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Dinosaurs of Motor City

A museum showcasing cars from Detroit's banner year of 1957 finds itself sputtering in the economic hard times of 2009.

January 09, 2009|Dan Neil

BRANSON, MO. — It's 1957: The sky over Flint, Mich., glows at night from the spark-showering assembly lines. At Ford's River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, the hammering goes on day and night. Corvettes get fuel injection. Chryslers get tinsel-bright tail fins big enough for Sputnik to see. The Detroit Lions win the NFL championship.

Motor City is firing on all cylinders.

That was then, and this is now, and now -- as most everyone knows -- is the most desperate moment in the history of American automaking. So you might expect a certain longing for the glory days. Yet on a recent winter morning at the '57 Heaven museum here, only a handful of out-of-towners meander through the tail-finned forest of Packards, Plymouths and Pontiacs.

The museum, opened less than three years ago on the ground floor of the Dick Clark American Bandstand Theater, includes a showroom-perfect example of every convertible built in the U.S. in 1957, as well as a large assortment of '57 hardtops, wagons and pickups -- 66 cars and trucks in all, a bestiary of iron and chrome from a time when American giants ruled the road.

Long minutes go by when no one is there to admire the barge-like Lincoln Premier Convertible (18.6 feet) or the aquamarine Hudson hardtop, its grille as bright as a tea service. Background music -- the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis -- plays surreally to the empty hall. If a jailhouse rocks and nobody is there to hear it, does it swing?

Museum ticket sales were off 50% in 2008, according to the staff.

"The economy's been real hard on us," says attendant Ed Parks. "When you dust the cars every day, it's really kind of sad."

In September, the museum's owner, a wealthy car collector and real estate developer named Glenn Patch, gave employees the bad news: He plans to sell the cars and the contents of the museum. His asking price: $17 million.

Like Detroit itself, he says, "I'm looking for a bailout."

There are dozens of car museums in the U.S., some organized by historical significance, some by make (the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Indiana, for example) or model (Kentucky's Corvette Museum). The '57 Heaven is the only collection of note organized around a single year. From a historian's perspective, says Ken Gross, former head of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, "it's a very eccentric way to collect cars."

But it was a hell of a year. If 1967 was the Summer of Love, 1957 was the Summer of Chrome.

Here's a Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, the world's first retractable hardtop. Over there, a Chrysler 300C, one of the original muscle cars, this one with a 16 2/3 -rpm record player built into the dash, the era's version of an iPod. Around the corner, a Nash Metropolitan, a British-built tadpole of a commuter car, a precursor to today's Smart car. In some ways the cars of 1957 were not so different from those of 2009.

And, like today, the car business was cutthroat. By 1957 the domestic automakers had pretty well caught up with demand for cars -- any cars -- following the suspension of auto production during World War II. To walk among the extinct nameplates now is to be reminded of the industrial Darwinism of postwar Detroit.

"1957 represented a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts," says Bob Schmidt, who has been curator of the museum since it opened in April 2006. "It was the last year for DeSotos with hemi engines, the last year for a full line of Packards . . . the last year for Hudson. It was survival of the fittest."

A half-century later, it's the difference in Detroit's circumstances that makes the museum a wistful, melancholy place. Inside these doors, Cadillac is the Standard of the World, the malts are flowing, and the Chevy Bel Air is the coolest car on four wheels. Outside, the Big Three are on the brink.

"It's the passing of a very special era," says David Sotrines, 60, visiting from Inverness, Fla. "The end of American carmaking. It seems like a huge blow to who we are as a country."

Reminded that millions of cars are still made in the U.S. by foreign nameplate manufacturers, Sotrines demurs: "Even if Honda is made in Marysville, Ohio, it's still a Japanese car."

Patch, the museum owner, made $100 million in publishing (he sold a profitable computer magazine to Ziff-Davis in the late 1980s) and retired before he was 50. Flush with cash, he went on a car-buying tear. "I've always had a lot of toys," he says.

"A buddy of mine had a red and white Corvette, and I told him, 'Hey, I'm going to get one of those too,' " Patch says. "My buddy said, 'You know, you can't have them all.' I decided, he's right, I needed a goal. I decided I'd get all the '57 convertibles, 32 of them."

Why 1957?

"I thought they were the prettiest, with the tail fins -- lovely design," Patch says. "The '57 Chevy Bel Air convertible is the best-looking car ever made."

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