Anxiety in Detroit Over a Prized Car Trove

New York Times
Curator Adam Lovell deflates a car capsule housing a 965 Ford XD Cobra prototype owned by the Detroit Historical Society.
Stephen McGee | The New York Times

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.

(Read More: City on the Brink: Detroit Fights to Avoid Bankruptcy)

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.

Detroit's Damaging Debt Situation

Bob Sadler, director of sales and marketing for the Detroit Historical Society, which manages the prized auto collection, said museum officials had yet to meet with Mr. Orr and his staff.

From the perspective of Adam Lovell, the curator of the historical society's museum, the cars' real value lies in what they represent for Detroit. Each vehicle in the collection has a story that, taken together, "tell little snippets, tiny microstories" of Detroit's history.

The stories feature industry titans making groundbreaking cars, and workers fighting to prove their grit to the world—and to their companies.

It is an eclectic collection, from the innovative 1934 Chrysler Airflow four-door sedan to the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair—later declared by Ralph Nader to be "unsafe at any speed." Even an AMC Pacer, one of the oddest cars from the 1970s, sits in the 50,000-square-foot warehouse, which smells like a musty basement and pulses with the whir of the fans that keep the bubbles inflated 24 hours a day.

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There is also the 1919 Dodge coupe belonging to John Francis Dodge, with gold initials JFD imprinted on the rear door and an odometer that reads 4,126. A 1902 Oldsmobile runabout is considered the first mass-produced automobile in the world.

A 1987 Cadillac stretch limousine was custom-made by workers in a failing bid to persuade General Motors to keep open the Fleetwood plant where it was made.

Mr. Lovell counts among his favorites a 1924 two-door Hupmobile with a four-cylinder engine, manufactured by the long-defunct Hupp Motor Car Company.

The Detroit Historical Society's collection comprises 62 lovingly maintained classic cars donated by civic-minded families seeking to preserve the "Motor" in Motor City.
Stephen McGee | The New York Times

"If you look in a 1920s Detroit phone directory for car companies, you're going to see 60 different listings," he said. "That just boggles people's minds. Some produced two cars, some produced hundreds."

Another unlikely favorite of his is a 1984 Dodge Caravan.

"I call it the Model T of the '80s," he said. "It defined the soccer mom generation."

For Sandra Studebaker of Fraser, Mich., who donated the minivan to the historical society in 2004, the four-cylinder, standard-transmission vehicle has personal significance.

"It had become a member of my family," said Ms. Studebaker, a distant relative of the Studebaker automotive family. "I even named it Brown Betty. I could not give Brown Betty to anyone who would run it into the ground."

The collection is valued at more than $12 million, according to an independent estimate produced by Hagerty, the classic car insurer based in Traverse City, Mich., at the request of The New York Times.

"You can tell it's a collection meant to paint the history of the automobile," said Jonathan Klinger, a Hagerty spokesman. "It's designed to tell a story."

(Read More: Detroit Advisor to Return Millions to City Pension)

The collection started with the donation of the 1905 Cadillac Osceola by the family of Henry M. Leland, a general manager at Cadillac. The first enclosed-top Cadillac, it was built for Mr. Leland to drive in bad weather and contains a one-cylinder engine that could run on lighter fluid as well as on gasoline.

While most of the vehicles were donated, several were purchased by the historical society, which lends them to other institutions, from the National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, to the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine. The vehicles are also rotated through the Detroit Historical Museum, which the historical society operates.

The prospect of losing the collection would be hard to imagine, Mr. Lovell said.

"Priceless," he said, as he unzipped the dusty plastic cover over a 1963 Ford Cougar II concept car. "Everything is priceless."

By Jaclyn Trop and Bill Vlasic, The New York Times