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Private car museum in Michigan draws variety of visitors

April 1, 2018

DETROIT (AP) — It’s virtually impossible to buy a car these days that comes with a set of shot glasses.

The 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, though, included not just a set of shot glasses but Arpege perfume, Fleetwood cigarettes and a powder compact in the purchase price of $13,074 — about three times the cost of a regular Cadillac and pricier than a new home in an upscale area at the time. Only 400 were built.

Today the vanity kit alone is worth as much as the car.

This is but one specimen of perfection at a nondescript location in Sterling Heights.

A temperature-controlled showroom displays 165 vintage cars at a time of 700 owned. Each visit to the rotating exhibit offers a glimpse of something different. Designs range from 1902 to present, concept cars and road tested. Many vehicles have been purchased, reclaimed and restored after collectors died. A purple 1967 Pontiac GTO hidden under the sand of the Arizona desert was dug up, cleaned and refurbished.

The General Motors Heritage Center protects one of the greatest vintage car collections in the world, curated and maintained by the Detroit-based automaker. It is also home to GM’s historical literature and artifacts.

For car collectors, the site is a jewelry box filled with precious gems. These include the most celebrated cars of our time, and those featured in Beach Boys songs and driven by Elvis Presley on screen.

The unpublicized collection is somehow attracting visitors recently from Sweden, Australia, Poland, Kuwait, Egypt and Sudan, the Detroit Free Press reported.

They’re driving to the building just off Mound Road, between 15 Mile and 16 Mile roads. The dreary route is riddled with potholes. There’s no big sign directing anyone to anything in particular. The setting is an industrial park.

Viewing is by appointment only. Callers schedule visits months and years in advance.

While access at the locked front door doesn’t require a secret handshake, it probably should.

“Holy smokes. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Robert Wall, 89, a Detroit native who has attended every Motor City auto show since 1937. “I had no idea this existed. I couldn’t have imagined this in my wildest dreams. I could stay forever.”

He was rationed to 90 minutes.

To those who know nothing about cars or think they care little, well, there are simply no words. This is a design mecca.

Everything is labeled with historical explanation and auto industry impact.

Over there is a 1951 LeSabre and a 1931 Cadillac V-16 and Corvettes from 1953 to 2005 and the very first Oldmobile Toronado ever made. Plus, the Firebird I, II and III gas turbine concept cars from the 1950s.

All this chatter about electric vehicles and innovation? Check out the enormous battery under the hood of the 1966 Electrovair II Experimental car.

GM may be considered a front-runner on electrification today, but it’s clear the institutional knowledge spans decades, said Greg Wallace, who has helped develop the collection over the past two decades as manager.

(On this day, he was filming segments for the History Channel.)

“The collection tells a story of the history of the automobile and our fascination with car culture,” said Jonathan Klinger, a spokesman for Hagerty, the world’s leading classic car insurer based in Traverse City. “You’re actually able to study the thinking and innovation of the company and see how things were applied or not applied to production vehicles.”

Oh, and those Smart micro cars that tuck neatly into puny parking spaces in New York and San Francisco? Don’t miss their predecessor, a 1969 512 Electric Experimental.

Visitors learn that the word “cranky” comes from drivers in the early 1900s having a bad day crank-starting the car. The crankshaft would kick back and break a thumb or a wrist and, on occasion, come out of the crank hold and hit the operator in the head, Wallace said.

Vehicles from the 1900s have headlight covers that open to reveal a lantern wick inside. Steering wheels in 1912 were on the right, not left.

(Ford put so many steering wheels on the left side that eventually everyone else did too, Wallace pointed out.)

Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, said classic car junkies can’t help but savor trips to the Heritage collection.

“All of the significant show cars are there — the Y-Job, the Le Sabre, the Firebirds — as well as the company’s iconic production cars — the Tri-Five Chevys, the 1959 Cadillac, the split-window 1963 Corvette, the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am Special Edition,” he said. “But there’s also a strong collection of technologically significant cars — not as flashy but equally important.”

Cars like the 1912 Cadillac, the first auto with an electric starter; the 1915 Cadillac, with the first mass-produced V8 engine; and the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, the first front-wheel drive American car since the 1930s.

The first electric starter meant people of smaller stature, who lacked upper body strength, could start cars for the first time on their own. And the V8 engine created a new industry standard for more powerful vehicles.

“I admire GM for saving examples of less-than-stellar products, too,” Anderson said. “One of my favorite vehicles at the GM Heritage Center is a 1976 Chevrolet Chevette — no one’s idea of a collector car today, but one that sold in the millions in its time. Cars like the Corvette made GM’s image, but cars like the Chevette made its bottom line.”

In the beginning, the goal was just to try and preserve history, Wallace said.

“I had no idea it would turn into what it has,” he explained. “Once history is gone, it’s gone. I wanted to make sure we could tell our story down the road.”

Now visitors can track a nation’s highs and lows, changes and progress.

“You can see prosperity and optimism through the ’40s, then where the industry was in hiatus from ‘42 to ’47 for the war and then it all starts back up again. Wealth and prosperity was growing,” said Mike Simcoe, vice president of global design for GM.

“You see the industry wrestling with the change of fuel economy targets in the late ’70s, with more stringent safety requirements, crash requirements, and the way some of those regulations were applied and how it impacted the structure of the vehicles. The ’80s were an odd period, in fashion and style generally. I can say this in confidence, I have photos of myself.”

Some visitors whisper their desire to see the GM collection turned into a public exhibit on the Detroit riverfront one day, a stone’s throw from the company’s world headquarters in the Renaissance Center.

“It would be amazing,” said Eddie Alterman, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine. “At the height of its power, GM was seen as the trailblazer — the Tesla of its time. And the company continues as an innovation leader in ways people don’t fully appreciate.”

The vehicles are so carefully maintained and protected that there’s no plan to make the exhibit public, though it can be reserved for group tours, conferences and special events. Despite being a secret, 300-plus events and tours were held in 2017.

Near the door of the showroom, there’s a small case with photos of non-auto engineering accomplishments that include the B-25 Bomber, P-51 Mustang Fighter and FM-2 Wildcat Fighter; diesel-electric freight locomotives that essentially ended the use of steam; and a 1952 mechanical heart pump that made possible the world’s first open heart surgery, developed and donated by GM at no cost to the heart surgery team at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“Mind-boggling,” Wall said, reading the display. “Just mind-boggling.”

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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