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Detroit carmakers don’t seem to care much about their heritage

Chrysler Museum was terrific, until it closed | Larry Edsall

Chrysler Museum was terrific, until it closed | Larry Edsall

Each day, I receive a Newspress email. Actually, two of them. One comes from England, the other from within the United States.

Each Newspress email is a newsletter-style compilation of the press releases produced in the previous 24 hours by automakers on those two continents, including the respective European or American branches of Asian automakers.

Having spent the last five months as editorial director of the ClassicCars.com blog, I’m struck by one major difference I see between those daily European and U.S. news feeds: The European automakers embrace their heritage; the American OEMs pretty much ignore theirs (one big exception: Ford’s celebration of the 50th birthday of its Mustang).

This attitude of seemingly historical disdain is not a new phenomenon by any means. Think of all those rare 1950s concept cars that Joe Bortz had to resurrect from salvage yards after Detroit’s automakers discarded them.

One the other hand, nearly every day at least one of the European automakers calls attention to cars it produced years ago, cars that have come to be considered classics, or to some aspect of its history in auto racing. It may be Mercedes celebrating the 125th anniversary of its racing program or BMW buying one of its old manufacturing plants to turn into a center for classic cars, or a new display at the Porsche Museum showcasing that company’s Le Mans-winning racing cars, or Porsche’s “rolling museum” that takes cars from the museum and puts them on roads and race tracks.

Oh, and not only does Porsche have a museum to display its heritage, but so does Mercedes, and for that matter so do Ferrari and Volvo and Toyota and Honda and Mazda and I’m sure there are others. And those are overseas. Toyota also has a museum in California, and Mercedes-Benz has its Classic Center there as well, and Porsche is building a museum/test track complex near Los Angeles.

Nissan is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year and has an entire website devoted to its heritage. Nissan North America has a Heritage collection of nearly 60 cars significant to the company’s history and is showcasing several of them at a big import car show.

Meanwhile, Chrysler closed its museum. But at least it had one. Ford doesn’t (although there are some cars at the Henry Ford museum and lots of Model Ts at Greenfield Village).

Once upon a time, Cadillac saluted its heritage by turning part of its old Clark Street assembly plant not far from downtown Detroit into a museum. Not anymore.

Some of the cars at the GM Heritage Center | Larry Edsall

Some of the cars at the GM Heritage Center | Larry Edsall

General Motors does have a Heritage Center with a car collection and terrific reference library, but it is not open to the general public, though car clubs and civic groups can schedule a visit.

Speaking of the public, even the car-buying public, I see a lot more — exponentially more — classic car photos being posted on Facebook than I see friends posting photos of cars they just drove home from dealership showrooms.

For years… decades, proposals have popped up from time to time been for an American car museum to be built if not in Detroit then somewhere near Motown, a place to showcase the history of American cars and those who have produced them.

You’d think it would be a no-brainer. Instead, it remains a pipe dream. And fortunately there are many private museums and car clubs that keep Detroit’s heritage alive.

But except for something along the lines of the Mustang anniversary, or the annual Woodward Dream Cruise weekend or maybe in the rare year that a Detroit vehicle is featured at the Monterey Historics (or whatever that vintage racing weekend is being called these days), Detroit automakers pretty much seem to ignore their history.

In Detroit, the focus is on the next 30-day sales report. Well, that and too frequent appearances before Congressional investigating committees.

By the way, did you know it’s the 50th anniversary of the Pontiac GTO, the car that launched the muscle car movement in America? I just did a search for “Pontiac GTO” on the General Motors media website. “Your search – ‘Pontiac GTO’ did not match any images.” was the response.

larry-sig

Posted in: Commentary

About the Author:

A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the Web and becoming the author of more than 15 books. In addition to be Editorial Director at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times, writes a weekly automotive feature for The Detroit News and is an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State Univeristy.

8 Comments on "Detroit carmakers don’t seem to care much about their heritage"

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  1. RJ says:

    Larry…..you nailed it! As a former Michigander now living in a beach city of Los Angeles I’m bombarded everyday with “older” well cared for vehicles. However, with Michigan’s woes in Detroit it would absolutely be the right thing to do building a Museum in the greater Detroit area.

  2. Neil Mason says:

    Great commentary Larry. I’m an Australian who’s a passionate US classic car enthusiast and continue to be amazed as I travel the USA to see just how little the domestic manufacturers who led the automotive world for much of its history, fail to capture.preserve and present what I see as a substantial part of America’s heritage. Seeing that Chrysler has closed their museum is a loss to the car world, as it was an outstandingly world class venue I’ve visited twice .. and I am not even necessarily a Chrysler fan!!

  3. Stephanie Bourassa says:

    Great, well thought out article. Excellent observations, Thanks

  4. neil Mason says:

    Just read in the local press that Fiat is now the dominant partner in the Fiat Chrysler merger. I hope the closure of the Museum is not a negative sign of things to come for the marque?

  5. John Burch says:

    Well said Larry. It seems that the united States has lost their leadership in automotive design and doesn’t seem too concerned about it. Before re-delivery of one of our customers cars I write a brief history to post on our blog and facebook page. Recently I wrote an outline on a customers 1953 Mercedes-Benz 220, there was an unfathomable amount of information directly from Mercedes, all categorized by years and models. I haven’t posted this particular review yet but I found it interesting that the Mercedes website mentions how the European cars of the fifties were beginning to emulate the American cars of that era with lower body lines and wider stances. Here we have a manufacturer with a long history of great automobiles paying homage to American designers while we ignore their contributions. The automotive world is certainly more global now than it was 60 years ago, we just seem to be following rather than leading sometimes. Those great designs of the 50′s and 60′s, as well as pre-war designs are fading but with people like you and your readers, many of these classics will be saved, despite the manufacturer best efforts to scrap them and leave them behind.

  6. Gullwing Guy says:

    It’s a very sad state of affairs when our longest-lived corporations focus solely on the bottom line and next quarter’s earnings. Their customers, employees, etc. don’t even realize that they are a small part of something much larger than themselves, something historically and culturally significant.

  7. John Patrick says:

    muscle cars, I just called it my Charger, 1969, 383 I bought while in the Navy. I loved it.
    It handled just great, and I tested it all the time. Not yet a trained motor head with a tool box full of wrenches, but top performance was needed for fast weekend trips, leaving Newport R.I. Friday, and I had to be back for Monday morning muster at 7am.
    But Detroit has lost it’s vision for a good car that handles well and is a wonder to own and drive. Several cars later, I was numb shopping for a car when mine was totaled last fall.
    Dealers have no reason to care what we buy, as long as we buy. Cramped, lack of real power, no styling I can relate to, and the interiors are less appealing than coffins.
    I enjoyed finding your web site, Larry. Keep up the good work, and thanks for years of hard work in this area. I’m moving to Durham NC, leaving all my junk behind, but taking every wrench and socket I ever bought. After settling in my new home, I hope to find a new car I car enjoy getting into everyday. Maybe a 69 Charger. Now wouldn’t that be grand.

  8. John Burch says:

    I have found many, many people just like you John. As a restoration facility Precision Restorations does a lot of resto-mods. There are so many things that can be added to a classic car to provide the conveniences and enhanced safety of modern vehicles without sacrificing the style, size and comfort. Many of our customers feel as you do, they have become disenfranchised with new vehicle offerings and feel their money better spent driving a like new restored automobile versus the offerings you describe in your post. With engine options, transmission, suspension and brake systems available you can drive that 69 Charger with a more fuel efficient fuel injected engine that has an overdrive automatic or manual transmission, that rides better than new and provides outstanding handling when needed. I’m with you John, and you’re right, dealers really have no reason to care what you buy, as long as you buy, that is also the mentality of the manufacturer who has created a relatively bland car culture.

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