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Design

Under wraps

The Detroit Historical Museum’s stranded car collection

Long-term parking: The 1963 Turbine Car and the warehouse it shares with other rare vehicles (below).
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Published 3/15/2006

When the Detroit City Council considers Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's plan to transfer management of the Detroit Historical Museum to a nonprofit group this week, the discussion is unlikely to generate the intensity and controversy that occurred when a similar cost-cutting move involving the Detroit Zoo was being debated.

It's also a good bet there won't be any talk regarding the future of one of the most valuable and unusual car collections in the nation. Because it has largely been hidden for the past few decades, few people are aware of the collection, which is estimated to be worth several million dollars — museum officials won't say exactly how much — but sits unseen, covered by plastic bubbles inside a storage area at the historic Fort Wayne site along the Detroit River.

There are some, though, who wonder whether the financial troubles of the city might jeopardize the collection as a whole.

For decades, the city has solicited donations of cars to its transportation collection. After all, this is the Motor City. As a result, a fleet of 60 rare and unusual cars, along with some wagons and even a boat or two, has been acquired. Other than three cars on display at the DHM today, the bulk of the collection languishes unseen in an asbestos-infested building previously used to store U.S. military vehicles. Rows of cars sit idle, seemingly in suspended animation.

Among the collected cars is a rare 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car, with a spare engine not far away. A 1960 Corvair, a 1914 Anderson electric car and a 1918 Maxwell touring car are among the turbine's stable mates. A partial inventory of these cars and more runs to two pages (detroithistorical.org). On the Internet, you can see descriptions and small photos, but the real things cannot be viewed by the general public.

The Detroit Historical Museum has often been targeted by belt-tighteners in City Hall. In 2004, the city gave $3.4 million to the museum, accounting for slightly more than 50 percent of the museum's funding. Last year, the city's contribution dropped to $2.6 million. The museum collected another $2 million from its entry fees, philanthropy and a few other sources, but still had to make do with only 70 percent of its budget from the previous year. Now, with the city facing a massive budget deficit, it's looking to reduce funding to $500,000.

Every time the museum's budget has been downsized, employees there have been laid off. Much like the auto industry itself, the DHM and its operations have long been struggling. Helping to keep the doors open has been the Detroit Historical Society, a nonprofit organization charged with recruiting volunteers, babysitting the collections and raising funds to offset operating costs.

The cars have been donated to the city for the purpose of display and preservation. Some of the vehicles are virtually irreplaceable. The Chrysler Turbine Car, for example, is one of only nine left in existence. Chrysler donated it, and an accompanying extra display engine and some manuals and literature — in 1967. Luckily for those who might want to consult a service manual for a jet-powered car, the documents were shipped over to the National Automotive History Collection of the Detroit Public Library. At the time of its donation, the car was valued at $15,000. A few years ago, another of the vehicles was sold at auction for more than $100,000.

The Chrysler Turbine Car spent a short time on display following its acquisition by the city, and then was shipped to the storage facility at Fort Wayne. There, it sat among the rows of other cars as dust from the rafters of the old building gradually coated it like a light blanket. It has not been on display in more than 10 years. Recently, plastic bubbles were placed over it and the other cars in the collection in an attempt to protect them from the warehouse's dust and must.

It's not unusual for a museum to show only a small part of its collection. But, by comparison, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn manages to display about half of its approximately 225-car collection on the museum floor, according to Malcolm Collum, a conservator there. The Ford Museum also rotates the vehicles on public display so that everything worth seeing can be viewed at one time or another. The DHM, however cannot afford to operate that way.

Moving the cars into and out of displays at the DHM is difficult and costly, says Bob Sadler, the museum's director of marketing and communications. Consequently, the museum created a permanent display in its transportation wing. There, a mock assembly line shows a Cadillac body being dropped onto its chassis. Only two other landmark cars are also on display to emphasize the connection between the vehicles and the city known for building them. A 1902 Curved Dash Olds is one; a replica of an 1896 Charles Brady King honors the first car to drive on the streets of Detroit.

While most of the remaining cars were consigned to deep storage, some were lent to other museums.

What's not an option for cash-strapped Detroit is selling the vehicles. They've all been donated to the city with the caveat that they be only used for historical purposes, says Sadler. They can be stored, displayed here or lent to other museums, but that's pretty much it.

Normally, lending between museums would not raise eyebrows: It is a good way to make sure the cars are cared for. Collum, the conservator at the Henry Ford, notes that the DHS is "doing the right thing by trying to loan out as many cars as they can." At the very least, the cars lent out are removed from the warehouse, which Collum calls an "atrocious" place to store cars.

However, controversy surrounds some of the cars borrowed by other institutions. Fifteen Packards were lent to two Packard museums in Ohio. Most, according to DHS employee Marianne Weldon, were "long-term loans for as long as [each] museum wants to exhibit them." The nine cars lent to a museum in Dayton are listed with an insurance value of $523,500.

Although the Packards were sent to Ohio for purposes of display, it seems the ones sent to Dayton were routinely taken for joyrides. Reports of the cars being seen in parades, for instance, and also being used to shuttle dignitaries and visitors around town surfaced. Connecticut resident Tom Jakups, who attended the Society of Automotive Historians 2004 conference in Dayton and wrote about the event, says attendees had "their pick" of Packards to take to and from lunch. Jakups, unaware that some of the Packards were owned by the DHS and as such, forbidden from such use, opted for the 1947 Clipper Deluxe Eight sedan on his ride there, and returned in a Packard limousine. Both cars appear on the inventory of those owned by the DHS. The Dayton museum also rents limos for special occasions, and, for a time at least, that included the Packard limousine owned by the DHS. The Web site for the Dayton museum even showed a picture of a DHS Packard Limo, stating it was "available for Limousine Service." The Web site listed rates for Packard limo service at $285 for the first hour, and $85 per hour thereafter. Of course, using the Packards for this purpose violated the terms of the original donation: These cars were given to the city to be displayed, not to be driven. And, the cars were loaned out with similar restrictions.

According to Sadler, the DHS asked the Dayton museum to stop hiring the cars out and for them to be returned, but so far, only one has been sent home. Relations between the museum in Ohio and the DHS are "strained," according to Weldon. Retrieving the cars and putting them back into the warehouse will take manpower, something which is in short supply these days at the DHS. As such, the recovery process will likely drag on. The Dayton museum did not respond to repeated requests from Metro Times for information about the Packard rentals.

As for the rest of the cars in the collection, unless a benefactor surfaces, they are likely to remain under wraps for the foreseeable future.

The Ford Museum's Collum says he's concerned about the DHM's neglected collection. He's been inside the warehouse where the cars are kept, and says the necessary care is lacking. Even in long-term storage, the vehicles need to have routine work performed on them — work that is not being done now.

"I worry about those cars," he said. "I think about them quite a bit and worry about them."

Steve Lehto is a Farmington Hills attorney specializing in lemon law. He also writes on a variety of topics. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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