Detroit: Fueling up on Car Culture in the Motor City
Visiting Detroit's Car Museums with a Mechanic Who Loves Cars
By Sonja Stark
Detroit’s resurrection from bankruptcy and blight to a city flush with cash and caviar is often headlined. With affordable airfares and holiday lights aplenty, December was the perfect month for a pilgrimage to Motor City with my favorite mechanic, George. In no particular order, here are some of our must-see automobile museums and heritage sites in Detroit.
Restoration of History
Innovator, legend and icon, Henry Ford and his wife Clara moved to Fair Lane in 1915 after the success of the Model T. Today, the Dearborn castle is run as a non-profit museum on the University of Michigan campus.
We pulled into the parking lot driving an American-made car from Hertz (anything else would have been blasphemous) to roam the grounds where Ford took sanctuary from the pressures of running the company.
Handymen were busy on the roof of the entryway replacing the gutters with new copper sheathing. Progress continued on a crumbling wall near the languid River Rouge behind the house. At one time, the Rouge generated all the hydro-electric power for the property.
George stood next to statues of Henry and his wife Clara immortalized in the extensive rose gardens that Clara maintained. Clara’s philanthropic pursuits and social reform projects sounded just as valuable as her husband's.
Regardless of the restoration, visitors are welcome to explore the grounds free of charge with a downloadable app called Explore Fair Lane.
The Holy Grille of America
When the double doors to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation swung open, no surprise, George was first in line. This is where a collection of 26 million artifacts are best described in superlatives: Epic, educational and inspiring.
The TV series Innovation Nation, hosted by CBS correspondent Mo Rocca, played on the lobby monitors while we picked up our tickets. George gathered his strength and checked his watch. “It’s 'Go time!'” he cheered.
He grabbed the wheel of a 1917 Overland in the 'Your Place in Time' exhibit for a surreal trip into the past. The car is symbolic of a 20th-century generation that heralded significant changes in world history.
The ride triggered us to move through other themed-generations like the War Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Next Generation, all shaped by the inventions and innovations of their time.
Rare Ropers and race cars are a big part of this museum, but, make no mistake, automobiles are just the tip of the iceberg. The Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion House being the crowning example.
George hurried through a labyrinth of wonders until we found ourselves in the “Driving America” gallery. Steam carriages, custom cruisers, gas pumps -- George's favorites multiplied around every corner.
He got especially giddy seeing a costly 1931 Bugatti Convertible not to be outdone by the 1957 Desoto Fireflite hardtop and later trumped by the two-seater Mustang I Roadster.
Trains and planes are also a big part of the Ford collection. I lingered over a Ford Flivver that Henry hoped would make airplanes affordable for the masses and an autogiro once used by the Detroit News.
At closing, we climb aboard the bus where Rosa Parks refused to move to the designated black section in 1955. Don’t leave without seeing the presidential limousine that JFK was riding in when he was assassinated or the rocking chair that Lincoln sat in when he was shot at Ford’s Theater.
A Taste of Michigan
For lunch, we took our cue from the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and ordered a “Coney Island” at the museum’s American Dog House. The state’s iconic hot dog was smothered with seasoned ground meat sauce, yellow mustard and onions.
The fast food doesn’t win any prizes but the service was award-winning. Our signature foot-longs came bedded inside a box-shaped Fair Lane convertible and Lena gave us complimentary potato chips.
Pop the Hood
There’s no time for Greenfield Village but before we left we hopped a bus for a self-guided tour of the nearby Ford Rouge Factory where Ford F-150 trucks are assembled. Family member, Edsel Ford II still visits to be sure the craftsmanship lives up to his late grandfather’s expectations.
We are greeted at the entrance by a sage union employee who used to assemble Ford Mustangs in the 1970s. This was once the largest manufacturing facility in the world in the 1930s and 40s, he said.
An elevated walkway inside the plant allowed us to look down on the assembly line in full operation. It was like a busy beehive: 3000 skilled tradesmen, equal parts men and women, worked vigilantly alongside countless computerized stations to conjure up a truck in under six hours. The efficiency of the factory floor was jaw-dropping.
Operations Manager, Doug Plond, escorted us to the top of the building to further our impressions of Ford’s innovations. He pointed at the world’s largest living roof: 10 acres of drought-resistant ground cover that both insulates and filters stormwater runoff.
Red Hot Hotel!
While George recouped from the day's activities on our 5th-floor suite, I met up with a high school friend at a busy communal bar in the lobby of the Foundation Hotel. Linda St. Germain managed to seize a few empty seats next to a couple whose affections for each other lit up like a Christmas tree. Seems so everyone in Detroit is in love with the city’s resurrection! Time Magazine named the hotel one of the ‘World’s Greatest Places’ in 2018.
We sipped cocktails inside the 1929 neoclassical building that used to be the fire department headquarters for the city. Developers reopened it in 2017 as a 100-room industrial boutique mindful of its history. They saved the hefty arched red doors, the sliding brass fire pole, and the unique wallpaper.
“Preservation of the historic architecture is just one example that makes Detroit’s turnaround so successful,” admitted Operations Manager, Stephanie Neumayer.
Our suite had a birdseye view of the COBO convention center where the annual global car show, the North American International Auto Show, takes place every January. Car art hung on the hallway walls leading to our suite.
Because parking was a challenge in downtown we hopped a free ride to Campus Martius Park courtesy the hotel. The Christmas lights were all ablaze as skaters circled the ice rink ringing with carols.
Dinner included a casual but character-driven pub at The Grand Trunk, formerly a 1905 railroad ticket station. We walked through the bar where high vaulted ceilings and ornate brass chandeliers juxtaposed with a menu of meatless burgers and Reuben poutine tots. The chicken waffles were tempting too.
The Detroit People Mover is an affordable option for getting your “bearings” in the Motor City. The shuttle ride reminded us of the tram at Disney World. For only 75 cents, the light-rail system operated on an elevated track that circled past venues, restaurants, lodging, and landmarks. It took only a few minutes to go from one station to another.
We embarked at the Renaissance Center, General Motor’s world headquarters, a campus of office, dining, retail and entertainment space that is so big it had its own zip code. A self-driving Cruise AV -- a car without a steering wheel or brake pedal - was on display in the center of the floor. (George is suspect of anything that doesn’t use conventional gasoline engines. Hey, it what keeps his repair shop in business!)
Oldest Car Factory in America
If walls could talk, the original brick Ford Piquette Avenue Plant from 1904 would hum with the clamoring sounds of a centuries-worth of production. It was here that the Model T and earlier models were built that transformed America.
This building was also ground zero for many business concepts that we now take for granted: Shift manufacturing, a standardized work week, introduction of women into the workforce, and on and on. This museum was a definite favorite!
“I want every kid who comes to this museum to get goosebumps,” explained executive director, Nancy Darga. (George had them already in the parking lot!)
George was so fascinated with this place he couldn't keep his hands to himself. He asked the lead docent for permission to squeeze car horns and pull cranks. Tom Genova saw the sparkle in his eyes and couldn't resist letting him bend the rules just a little (see above video).
Tom poured out his heart and soul into his stories. He presented us with countless facts and figures about the car industry revealing insights into the origins of everyday expressions and words that have crept into the English lexicon. Expressions like, “give someone a lift” and “tune up.”
Tin Lizzie Legends
He took us past rows of restored models testing George’s knowledge of coils, pedals, ignition switches, flywheels, axles, and gears.
“Hey George, do you know what this button is for?” pointed Tom.
“Some sort of hitch?” replied George.
“No, it’s actually a whistle,” said Tom.
“Of course, a wolf whistle!” smiled George.
Curves of Steel
Every July, the Automotive Hall of Fame, located across from the parking lot of The Henry Ford Museum, recognizes five to six individuals who have shown exceptional entrepreneurial spirit, vision, and passion in automotive achievements. An awards gala and induction ceremony take place at the MGM Grand in Detroit in June but the recognition lives on at the Hall of Honor exhibit.
Last year’s inductees, Car Talk’s “Click and Clack” duo -- the late Tom and Ray Magliozzi -- were reason enough to visit but we paid homage to the rest of the exhibits like, the 1968 Honda S800 RSC, arguably the most famous Honda S-car of all time and Edison's Detroit Electric Buggy. Who knew that a vehicle could go 241 miles on a single charge way back in 1912?
A Popular Pit Stop
Continuing with all things Ford, Deanna Majchrzak, media relations manager at the Detroit Metro CVB, invited us to the newly-opened Ford’s Garage gourmet burger and beer joint.
The original location opened in 2012 in Fort Myers, a mile from Henry Ford’s winter residence. This Dearborn location is the first restaurant to open in a state outside of Florida.
George orders the Model T burger, I order an Edison Mule. This is a really fun place to visit and take pictures of vintage gas pumps and fixtures.
Deanna enlightened us with the meaning of the advertising campaign: “Detroit, It’s Go Time.” The tagline actually plays off Detroit’s connection with automobiles and big sports. It’s meant to rev up visitors enthusiasm for the next big thing or big game, she said.
Before our flight home, we topped off our trip with another service station-turned-restaurant, Vinsetta’s Garage, located on one of America’s most icon roads, Woodward Ave. The roadway, sometimes referred to as Detroit's Main Street runs 27 miles from Detroit to Pontiac.
At this last venue, two more relocated Michigan transplants, Joe and Karena Russo, pulled up a chair to say hello. I was so excited to reconnect with my childhood friends that I deep-sixed my appetite to catch up on, much like Detroit, their comeback stories too.
To see more photos, visit my FLICKR Detroit album.
This trip was sponsored by Visit Detroit, but the opinions are the author's own.
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Sonja Stark is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD’s most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.