As this debt-ridden city lurches toward a possible bankruptcy filing, residents and workers have been locked in a grim face-off with creditors over how to preserve what remains of their services and benefits.
Commercials and promotional videos for cars in the Detroit Historical Society's collection help tell the story of Detroit's history.
Contributing to the municipal anxiety is the possibility that some of the city's cultural treasures could be sold off, including masterpieces in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Belle Isle park in the Detroit River.
But there is another Detroit family jewel in question that is largely unknown outside the automobile world and to some people even more treasured—a collection of 62 lovingly maintained classic cars donated to the city since the 1950s by civic-minded families seeking to preserve the Motor in Motor City.
Most of the cars are stored under protective plastic bubbles in a World War II-era riverfront warehouse on the grounds of Fort Wayne, while others are on display at the Detroit Historical Museum or on loan to exhibits around the country.
Just as art patrons are resisting selling van Goghs and Matisses to satisfy Detroit's debt, car lovers are pushing back at the possibility of losing what they regard as the city's historic industrial heart and soul—including a Cadillac Osceola that dates to 1905, and a vintage Ford Mustang worth an estimated $2 million.
"The cars stand for us, the expression of the thousands of people working hard to produce the birthright of America," said Jerry Herron, a Detroit historian and dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College at Wayne State University. "It would be a sad day for Detroit and for America."
If Detroit winds up in bankruptcy court—and no one knows if that will happen, or exactly what would follow—city assets of all sorts could be placed on the block to satisfy creditors, who will look to recoup some of their money lost on the city's bonds and other long-term debt.
In a Chapter 9 bankruptcy—which is highly unusual, especially for a big city—it would be up to a judge, if asked, to decide on a request to sell assets like the art or cars. Even if a judge is so inclined, some creditors might be loath to appear too hard-nosed by going after municipal treasures.
"They're going to want to take everything they can out of the city's assets, but they won't want to take the heart out of the body," said James V. McTevia, a corporate turnaround expert who runs McTevia & Associates in Bingham Farms, Mich.
Last Friday, the city's emergency manager, Kevyn D. Orr, started negotiations with creditors, asking them to accept pennies on the dollar for the $15 billion to $17 billion they are owed. Short of bankruptcy, he says, he has no plans to sell off assets.
"Selling an asset creates a one-time revenue source, which has little lasting impact on sustaining city services for years to come," said Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Mr. Orr. Last week, Michigan's attorney general, Bill Schuette, wrote in an opinion that at least the artwork could not be sold.