Where Dream Cruisers can soak up Detroit’s automotive history.
By Matthew Totsky
There’s no denying it, the Woodward Dream Cruise is the world’s largest one-day automotive event, drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from all over the world. Taking place on the third Saturday in August (this year on Aug. 20), cruisers have come to regard the Dream Cruise as an annual rite of summer, with many of them staking their spots along Woodward on the days leading up to the event.
But car enthusiasts who need to fuel their passion throughout the year will be pleased to know that several significant museums exist in Metro Detroit — one dedicated to each member of the Big Three — to tell their amazing side of the city’s automotive story.
WALTER P. CHRYSLER MUSEUM
Located in Auburn Hills, the Walter P. Chrysler Museum celebrates the company’s significant contributions to automotive design, technology and innovation, as well as the automobile’s impact on American culture.
The museum is home to more than 65 antique, custom and concept vehicles along with interactive displays and historical exhibits spanning more than a century, all spread out over 55,000 square feet.
“Our goal in designing the museum is to have our visitors walk away with a better understanding of our company’s heritage and an appreciation for our amazing products from the past,” says Brandt Rosenbusch, the museum’s historical director.
“We have vehicles that represent many of our engineering innovations like the 1934 Airflow as well as our performance history with the Hemi Cuda and Plymouth Road Runner. We’ve also included trucks, Jeeps and several of our marques that are no longer built, like the DeSoto, as well as some amazing concept cars. We try to rotate these vehicles often.”
Since it opened its doors in October 1999, the museum has welcomed guests from every continent. All are auto enthusiasts obsessed with the cars, the people, the process and the contributions made by Chrysler and the people who developed the automobile.
“We’ve always had a wide variety of visitors,” Rosenbusch says, “from the die-hard Mopar fans to collectors of other brands. We have families wanting to spend the day together and school groups, too. We try to have something that will appeal to everyone. Over the years, I’ve been amazed at the number of international visitors we’ve had.”
The museum is open for touring on select weekends only, including during this year’s Dream Cruise weekend. Fans looking for a diversion from the festivities on Woodward should seriously consider planning a trip to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum to see some true automotive icons.
“People who attend the Dream Cruise, either as a cruiser or spectator, are already car people,” Rosenbusch says. “Our museum is the perfect place for them to get out of the sun for a while and enjoy some more cars. Our experience is a little different from most automotive museums because all of the vehicles in our collection run and drive. We can put fuel and a battery in them and take them out. We’re also looking forward to having a couple of ‘surprise vehicles’ for visitors to enjoy that weekend — something that people don’t get to see very often.”
Walter P. Chrysler Museum, 1 Chrysler Drive, Auburn Hills; (248) 944-0439; www.wpchryslermuseum.org.
GM HERITAGE CENTER
The General Motors Heritage Center serves as a showplace for the vehicles of the GM Heritage Collection, as a corporate conferencing and special events venue, and as the permanent home for the corporation’s collection of historic literature and artifacts that document GM’s rich history of innovation. Located in an 81,000-square-foot facility in Sterling Heights, the center has more than 160 vehicles on display.
“Each of the vehicles in the collection illustrates a design, technical or sales milestone or accomplishment in the history of General Motors or automotive history,” said Greg Wallace, manager of the GM Heritage Center.
Not open to the public, the GM Heritage Center is available to GM internal sources and external organizations seeking a unique, exclusive venue with nearly 200 priceless vehicles and artifacts for their event. Tours are available to groups, clubs or staffs and require a 30-person minimum.
What’s interesting about the GM Heritage Collection is that it’s always changing. Vehicles from the collection are often requested for external displays and exhibits to represent GM’s product story of the past 100-plus years, so others are pulled from inventory to take their places. For this reason, GM aficionados can plan multiple visits and expect to see something different every time.
“The showroom display is constantly changing due to tremendous interest in our collection,” Wallace said. “Yet we keep a constant presence of milestones and memorabilia for our guests to learn from and enjoy.”
GM Heritage Center, 6400 Center Drive, Sterling Heights; (586) 276-1498 www.gmheritagecenter.com.
FORD PIQUETTE AVENUE PLANT
As the birthplace of the Model T, the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant is considered one of the most significant automotive heritage sites in the world. Situated downtown on the Milwaukee Junction Rail line, in its heyday, the plant was the hub of the city’s auto body and stamping plants as other such plants — including Anderson Electric, Brush, Cadillac, Dodge, Hupp, Packard and Regal — were all located nearby.
Today, visitors can come to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant and walk the plank floors worn smooth by hundreds of workers and thousands of cars. This in itself is a minor miracle because the plant was scheduled to be demolished in 1999 but was saved by the Henry Ford Heritage Association.
“What we’re trying to do is stabilize the structure,” says Nancy Darga, the plant’s executive director. “This building is over 100 years old and, when we started this project, there were 355 windows here without any glass. We built a window factory on the second floor, and we make our own windows, about 30 per year. The project should be completed within two years.”
Now, the Ford Piquette Plant is seen as another symbol of Detroit’s ability to invent, innovate and rebound. “We have 15,000 visitors per year from more than 70 countries,” Darga says. “People come from all over to see our collection of rare vehicles, not just Model Ts, but Regals, Studebakers, Dodges, Cadillacs and many others.”
For the past several years, the Ford Piquette Plant has been the official starting point for the Dream Cruise’s Saturday festivities. The event is called the Super Roll, and up to 100 cruisers gather at 8 a.m. for free tours and refreshments before lining up at 10 a.m. to have a police escort take their cars up to Woodward and 8 Mile.
“It’s a great event because it brings all brands of classic cars together,” Darga says. “It’s an energetic gathering of Cruise enthusiasts with a wide variety of muscle, racing and art cars. And they all love the plant. They walk around here and soak up the history and see where their love for automobiles began.”
Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, 461 Piquette Ave., Detroit; (313) 872-8759; www.fordpiquetteavenueplant.org. The Super Roll takes place at 8 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 20.
Woodward Dream Cruise takes place 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, rain or shine. The Cruise starts 1 mile north of Detroit in Ferndale and goes up to Pontiac and back. Visit woodwarddreamcruise.com for a list of events and be sure to download the Dream Cruise app while you’re there.