Home » I Saw Detroit’s Secret Collection Of Priceless Cars Stored In Bubbles And It Was Astonishing

I Saw Detroit’s Secret Collection Of Priceless Cars Stored In Bubbles And It Was Astonishing

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Locked away in a semi-secret former army quartermaster building surrounded in a crumbling old fort, the Detroit Historical Society’s Collections Resource Center is a car-person’s dream. It features priceless automobiles from The Motor City’s rich history, all preserved in constantly-filtered clear plastic bubbles — many formerly owned by automotive celebrities like Cadillac’s Henry Leyland, Ford/Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, and so many more. I luckily had a chance to visit the unbelievable collection; here’s what I saw.

I have to thank Autopian contributor and NVH enginerd Steve Balistreri for taking me to the CRC, because I still get goosebumps. I’d heard whispers about Detroit’s “bubble cars” over the years, but to see them in person was awe-inspiring, especially since I had just moved out of Detroit after nearly a decade of residency — the longest I’d ever lived anywhere. So to fly back to Michigan and then see its rich automotive history laid out in the form of carefully-preserved machines — and astonishing blueprints, brochures, and correspondence from the founders of these car companies – was truly moving.

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Here, watch this YouTube video and hopefully you’ll have at least a bit of a glimpse into just how incredible an experience this was for me, thanks largely to David Marchioni — Automotive and Industrial Curator for the DHS:

And here’s some bonus footage in the form of Instagram videos:

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Anyway, for those of you who don’t want to watch videos, check out this Brush Runabout, built by Brush Motor Car Company out of Highland Park, MI:

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It’s not so much that the car is that important in the history of Detroit — it’s more about what the car represents, or rather, who it represents: Alanson Partridge Brush. Here, allow Hemmings to tell you a bit about him:

The scene was electrifying: Thousands milled about and cheered lustily on a crisp fall morning in October 1902 as a tiny car clattered up the steps leading to the entrance of the magnificent, newly opened Wayne County Courthouse in Detroit. Reaching the Beaux-Arts building’s landing, it made a U-turn and descended smartly to the bottom of the stairs on Randolph Street. The crowd mobbed the tiny car. It was the very first Cadillac ever built, and decades later, the area in front of the courthouse would be renamed Cadillac Square in commemoration of its feat.

In the seat that day, 103 years ago, was the man mostly responsible for the landmark car’s basic design, a native Detroiter named Alanson Partridge Brush. He is one of the lesser-known lights in the early American auto industry’s galaxy of stars, but was nonetheless a gifted, self-taught engineer who developed and patented a raft of innovations that, in some cases, have long been wrongly credited to others.

Here’s a Mighty Mite, which was developed by American Motors Corporation (technically its military arm, AM General) in the late 1950s for the Marine corps — specifically to be lifted by the Sikorski H-19 helicopter. The Mighty Mite, which features automatic locking diffs front and rear, an aluminum body, a fully independent suspension, and an air-cooled V-4, didn’t make it into production until the early 1960s, which is when the “Huey” helicopter came out and offered much more carrying capacity, largely rendering the Mighty Mite obsolete. Production lasted only a few years.

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So what does this Kenosha, Wisconsin-built military runabout have to do with Detroit? Well, that air-cooled V4 was a Detroit creation. Check out Popular Science’s cover from February of 1959:

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I also saw this 1930s Chrysler Airflow (a car far ahead of its time — an aerodynamic wonder that was also a sales-flop) next to Henry Leyland’s personal car, a car called the Osceola Coupe (a vehicle used to study a potential closed-body Cadillac, the brand that Leyland founded. The Osceola was named after a Seminole Chief), which was designed by Fred Fisher (of Fischer body — the company that build bodies for GMs for decades):

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I could spend this whole article writing about both of those two cars, but I must move on, for the CRC was full of absolute gold. Like this Mustang II prototype from 1963:

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Motor Trend breaks down why the Mustang II was so important, writing:

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The Mustang II “concept” came out of the need to bridge the public’s perception of the Mustang I two-seater from 1962 and the production Mustang to come in April 1964. In the summer of 1963, the Ford Styling department handed design details to Dearborn Steel Tubing (DST) to build the Mustang II prototype. What began as a ’63 Falcon Sprint chassis evolved into a completed vehicle in September 1963, minus the final top coat of paint. On October 6, 1963, just six months prior to the introduction of the mass produced Mustang on April 17, 1964, Ford unveiled the Mustang II at Watkins Glen Raceway in Watkins Glen, New York. On hand to make the introduction was Lee Iacocca, the man who had staked his reputation—and his job—on this car.

After Watkins Glen, the Mustang II was placed on the auto show circuit until early 1964, then it was retired to a Ford warehouse in Dearborn. Following 11 years of mostly storage, Ford donated its valuable piece of history to the Detroit Historical Museum in 1975. With the exception of a handful of car shows, the 1963 Mustang II resided for the following 21 years, from 1975 to 1996, in a WW II era warehouse owned by the museum.

Behold the first Chrysler minivan, the 1984 Plymouth Voyager — this one with a four-cylinder and four-speed manual transmission:

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The minivan was the Brainchild of Lee Iacocca, who also had a huge hand in the Ford Mustang. (see Motor Trend quote above). His Lincoln Continental is also in a bubble just to the left of the Voyager minivan:

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Behold this Ford GPW World War II Jeep, which was really developed by Butler, PA’s Bantam and Toledo’s Willys Overland, though certain elements (like the stamped grille) came from Ford Motor Company, who had a main plant in Dearborn:

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Speaking of Jeeps, here are some M38A1 military Jeeps. These were built in Toledo, just 90 minutes south of Detroit:

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I’d be mad if I didn’t show you the world’s first minivan, the 1935 Stout Scarab, developed by Detroit’s Stout Motor Car Company, founded by William Bushnell Stout, an aircraft pioneer and Ford exec. Next to the Scarab you can seven see a 1940s concept car Scarab successor that never made it into production:

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Here’s a Firebird convertible developed by American Sunroof Corporation, which started out in California but moved to Michigan and became a huge outfit, helping automakers develop cars like the Dodge Dakota Convertible and Chevy SSR:

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Here’s an early Pontiac Fiero, built in Pontiac, Michigan not far from Pontiac’s Fisher Body plant:

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Here’s a ridiculous Scripps-Booth (a Detroit-based company founded by engineer-artist James Scripps Booth, who was part of a family that made its riches in media) water-cooled V8 motorcycle called the Bi-Autogo (notice the outriggers and cooling pipes):

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Here are two 1986 Cadillac Brougham wagons, vehicles that never actually made it to production, as they were just an exercise by the UAW to show Cadillac that they could build different cars at the Clark Street assembly plant, and not have to change things. Unfortunately, Clark Street shut down shortly thereafter.

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Speaking of Cadillacs, the CRC features this old Cadillac still on its platform/jig that took it down the assembly line just prior to plant closure:

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Look at how minty the interior is; it still has its plastic wrap. Plus, the window sticker is still there:

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And here’s another custom Cadillac wagon:

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Among the most beautiful cars in the collection were these concept cars built on Shelby Cobra platforms: The 1965 Ford Bordinat Cobra (named after Ford’s head of design Eugene Bordinat) and the 1963 Ford Cougar II:

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There’s so much more to this collection even beyond just the cars themselves. Here’s a look at an old Ford Twin Traction Beam demonstrator cutaway:

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Here’s a bunch of batteries from a Detroit Electric car from the early 1900s:

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Here’s an old Dodge Omni welding buck — a calibration tool for the robotic welder, which is also shown:

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DHS’s archives are as impressive as its vehicles. Look at these engineering drawings of the Scripps-Booth V8 motorcycle:

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Here’s a look at the rear brake/drive axle:

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Here’s another Scripps-Booth Drawing:

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But the most impressive historical documents were the Stout Scarab drawings, because they were just as much art as they were engineering:

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Here’s a Stout airline advertisement (that’s how he made his fortune):

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There’s really not enough time for me to walk through every car at the CRC. It’s an overwhelming, but inspiring place that even features a bunch of pieces from the old Tigers Stadium, which was demolished about 20 years ago:

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Here’s a photo dump of some other machines and memorabilia:

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Jeff Grimmett
Jeff Grimmett
1 month ago

I used to have a model of the Cougar II. I didn’t know the story behind it at the time, but my old man did and that’s why he bought me the model.

One thing I seem to remember about putting it together was the odd placement of the engine, behind the front suspension. Possibly that’s why the hood is so long. It’s been a long time.

Nice to see she’s being taken good care of. Love to see her in person some day.

Space
Space
1 month ago

They should encase them in argon gas, more expensive but oxygen will attack them otherwise.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 month ago
Reply to  Space

Argon is heavier than air. Any leaks would end up suffocating someone. But this gives me the intro to an Argon story. Where I worked foo a decade or so was a large hydrogen brazing furnace. In addition to a huge liquid hydrogen tank, there was a liquid argon and nitrogen tanks. The site was the only active place in the 5 acre building, so we were alone out there. We were in rattlesnake country, so first thing in the morning was to scout for snakes in our work area. Across the entrance road to the furnace was a chunk of concrete that used to hold other tanks. One could walk over to the edge of the concrete, look down, and see into a rattlenake den full of them. A call to the safety department ended when they said there was nothing they could legally do like poison them. Our furnace operator hooked a small line to the argon tank, ran it across the road and let the line run down into the den, and opened up the line. Whatever snakes didn’t freeze to death suffocated. Brilliant. Some weeks later we saw bunny rabbits in the hole under the concrete.

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