Until I was 30, my auto acumen was limited to knowing a station wagon from a convertible. I was stymied by the term coupe, dumbfounded by people who could divine a car's manufacturer by glimpsing its profile and design. Then I saw it: a 1958 Cadillac Series 70 Fleetwood Eldorado Brougham. From the two missile-shaped projectiles jutting out of its front grill, way-way-way on back to its audacious tail fins, the car was an 18-foot-2-inch eyeful. It had a silver roof, electric blue body, and rich blue velour upholstery that looked as soft as a Polartec pullover.
The Caddy rested on a brick floor in a gorgeous red barn, one of six magnificent auto barns at Gilmore Car Museum, a 90-acre complex near Kalamazoo, Michigan. Suddenly I understood the desire people have for a well-built automobile.
While I wouldn't call myself a chassis chaser, I've seen my share of auto museums since then. Many of the best are in the Midwest, the heartland of automobile history.
Thanks to classic car museums, I now know that coupe and brougham refer to two-door cars. These museums and their enthusiastic docents have pointed out trademark details --Packard grills, retractable Cord headlights, outrageous Cadillac curves--and illuminated for me the people who designed, built, drove, and rode in desirable automobiles.
So ardent is America's romance with this four-wheeled invention that the cars we've driven, much like the magical moments of that first date, have left an indelible imprint. Who doesn't remember their first car, whether it was a '64 Mustang, a '56 Chevy, or a beat up Hudson. Old-timers touring a car museum might recall when Model T Fords rolled off the assembly line in the 1920s or fondly remember their Nash with a rumble seat.
But as you admire the sparkling rows of lovingly maintained show-pieces in our country's more than 100 auto museums, keep in mind that early-day motorists who made long-distance trips had to be hardy. Many of the classic roadsters on display, with their gleaming chrome and Hollywood patina, were painfully uncomfortable, especially on unpaved roads; restaurants, filling stations, and general stores with gas pumps were few and far between; hotels were limited to larger cities; and interstate highways did not exist. And there was no towing service if a hapless motorist broke down in a rustic glen well-removed from civilization.
Only about one in 50 American households had a car in 1908, but the automobile was quite a common possession two decades later, when the rise of mass production and economies of scale made a car affordable. Installment plans and the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties set off an explosion in car sales, with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler coming to dominate the industry. Small companies disappeared at a rapid pace. General Motors' Alfred P. Sloan Jr. developed the strategy of changing the look of each year's models.
Manufacturers gradually added amenities to lure customers. Car heaters, for example, arrived in the 1920s, while built-in defrosters, automatic chokes, and radio were new options in the '30s. After World War II, the automatic transmission came into vogue. Better cars, along with improved roads and the trend toward company-paid holidays, spurred many Americans to start touring their land, especially the national parks and other natural attractions. This new wave of travelers launched a network of roadside services that grew from "mom and pop" operations to nationally advertised mega-chains.
For some genuine slices of Americana and a nostalgic journey into yesteryear, make a point of including a car museum on your next vacation. The fascinating evolution of the automobile is really the story of 20th century America.
A look back
Some auto museums provide only the most basic details on placards by each car. But you can often learn more by buying books about the museum's collection, joining a guided museum tour, or asking for a personal docent-led tour.
International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum, 3198 Speedway Blvd., Talladega, AL 35160; (256) 362-5002. Located next to Talladega Superspeedway, this five-building complex houses more than 100 racing vehicles. Guests can "drive" a race car simulator.
Blackhawk Automotive Museum, 3700 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville, CA 94506; (925) 736-2277. More than any other auto museum, the Blackhawk presents the car as a work of art. Over 120 of the world's greatest autos are showcased in dramatically lit galleries of glass, granite, and steel; no murals or props pull attention from the autos. An Automotive Art wing features nearly 1,000 paintings, sculptures, and toys.
Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036; (323) 930-2277. See how cars have influenced our lives, both in the U.S. and in Los Angeles--a city that wouldn't be possible without cars. Walk through 1930s Hollywood, a '50s-style chop shop, and more while viewing over 200 classic cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Movie clips and interactive computers make this museum fun for kids.
Volo Antique Auto Museum, 27582 Volo Village Rd., Volo, IL 60073; (815) 385-3644. This complex of buildings north of Chicago displays 200 cars from every decade, and they're all for sale, with prices starting at $7,000. The site also is home to more than 300 antique dealers.
Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum, 1600 South Wayne St., Auburn, IN 46706; (219) 925-1444. Set in ACD's original 1930s factory showroom for dealers, this museum is a flamboyant Art Deco temple for Auburns, Cords, and Duesenbergs. In the '20s and '30s, these were the cars of movie stars, monarchs, and millionaires. The 100-vehicle collection, however, runs from 1890s horseless carriages to modern muscle cars--with special emphasis on cars made in Indiana.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, 4790 West 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46222; (317) 484-6784. The museum rotates 300 vehicles, showcasing 75 at a time. Curators maintain a 3:1 ratio of race cars to antique passenger cars. Enjoy a 26-minute Speedway documentary, video clips, and trophies.
Studebaker National Museum, 525 South Main St., South Bend, IN 46601; (219) 235-9714. Seventy vehicles form a timeline of Studebaker's 114-year-old company, starting with a Conestoga wagon built by Henry and Clem Studebaker. From the 1920s until 1966, Studebaker was known for stylish designs and sturdy engines. Many of the volunteers who now restore vehicles and answer questions were once Studebaker employees.
National Corvette Museum, 350 Corvette Drive, P.O. Box 1953, Bowling Green, KY 42102; (800) 538-3883. See over 50 Corvettes, half production and half concept cars, plus Corvette-related sculptures, ads, and TV clips.
Automotive Hall of Fame, 21400 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48121; (313) 240-4000. Opened in August 1997, this is like no other auto museum. It showcases only a handful of cars, focusing instead on interactive exhibits about automotive people, such as blind Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control.
Gilmore Car Museum, 6865 Hickory Rd., Hickory Corners, MI 49060; (616) 671-5089. Open May through October, the museum hosts multiple car festivals. Several buildings hold 140 vintage vehicles, from an 1899 Locomobile to a prototype 2002 Cadillac, as well as a world-class automobile mascot collection.
Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48121-1970; (800) 835-5237. Over 100 vehicles and thousands of artifacts are arranged according to a highway motif in the museum's "100 Years of the Automobile in American Life." Walk inside an actual 1946 diner, watch video clips, and play interactive games.
Imperial Palace Auto Collection, 3535 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89109-8935; (702) 731-3311. Only in Vegas: this museum has an 1880s full-service bar in its Duesenberg Room--the world's largest collection of Model J Duesies. From a private collection of 800-plus cars, trucks and motorcycles, this museum displays 200 at a time, including luxury cars owned by such famous people as Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr.
National Automobile Museum, 10 Lake Street South, Reno, NV 89501; (702) 333-9300. Unlike at most auto museums, here you can watch mechanics in the restoration shop. You can also see a film, try hands-on displays, and enjoy 200 autos set in a century of American street scenes.
Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, Western Reserve Historical Society, 10825 East Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44106; (216) 721-5722. Between 1898 and 1931, over 80 automotive makes were created in Cleveland. This 200-plus collection of vintage vehicles concentrates on Ohio-made cars, such as Winton, Packard, and Jaguar; it also features airplanes and bicycles.
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