Why the Walter P. Chrysler Museum should be on your automotive bucket list [Op-Ed]
Ronnie Schreiber takes us on a journey to Chrysler's rich-in-heritage museum at its headquarters in suburban Detroit.
For a car guy, Detroit can be an embarrassment of riches. So much so that worthwhile attractions might sometimes be overlooked.
There's the big North American International Auto Show, aka the Detroit auto show, as well as the Detroit√'¬† Autorama, arguably the most important custom and hot rod show in the world. The Woodward Dream Cruise attracts 40,000 or more cars and about a million people, the biggest one day car event in the world.
I tell everyone who visits the Detroit area that if they have the time, the Henry Ford Museum is one of the country's great museums with a fine collection of historically significant automobiles and displays on the role of the automobile in shaping American culture. If they're downtown I'll suggest a visit to the National Automotive History Collection in the Detroit Public Library's Skillman branch, the largest public automotive archive in the world.
There are factory tours and sites of historic factories, archives and collections of personal and corporate papers in libraries sprinkled liberally around southeastern Michigan, and great "secret" car collections like that of the Detroit Historical Museum, which keeps the cars in its collection not currently on display or out on loan in a mausoleum-like warehouse, each car encased in a protective plastic bubble.
If real mausoleums are more your speed, you can see the faux Egyptian temple where the Dodge brothers are buried, replete with sphinxes, as well as Henry Ford's more humble gravestone. You can also see Fairlane, the estate Ford built for himself and Clara, as well as their earlier home in Detroit's grand Boston-Edison district.
With so much automobilia, automotive history and genuinely first rate attractions it's both understandable and unfortunate that some equally worthy places to visit get less attention than they deserve. The Walter P. Chrysler Museum on the Chrysler headquarters campus in Auburn Hills is one of those places. I live in the Detroit area myself and only recently visited the WPCM for the first time and I regret not visiting earlier.
Single marque collections or museums can be fascinating, like the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana, but if you have little interest in that company or its cars, it's not going to be on your bucket list. However, you shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the WPCM is a tribute to a single brand of cars. Because of the many car companies involved in the history of the Chrysler company, and the additional car companies in which Walter Chrysler was personally involved, the WPCM actually has pretty broad interest and covers the sweep of automotive history fairly well.
After Walter Chrysler's personal involvement in Buick, General Motors and Willys-Overland, he took control of√'¬† Maxwell Motors, which eventually became the Chrysler Corporation. Maxwell had earlier absorbed Chalmers. In 1928, WPC bought Dodge Brothers and simultaneously launched the Plymouth brand. Add the brands associated with American Motors, which Chrysler bought in 1987, and Jeffrey, Rambler, Nash and Hudson get added to the family at the museum, along with the cars made by AMC itself, and the sum result is a surprisingly diverse museum with an outstanding collection of historically significant and very cool cars.
Not just cars. There are a series of displays devoted to Walter P. Chrysler himself, perhaps the most competent automotive executive ever. Also, the technical advances in his cars and those earlier made by the Dodges were important advancements, and those too are covered. So there are displays about the Chrysler Six, the first high compression (for its day) engine, and 4 wheel hydraulic brakes, which Chrysler innovated.There are three different versions of the Chrysler Airflow, which was revolutionary in its day, though a flop. There is even Walter P. Chrysler's personal toolbox, with his own tools.
It's still about the cars
But of course any automotive museum is ultimately about the cars, and there are some great cars on display, and they are displayed to great effectiveness. You enter the museum and there's a spiral staircase going up to the second level. In the center of the spiral is a column reaching to the ceiling of the atrium with three car sized platforms attached to the column. At ground level are two Chrysler concept cars, the recent Dodge Viper-based Firepower coupe, and the 1941 Chrysler Newport, one of the first two concept cars Chrysler ever built (actually they were designed and built by Briggs for Chrysler). On the first platform, above the Newport and Firepower, was the Chrysler Thunderbolt, the other one of the original Chrysler/Briggs concepts. Those cars, as well as every car in the museum, appeared to be in 100 point concours condition. On the other two platforms were the Dodge Razor, another popular concept, and the Plymouth Prowler concept.
There is the first car that the Dodge brothers sold under their own brand after they got tired fighting with Henry Ford to get paid for supplying him with Model Ts, along with the first car Walter Chrysler sold under his own name while he was still running Maxwell. There's also a 1928 Plymouth, that brand's first model. The oldest car in the collection is a 1902 Rambler by Jeffrey, though the oldest vehicle is a bicycle. Before they went into the car business, John and Horace Dodge were in the bicycle business. Nash is also represented and if you bring your kids and they are fans of the Cars animated movies, they'll be happy to see that there's a Hudson Hornet. One display has a Willys-Overland built military Jeep in a wartime setting. In contrast to the gritty Jeep MB, one of Virgil Exner's elegant Ghia built show cars, the Thomas Special, is also on display, along with two Town & Country woodies, a convertible and a station wagon, with flawless woodwork. There are also cars less likely to show up at a concours that are nonetheless important in Chrysler Corp. history, like the K Car and a Cordoba with soft Corinthian leather.
The cars are displayed in a spacious and airy building, with a lot of natural light, which makes photography easier. In contrast, shooting at the Henry Ford Museum is like working in a cave. Not all the museum's cars get the star treatment and cars are rotated in and out of the first and second floor displays.
Down in the basement is a display the museum calls "Walter's Garage." Around the perimeter of the large room are engines and cars from Chrysler's history and the history of the brands it has inherited. In the middle is a simulated race track with celebrated motorsports Mopars. There are also lots of engines, particularly HEMIs. I think I counted about a half dozen of various vintage and performance level HEMIs. To complement all that horsepower is a dyno control panel from Highland Park when Chrysler made the move out to Auburn Hills.
Muscle car fanatics will love Walter's Garage. There's a Dodge Daytona with the nose and wing, Roger Lindamood's Color Me Gone drag racer, a real hemi'Cuda (that's how it's spelled on the shaker hood scoop), a Challenger T/A, a Hudson Hornet from NASCAR's early days, an American Motors' AMX, along with 340 six packs, 440 "wedge" motors, and even an experimental aluminum block Slant Six. Jeep fans will appreciate the Jeepster and one of the first civilian Jeeps. Students of American culture will ponder the Dodge LaFemme, not a concept car but an actual option package aimed at women circa 1956: "Pink Power: The Modern Car for the Modern Woman".
I could go on, but there are about 100 cars in all on display and the museum does occasionally change some of the featured cars and has special exhibits. While the exact cars that I saw may not be on display when you are there, I'm sure that anything the curators put on display will be worth your while.
Upcoming events include a seminar by RM Auctions on The Art of the Auction and the museum recently launched "Collector's Curb," a rotating exhibition of museum quality cars on loan from members of enthusiast clubs. Those cars will be chosen in conjunction with the museum's Unique Vehicle Pairs Spotlight Series, which features two concept cars from Chrysler's history. The current theme is "Modern Elegance" and on display is a 1957 Imperial Crown Sedan owned by Diran &√'¬†Joyce Yazejian, matched up with the 2000√'¬†Chrysler 300C Convertible & 2008 Chrysler Hollywood Concepts.
The Walter P. Chrysler Museum is located at One Chrysler Drive in Auburn Hills, Michigan, about 20 minutes north of Detroit.
Ronnie Schreiber's Cars in Depth has a gallery of over 70 photos from the Walter P. Chrysler Museum and you can view them in 2D or your choice of 3D modes.