The Best Car Museum I’ve Been To
Memory Check

In 1996 I meandered across the USA with my best friend in an old Cadillac. We didn’t have an agenda and there wasn’t an internet to ask for suggestions, so we stumbled across things, people and places – some of which have stayed with me ever since. One was the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Detroit.

In my head it’s always been the best car museum I’ve ever been to, but nearly 20 years later was that really the case? Could it still be that good?

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Obviously this is subjective, right? Depending on what you’re in to – be it race cars, concours restorations, commercial vehicles or any other form of transport, there are probably more specific museums to go to. But to find it all under one roof, that’s something else. In the intervening years I’ve been to the Petersen in LA, the Southward in New Zealand, and Haynes in the UK – so the Henry Ford had some measuring up to do.

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When I had the chance to return to Detroit at the tail end of last year, I knew if time allowed I wanted to go back and take another look. I’ve been to the other side of the world and back since that first visit, and we all know how disappointing things can be the second time around.

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The first thing to note here is that the museum is run independently of Ford itself, so it’s not a shrine to the blue oval by any means. In fact, the variety of stuff you’ll find here is incredible. And by ‘stuff’ I mean planes, trains, ’50s motel rooms salvaged from their original buildings, tractors, steam engines and then the cars. And what cars they have…

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I love how the original Mustang concept car from 1962 is so tiny; its mid-engined layout looking more Italian speed boat than the American icon the name went on to become associated with.

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But as much as it’s about seeing cool cars, my memory of the Henry Ford was of the variety, and the obscure stuff they had – like this original Oscar Mayer ‘Wienermobile’. The first version debuted in 1936 and more modern iterations are still on the road today. Incredibly, this one is from 1952. I just wish more companies would get involved in coachbuilding like this, as apart from vehicles like the Red Bull Minis there aren’t many others that spring to mind.

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The fact that there was a Mold-A-Rama machine right next to it nearly pushed me over the edge, and I pumped $2 in as quick as I could! As the hot, still flexible 4-inch long Weinermobile was pooped out of the mold in the middle, down the slide and into my waiting hand, I began to feel more secure in the knowledge that my memory had served me correctly all those years.

Culture Me Up
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As an Englishmen, America is all about the culture of what goes on. You can line cars up all you want, but it’s the bad-ass things people do with them that I love. Ohio George Montgomery is a legend to drag racers, and although he was later known for his Malco Gasser Mustang, it’s this era of Willys that will always make me stop dead in my tracks.

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Alloy dome house of the future anybody? Trust me, we’re all going to be living like this in 1975!

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Okay, so this is what a good museum should do – make you pinball around like a kid with too much sugar on board. It should make you grab whoever you’re with and make you point at whatever catches your eye for that second.

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Too often museums think that quantity is the key; exhibits are cluttered in together and all you get is a cramped angle in which to take them in. Yes, I know that’s often down to the cost of land, but even with the resources this place has behind it, they haven’t gone over the top and you effortlessly flow from display to display. VW ad campaigns in the ’60s were as simple and slick as they are today.

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A special exhibit of ex-presidential limos has been given plenty of space in the Henry Ford Museum. If I was pushed for an answer I would have said they’d be Cadillacs, but the three here are Lincoln Continentals. This is Ronald Reagan’s with a custom fold-down bumper grid and flip-up grab handle for special agents… Vinyl trimmed, classy.

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On a more sombre note, the one behind it was used by amongst others, John F. Kennedy. This is the actual Continental he was shot in.

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What shocked me was that after his assasination the rear had a canopy added and the car continued in service as late as 1977. You’d have thought it might have been retired, right? Maybe it was kept out of respect… But that’s just part of the cool story behind the X-100 – as it was called by the secret service. Built by Ford, they retained ownership of it and actually leased it to the US Government for $500 a year.

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All up it’s estimated that around $700,000 was spent on the car during its active service in upgrades and revisions. Me? I just dig these custom-made footplates at the rear, with their own lamp. Looking at the Lincoln, I paused and thought of all the things I’ve seen since I was last here. Yet the car which carried so much hasn’t moved.

I Want All Of Them
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I just wish I had one of these bad boys on my travels. Anybody who knows me will verify I’m quite happy living on wheels and I love the shape of this ‘Pusher’ – so-called because the engine is at the back. And that’s another thing a good museum should do – make you think beyond its walls and be inspired to take what you’ve seen and go back out in the world with a plan. Yup, I want a big-ass ’70s motorhome!

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Bringing me right back to the moment was the sight of the legendary George Barris built Ala Kart. I’d only ever seen it in pictures up until now, but here it is! The rebuilt ’29 Ford Pickup was a very unexpected bonus.

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You might not like the look of it or think you’d prefer it black or some other nonsense, but this is kustom car royalty. It won America’s Most Beautiful Roadster at the Oakland Roadster Show in ’58 and ’59 – back-to-back prizes at one of the most hard-fought shows in the US – and was more recently restored by Roy Brizio.

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I don’t dare critique something like this – I haven’t got the qualifications. To think it was originally created in 1957 when it was less than 30 years old blows me away. Here’s a story we ran on George’s brother, Sam Barris, a few years back, which goes some way as to explain how historically important this car is.

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Mixed in with the standard models were some production0based race cars. There’s a part of me which really enjoys the developments brought about by motorsport, but another part of me wants to put banded steels and hand-striped lettering on anything from the ’50s or ’60s and drive around in string-back gloves.

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Not forgetting the obvious safety equipement of course! Can you imagine lapping at 100mph-plus, handle-to-handle with another two tonnes of stock car either side, in this thing? All in a cotton polo shirt and a helmet that offered as much protection as that rollcage. Serious kudos to those guys…

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So there’s inspiration, thought-provoking and educational exhibits, and then there are things like the ‘non skid’ tyre I spotted. It says it right there, so it must be true, right? Got to get me some of them.

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Obviously I’ve concentrated on the exhibits with wheels, but I have to mention the first president of the USA George Washington’s camp bed, the chair Abraham Lincoln was sat on when he was assassinated, and the poignant bus that Rosa Parks was riding in when she was asked to move and the American people turned a corner in modern history. It’s all right here.

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But I’m going to use this Bugatti Royale as a perfect example of why you should visit a museum – even if it’s not this one. You might have wandered on by thinking it’s some big old car, but this is just one of six Type 41 Bugattis ever made – and the only convertible. Its value? $20-25 million perhaps – quite possibly more. Built on a 1931 chassis, it was sold to German doctor Josef Fuchs in 1932 and went to Italy, then Japan before settling in New York with him in 1937. Only 15 years old and having travelled halfway around the world, in 1946 it was found in a scrapyard by a gent named Charles Chayne. He bought it for $400, recommissioned it, and eventually donated it to the museum in 1957.

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So the moral is that the reason we’re all here is history – what we choose to do with it is up to us. But the one thing we should never do is ignore it.

I’m glad that the Henry Ford is still my favourite museum in the world. If you get the chance, I highly recommend a visit. But who knows, maybe in another 20 years I’ll have found a new favourite? Here’s to the hunt!

Bryn Musselwhite
bryn@speedhunters.com
Instagram: Speedhunterbryn

Cutting Room Floor
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49 comments

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1

super duper awesome

2

While not as well populated with stuff, hit up the Simeone in Philadelphia.

3

I spy a 1963 Buick Riviera, the one car I'd like to have again. If you're ever near Tacoma you should check out the Harold Lemay car museum.

4
Speedhunters_Bryn

Derelict I like the sound of that, thanks for the tip.

5
Speedhunters_Bryn

Hydrolastic I'm a Riviera fan myself, they feel like a good mix of US and European styling if that makes sense. Will put the Harold Lemay on the list :)

6

I wish SH to make a big rewiew about old style motorhomes.

7
UWerqxTeam_MJ

I wonder what that Shell Eco-Marathon car is feeling being in the same bar as these legends. And what those legends are talking about while the car's around.

8

Thanks for all the bonus images! Whilst on the subject of museums, my personal favourite is the Donington GP Collection, although sadly the cars do tend to be quite crammed in there.

9
Speedhunters_Bryn

Serge_KS Serge, I wish the same thing... However I think we may be the only two wishing it!

10
Speedhunters_Bryn

UWerqxTeam_MJ It was out in the entrance hall, probably safer that way!

11
Speedhunters_Bryn

Bradders Donington is good, I haven't been to Beaulieu in years so I might head down that way again soon.

12

Speedhunters_Bryn Haynes is definitely on my list but I need to find a decent excuse to venture that far into the West Country!

13
Fixthe Fernback

It really is the best museum for mechanical stuff in the country. The sheer variety of cars is amazing, but the collection is so large and diverse that they're not even really the main attractions. They have steam trains (including a gigantic one you can actually climb inside of), airplanes, old farm equipment, lots of various pieces of Americana from the late 19th/early 20th century, and several old steam engines which are just enormous and beautiful. They even reassembled a huge steam generator that powered a Ford factory. The building itself is awesome, too.

14

If you like this you should also check the ''louwman museum'' in ThE Hague, Netherlands. One of the best experiences i've had in a car museum. Lots of pre WW1 cars and lots of other cars.

15
TarmacTerrorist

Bradders Speedhunters_Bryn low quality yet high ABV% Cider and the A303, what more reasoning do you need?!

16

Wooww!!!!
It's amazing where the museum is ????

17
Speedhunters_Bryn

Erick QZ Detroit :)

18

Speedhunters_Bryn Erick QZ Of course. Where else could it be.

19
Speedhunters_Bryn

TarmacTerrorist Bradders You just summed up my formative years! If felt like I lived on the A303 for about ten years and I grew up in Taunton. Here's one of the many reasons why you should visit the southwest, Roger Wilkins cider farm. 

Get down for the summer party :)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KG3ePLHFjxA

20
Speedhunters_Bryn

Porscherider Great recommendation, it's been on my radar for a number of years but I've never quite made it. The main reason is because they've got this... One of my all time favourite cars!

http://www.louwmanmuseum.nl/Ontdekken/Ontdek-de-collectie/baja-buggy-formerly-owned-by-steve-mcqueen

21
Speedhunters_Bryn

@Fixthe Fernback Glad you agree, I really enjoyed all the other exhibits but had to keep it Speedhunter relevant here, but yes, incredible place.

22

Speedhunters_Bryn Yep, three things draw me to the '63 Riviera: the Bill Mitchell Ferrari/Rolls-Royce influenced design, torquey Nailhead motor and the Dynaflow transmission.

23
TarmacTerrorist

Speedhunters_Bryn TarmacTerrorist Bradders Ive drank out of his flagons before! 'Cor! was that a davey brown tractor there or am I off the mark? I've spent most of my driving life on the A303/M3/A3, The 303 is a wonderful road and one everyone should drive at least once start to finish 9aside from the bits near Stonehenge, no-one should have to go through that).

24
Speedhunters_Bryn

TarmacTerrorist Bradders Roger knows how to throw a party alright! Maybe I should do an article on the 303? Kula Shaker wrote a song about it. And the bit past Stonehenge needs to be done at 4.30am on a mid summers Sunday morning on the way home after a night in London. The line between day and night is amazing, as you try to stay in the darkness.

25

Speedhunters_Bryn UWerqxTeam_MJ But what do you imagine the conversation will be?

26
EricSeanDelaney

It's weird seeing something I know so well on here. But it reminds me how sad it is that none of the big three have an actual museum here. I do love the Henry Ford though, although it's only good every couple of years since it rarely really changes. But any museums that has a display of the evolution of the chair, to the massive steam powered things and then all the cars is impossible to not like. Plus if you drive around a little but, it's impossible to miss all the pre production cars in various parking lots. That's the best part.

27
Speedhunters_Bryn

Hydrolastic It's one of the few American cars I'd consider owning the UK for that mid atlantic feel :)

28

what is the museum called

29
Speedhunters_Bryn

Kyle_Wagner It's the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.

30
Speedhunters_Bryn

EricSeanDelaney Good thing it took me 18yrs to make it back then! It is a shame, but on the other side at least they're still there.

31

thank you

32

Excellent article and coverage. Definitely have to add this to my list.  

Also, I'm probably the only one that noticed the first generation Explorer hiding behind the Barris hot rod.  

Boring to probably 98% of the people that visit, but it was my first car.  Brings back a lot of good memories.  Glad to know there is at least one out there that hasn't turned into a rolling rust ball.

33
Speedhunters_Bryn

RedWhine Well spotted, you're the same as me, always pouring over what's in the background of other peoples pictures! As you may have noticed I can't recommend a visit enough. There is so much stuff I didn't show it really is justified to go if you get a chance.

34

I was just here this weekend, and as a former resident of Dearborn, MI, I can enthusiastically endorse the Henry Ford Museum. It's not just a great cars museum (which it is), but also has a great collection of airplanes, trains and other historical artifacts. Then there's Greenfield Village, which has the Wright brothers' boyhood home, Thomas Edison's workshop, Harvey Firestone's family farm and many other national treasures. You can ride in a Model T or a Model A, ride behind a steam train, watch historic baseball, or any number of awesome things.

In short...THIS!

35

The feeling of standing amongst so much history, no matter where it lies in the realm of life....amazing post.

36

UWerqxTeam_MJ I actually want to know more about that exact one. A friend of mine is the caretaker for the two official Shell Eco-Marathon cars and there have been whispers of a new official car to replace Ugly Betty, the press-car.

37

The only car out of those that really interested me was the missile looking landspeed car.

38

You had me at the 1960 Corvair 500 sedan. :)
On one of your future US trips, I hope you get the chance to stop by the museum where I work.
www.LaneMotorMuseum.org

39

I love how holding a warm wiener helped you feel more secure .....  Great coverage, THIS is why I come to speedhunters.

40

Golly now that looks like a spot I could get lost in....

41
TarmacTerrorist

Speedhunters_Bryn TarmacTerrorist Bradders An article on the 303 sounds brilliant If there is a song about it, then you clearly have fodder for a title - its writing itself! 
I believe the first travel guide was pretty much written on the basis of "get on the 303 (can't remember its class in the 30's!), stop wherever you see a pub garden or a war memorial, it will be lovely" its the Uk's Route 66' surely! maybe a dream drive in something borrowed and V8ish? :D 

Every weekend we went out my friends and I always intended to see the sunrise at either the Henge or the Tor on our way back to Wells  but we never seemed to make it back in time. (flashbacks of changing drivers at every service station are filling my mind right now haha)  I was at the Henge for a few solstices though which was always an... experience to say the least!

42

Speedhunters_Bryn Derelict The stuff Simeone has bought is ALL significant and all of it is beyond awesome. He believes in leaving a car in its state, not restoring. The 'lost Daytona Coupe' is there and it is as it was raced/ found. Phenomenal stuff.

43

o.o i REALLY have to go there o.o

44

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Speedhunters_Bryn Serge_KS make it three....

48

Speedhunters_Bryn Serge_KS make it three....

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