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Museum Hawk: The Chrysler


As I wrote a year ago in the introduction to this TCC series on car museums, people who come to Detroit expect two things: to tour an automobile assembly plant and to visit "The" car museum.

They couldn't until recently.Ford Motor Company used to have one of the nation's most popular tourist attractions, especially since it was free, in the tour of Dearborn's famous Rouge Plant, which encompassed not only car assembly, but steel mills, a stamping plant, an engine plant, a glass plant and docks for the ore boats. Alas, Ford shut the tours down some 20 years ago in a penny-wise, pound-foolish cost-saving measure. But recently, with the site revamped for production of the new F-Series trucks, Ford has opened a new, more Disney-like tour that allows a glimpse into Rouge's vastness and newfound environmental bent.

There are more options. Today you might be able to schedule a tour at GM's Lansing Assembly Plant, but that's not Detroit, or at one of the other Southeast Michigan facilities — if you're part of a really important group. But for all practical purposes, the closest you can come to a plant tour is the Motor City exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum, where a full-scale section of the former Cadillac Clark Avenue assembly plant is displayed, sometimes in faux operation.

Likewise, Detroit doesn't have "a" car museum — it has several devoted to special interests, some private and a few public. I wrote a few months ago about Dick Duncan's private museum behind his Ford dealership, open to the public on Thursdays. Museum Hawk reports on the Henry Ford Museum "Automobile and America" exhibit and Jack Miller's vintage Hudson museum devoted to the products of Ypsilanti will be forthcoming.

Public good

This time, the Museum Hawk is reporting on the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan, significantly the ONLY public historical car museum operated by an automobile company in this country. It's also the newest car museum — at least of any stature — and arguably the best in terms of cutting-edge museum educational props. The WPC opened in the fall of 1999.

This '02 Rambler is one of the relics acquired from AMC.
This '02 Rambler is one of the relics acquired from AMC.

Ever wonder what "Floating Power" was? An intelligible exhibit at the Chrysler Museum explains it. How were the aerodynamics for the sensational, for the time, 1934 Airflow models developed? Another display lays it all out.

It's far more than "just" a car museum, as it portrays the history not only of Chrysler, but predecessor companies like Chalmers and Maxwell as well as the antecedents of its 1987 purchase of American Motors, the portfolio of which included Nash, Hudson, Kaiser, and Willys — notably Jeep. A place of honor on the museum's main floor is reserved for Walter P. Chrysler's tool box which he made when he was a railroad mechanic in Kansas in the 1890s.

That this museum exists at all is nothing short of miraculous. Dedicated Chrysler people had to hang on to rare cars in the first place — such as the "first" Chrysler, Plymouth, DeSoto — and also had to keep marble-eyed bean-counters from selling them off every time Chrysler had a financial reversal, which has been all too frequent since 1950. Chrysler acquired a similar collection with American Motors.

Then, in its salad days in the mid-1990s, when Chrysler decided to build this museum adjacent to its new engineering center and executive offices, it acquired about 60 more vehicles.

And the museum's collection is still growing. Museum Manager Barry Dressel told the Museum Hawk that the latest acquisition is a 1939 Plymouth convertible, first in the industry with a power top, and the last year for a rumble seat.

Dream cars

When you walk in the two-story-high entrance, you are immediately presented with a tower of sensational Chrysler dream cars of the past, including the two 1941s: Newport phaeton and Thunderbolt retractable steel-top roadster. Generally, older models are on the main floor and newer ones on the mezzanine, with the basement devoted to changing special exhibits, such as competition vehicles. There are trucks as well as cars.

The main floor has an excellent gift shop with Chrysler paraphernalia, such as caps, posters, shirts, mugs, model cars and books. Shop manager Bob Tate's hobby is model cars if you want to talk up that subject. There's a snack shop in the basement.

One of the most unusual exhibits is a World War II tank engine made from five 1941-vintage Chrysler Windsor six-cylinder, 241.5-CID flatheads bolted together in radial layout. It was used to power Chrysler-built M-4 A-4 Sherman tanks, and the museum had to go all the way to Argentina to find the giant unit on display. Before you old-timer tankers get in a dither, Shermans also were powered by a variety of other "civilian" engines, such as my National Guard unit's Armored Field Artillery M-41s with twin flathead Cadillac V-8s and HydraMatic transmissions, one for each side to power the tracks.

There are memories at the Chrysler Museum to please old car nuts of almost any vintage - as long as they're part of the Chrysler Heritage. Personally, I liked the rare 1939 Hayes-bodied Dodge club coupe, with its hardtop-like door and window treatments. My second choice, I think, was the baby-blue 1951 New Yorker convertible with a Vee on the hood for first year of the Hemi.

Like most museums, there are more vehicles in the WPC collection, some 200, than ever displayed at one time, so you pay your money — anywhere from $2 to $6 depending on age, group, etc. — and take your chances. Parking is free.

Getting there

The 1939 Dodge Hayes coupe.
The 1939 Dodge Hayes coupe.

The WPC Museum is east of I-75 via Exit 78, just north of the M-59 expressway, about 25 miles north of Detroit. It's actually behind the DaimlerChrysler Chrysler Group's massive headquarters, but well-directed by signage. The museum's toll-free number is 888-456-1924 and the Web site, www.chryslerheritage.com.

If you are wondering whether the Chrysler Museum is safe from DaimlerChrysler bean-counters in the current cost-slashing campaign, I can only say the Germans love history. Mercedes-Benz has a long established museum in Europe. Indeed, Germans are credited with inventing the formal study of history in the late 19th century. So keep your fingers crossed.

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