Detroit Bound

The Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn looks to relocate to the Motor City.
Automotive Hall of Fame
The Automotive Hall of Fame tells the stories of hundreds of inventors, innovators, and tinkerers. Pictured is the Hall of Honor with a mural that spans almost 360 degrees. // Photographs by Tara Revyn

As the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn explores relocating and expanding its exhibit space to Detroit, preferably along or near Woodward Avenue and the QLINE light-rail system that’s scheduled to open in the spring, the museum wants to further celebrate the men and women who have contributed to and transformed the transportation industry.

“Our goal in this journey is to tell stories involving the automotive industry, especially (the history of) the people who have long been forgotten,” says Bill Chapin, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame. “There are so many great automotive stories that aren’t being told. We have a wonderful opportunity ahead of us.”

In the next 18 months, under the direction of the Hall’s board of directors, Chapin plans to finalize a deal to move the collection to a larger space along Woodward or near the Detroit River. “I gave a presentation to the board in November, and provided them with a list of 10 to 12 different locations where we could move,” Chapin says. “We are now in the process of refining those selections.”

One recurring question Chapin is asked is how the recent announcement that the Motown Museum will build a $50-million expansion at its campus along West Grand Boulevard will affect the Hall. In November, the Motown Museum, which has been working on expanding its offerings for more than 15 years, received a lead $6-million gift from Ford Motor Co. and Ford-UAW for the $50-million  project. It will include a performance venue, attractions, interactive exhibits, recording studios, and a larger gift shop.

Automotive Hall of Fame
Above is a 1912 Flanders 20 Runabout, a low-priced car produced by E-M-F Co. in Detroit to compete with the Ford Model T. and a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. The latter car was the first in the line to offer an enlarged windshield and windows.

“We think it’s fantastic that the Motown Museum is expanding,” Chapin says. “Detroit is best known for cars and music, and for the first time we are going to have two first-class visitor experiences that tell Detroit’s two best stories. It’s to everyone’s advantage that the entire city, region, and state work to complete these two outstanding  attractions.”

As Chapin finalizes the selection of a location, he’s conceptualized what the new museum space will offer. The list includes a larger space to display historic vehicles, the ability to rapidly rotate vehicles and displays, room for an executive conference room and a theater, and the ability to accommodate seated and strolling dinners, rotating exhibits, and a large gift shop.

Already, he’s compiled a list of 330 auto manufacturers that have produced vehicles in Detroit since 1900. “Did you know Carhartt once produced automobiles? Or World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker built cars in Detroit during the 1920s?” Chapin says. “We are pulling those stories together and using them as thought-starters for future exhibits. It’s an incredible list of people, half of whom will be people we know, and the other half of whom we will learn about.”

While a lot of people are aware that Hamilton Carhartt launched his clothing line for working men and women in 1899, few people know that he started Carhartt Automobile Corp. in 1910 and ran it for two years before the west-side factory was taken over by Monarch Motor Co., according to Robert Szudarek’s book, How Detroit Became The Automotive Capital. Rickenbacker, meanwhile, began building automobiles under his name in 1920, and was the first to introduce a four-wheel brake system. His company was bankrupt by 1927.

Peugeot engine
Pictured is a 1897 horizontal two-cylinder engine from French automaker Peugeot (on loan from PSA Peugeot-Citroen/Musee de l’Aventure Peugeot).

Jim Bieri, principal of Stokas Bieri Real Estate, a retail brokerage firm in downtown Detroit that for more than 30 years has assisted name-brand retailers with securing space in luxury shopping malls and urban districts, says the Automotive Hall of Fame has a great deal of opportunity to engage visitors, secure partnerships, and advance education.

“There are so many Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 automotive suppliers in the region that would contribute immensely to an interactive museum like this,” Bieri says. “You also have all of the engineering schools and the College for Creative Studies (in Detroit), one of the top transportation design schools in the world. All the assets are here; you just need to pull them together.”

To that end, Bieri recommended the museum hire a dynamic program director who could visualize and pull together an exciting array of rotating historical vehicles, displays, and educational programs.

“Retail and attractions today are all about engagement,” Bieri says. “You have to reach out to customers and visitors with mobile platforms that will serve to bring them to a brick-and-mortar space. Another big thing is instant gratification. More and more stores have salespeople with iPads ready to help you. If the Automotive Hall of Fame can offer the right formula of excitement, engagement, and discovery, they will do very well.”

1965 Volkswagen Beetle
Pictured is a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. The car was the first in the line to offer an enlarged windshield and windows.

Joel Smith, president of Neumann/Smith Architecture, which has offices in downtown Detroit and Southfield, says potential attractions in the Motor City like the Automotive Hall of Fame will help draw more visitors. The firm is working with EWI Worldwide in Farmington Hills to design GM Experience at General Motors Co.’s world headquarters at the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit.

The four-level space, set to open in late 2018 or early 2019, will feature the automaker’s latest models, large LED screens, a spacious interactive lounge, and an energetic space that highlights the inventions and innovations the company has introduced since its founding in 1908.

“The more the merrier, is how I look at it,” Smith says. “EWI and our firm designed the National Corvette Museum (which opened in 1994 in Bowling Green, Ky.), and it still draws thousands of visitors. For attractions like that, it’s all about the exhibits and keeping them new and fresh.

“The Auto Hall of Fame has a real opportunity to add to all of the excitement downtown and in Midtown. There is so much history to work with, but you also have an opportunity to peer into the future. Who would have guessed that autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, and on-demand transportation would happen so quickly? That’s a great story to tell, and it will keep changing.”