where you’ll probably spend most of your time. An outer ring of cars and trucks surrounds an inner oval of race vehicles, along with interactive displays. Perhaps the most interesting is a “what were we thinking?” film, advertising some of the items Chrysler offered in the past: under-dash record players,

A 1909 Sears Auto Buggy. From 1908 until 1912, you could buy these through the Sears Catalogue for $395. Click image to enlarge

the Dodge “La Femme” with matching raincoat, and of course, Ricardo Montalban and his “rich Corinthian leather.” (There’s even a Cordoba show car on display, decked out in a silver version of the famous upholstery; some things are, indeed, better left forgotten.)

I was able to see the Chrysler Museum in a morning, but I took a full day when I headed down to Dearborn to the Henry Ford Museum, and needed all of it.

The museum is part of a larger complex, under the blanket name of The Henry Ford. It includes the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village (a huge outdoor display of almost 100 historical buildings and attractions), an IMAX Theatre, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, and the Benson Ford Research Centre.

1907 Seldon
After seeing a two-cycle gasoline engine at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition, lawyer George Selden filed a patent in 1895 for the automobile, and insisted that automakers pay him royalties on every car they made. Henry Ford balked, and eventually broke the patent. Despite the incorrect date on it, this is one of two vehicles built in 1907 from the patent drawings for court use. Click image to enlarge

Although automobiles occupy the largest section of the enormous Henry Ford Museum, there’s much more to it; there are also displays of trains, vintage home furnishings, agriculture, power generating, early airplanes, manufacturing, and the Dymaxion House, a round prefab concept home designed by Buckminster Fuller for returning World War Two veterans. Fuller couldn’t get funding and the project was abandoned; the display house is a compilation of the two that were built in 1946.

1896 Duryea
A 1896 Duryea at the Henry Ford Museum. It was the third one built and the only one remaining of an original run of 13 vehicles, making it North America’s first mass-produced automobile. Click image to enlarge

The automobile display is centred on a long loop that illustrates one hundred years in American automotive history, with various exhibits surrounding it. The number of historically significant cars is mind-boggling. Among them are the 1896 “Quadricycle”, the first car Henry Ford built; the 1901 “Sweepstakes”, which he took to victory in the only race he ever drove; a 1907 Selden, built for a court battle in an attempt to patent the automobile; an 1896 Duryea and 1902 Curved Dash Olds, North America’s first mass-produced cars; a 1903 Packard that was one of the first cars to cross the continent; and a 1924 Doble, the finest steam car of its day, but priced around US$8,000 when a Buick was US$1,475. There’s also a restored diner, a drive-in theatre, roadside cabins, an original motor hotel room, and numerous motorcycles, bicycles and, of all things, gasoline-powered roller skates. (Needless to say, they didn’t fare so well in the marketplace.)

The 1961 Lincoln in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Never one to waste a perfectly good car, the White House refitted the car in 1964 with armor plating, bulletproof glass and a “greenhouse” top, and it was used by Lyndon Johnson. Click image to enlarge

In the corridor leading to the automotive display is a line-up of White House vehicles, including the 1961 Lincoln in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated (refusing to let a good car go to waste, the White House refitted it in 1964 with armour plating, bullet-proof glass and a greenhouse top, and gave it to Lyndon Johnson to use); a 1950 Lincoln used by Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy; and a brougham, from around 1902, that was used by Teddy Roosevelt and finally retired, as the last horse-drawn presidential vehicle, when an automobile took over in 1928.

Museum guide Pam Nelson takes visitors through what may be the world’s most historically significant bus. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on this bus to a white rider, setting off a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus service and a legal battle that resulted in the end of legal segregation. Click image to enlarge

The main corridor also currently contains a very important bus. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was told to relinquish her seat to a white man. She refused. Her simple action set off a court battle that was to end in the legal dissolution of segregated transit, and a 381-day bus system boycott that was headed by Martin Luther King, Jr. The bus was retired in the early 1970s and parked in a field for thirty years, used as lumber storage. The Museum purchased and restored it – at a combined cost of over US$727,000 – and will eventually place it permanently in the new “With Liberty and Justice For All”, a display under construction and slated to open in early 2006.

One of the six 1931 Bugatti Type 6 built; these cars made headlines many years ago when one sold for $6 million. Click image to enlarge

The new display will also contain the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was shot, as well as a contemporary copy of the Declaration of Independence, both of which are currently located beside the bus.

The Henry Ford has a single main entrance, which is why I couldn’t figure out the museum building sitting all by itself at the far end of the parking lot. Although it shares Ford’s grounds, the Automotive Hall of Fame is an independent entity. You may be reluctant to pay the US$6.00 entry, given the sterile appearance of the museum’s lobby, but open your wallet: it’s worth the charge.

The Hall of Fame got its start in 1939, when a group of men tied to the auto industry met in New York City to create an organization that would honour the early automotive pioneers. At that time, it was called “Automobile Old Timers”. The organization moved to Washington, D.C. in 1960 and then to Midland, Michigan in 1971; in 1975, the first permanent Hall of Fame building was built there. In 1997, the present location was built.

The Museum owns the very first Mercury ever built, in 1939; it is on display pulling a trailer used on vacation by aviator Charles Lindbergh. Click image to enlarge

Each year since 1967, those deemed important to the industry – be they inventors, engineers, business leaders, race drivers or writers – are inducted into the Hall of Fame. The first year, Walter P. Chrysler, Henry Ford, Charles F. Kettering and Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. were inducted; the list includes Thomas Edison, Rudolph Diesel, Alice Huyler Ramsey (the first woman to drive across the U.S., in 1909), Soichiro Honda and Richard Petty.

All 208 inductees are listed in the front half of the museum, along with information on those awarded various other accolades. From there, you move into a small theatre, where you watch a short film and then enter the Hall of Fame’s exhibits. These are fascinating and can take a couple of hours to see in full. There are dioramas, videos, interactive displays and several vehicles, all of which illustrate the global history of the automobile, from its earliest days of motorized buggies to the fully computerized models of today.

All three museums are open year-round, although the Chrysler Museum is closed every Monday, and the Hall of Fame is closed Mondays from November through April. For hours, admission information and directions, consult the Web sites: the Walter P. Chrysler Museum is at www.chryslerheritage.com; The Henry Ford at www.TheHenryFord.org; and the Automotive Hall of Fame is at www.automotivehalloffame.org.

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