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Driving America: Museum exhibit explores car culture

The automobile gave rise to new roadside industries in America, such as the motor inn.

Industrial cities such as Detroit may not be typical vacation destinations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwhile places to visit. Think of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So, quick: What do you know about Detroit? They make cars, right? That’s why the city’s nickname is Motown and the basketball team is called the Pistons. It turns out that you don’t have to go on a tour of a car factory or watch a car-themed sports team for entertainment when in Detroit. You can always go to a museum.  About cars.

Actually The Henry Ford museum is about Americana, but considering the museum’s namesake founder and its location in Dearborn, Mich., the Detroit suburb where Ford’s world headquarters is located, it is no surprise that the museum’s signature exhibit is of cars.

A freshly revamped 80,000-square-foot exhibit, “Driving America” opened to the public Sunday. While the museum’s previous automotive exhibits were presented from the perspective of the people in Detroit who designed and built cars, (they show other things too, including an upcoming visit by the touring “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit,” which arrives March 31), this exhibit is designed from the perspective of the general population, explained Bob Casey, automotive curator.

That means looking at the car’s impact on society, with the rise of previously non-existent traffic laws, taxes on gasoline, roadside industries to support drivers and a rise in consumer interest in safety.

The Henry Ford

The "Driving America" exhibit features a 1949 Airstream Trailwind travel trailer and a 1959 Volkswagen Westfalia camper.

Courtesy The Henry Ford

The Henry Ford integrated 18 touchscreen kiosks into the "Driving America" exhibit

Of course there is plenty of Detroit iron to see, along with cars from other places. The car on display that probably summarizes the change in public attitudes toward personal mechanized transportation is the locomotive-like Roper, of 1865.

When Sylvester Roper built a series of steam-powered, self-propelled carriages and motorcycles in the middle of the 19th century, the cars were regarded as curiosities, which people would pay to see drive around at the fair but had no interest in owning.

But near the turn of the century, opinion had changed, so when the Duryea car appeared in 1896, there was a public frenzy of interest in buying cars that launched the industry.  “By 1896 there was a huge change in the public’s attitude,” Casey said.

This change drove the car’s influence on society through the 20th century, as illustrated by the roadside diner and Texaco gas station exhibits.  Some of these influences have waxed and waned, as shown by a “talk like a trucker” demonstration.  No, it's not a lesson in cursing cars that cut you off in traffic, but a primer on citizens band, or CB radio, slang of the 1970s.

But the cars themselves are the real reason people go to a car museum.  Casey said that visitors most often ask the whereabouts of the ’65 Mustang.  His personal favorite is the 1906 Locomobile that won the famous Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island in 1908, because he recalls reading about that car in a book when he was in junior high school, he said.

I was irresistibly attracted to the 1935 Miller Indy Car, for its amazing technology from eight decades ago.  But the best part is that with 130 vehicles and 60 display cases, “Driving America” is likely to have your favorite, too.

If that isn’t enough, the museum has an Imax theater and is co-located with Greenfield Village, Ford’s re-creation of an American town in the 19th century.  And if you are really hoping to get a little grease under your fingernails, there is the option of going on a tour of Ford’s Rouge factory, which once made the Model T and now makes Ford F-150 pickups.

If you go
Admission: adults, $17; seniors, $15; children 5-12, $12.50; children 4 and under, free.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., seven days a week, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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