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Dinosaurs of Motor City

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

Born in Picayune, Miss., in 1942, Patch says he spent much of his 15th year “running up and down the road in my dad’s pickup. Everybody was cruising, everybody going to the drive-in. It really was like that.”

The museum seems to honor the Main Street of Patch’s memory. There’s a Texaco gas station, complete with pumps and a two-bay garage; a drive-in movie theater; a diner; a suburban tract home diorama with a pink kitchen and bathroom. The museum has a small population of a dozen or so mannequins -- a waitress, a couple at the drive-in, a mechanic -- frozen in moments of ‘50s wholesomeness.

When no one is around, the place has the eerie look of one of those fake desert towns built by the Defense Department to test atom bombs, waiting for a blast.

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Schmidt, the curator, met Patch in 1993 after the millionaire bought one of his restorations: a spectacular snow-white DeSoto Adventurer convertible with gold trim (the car is now in the museum). From the beginning there was an enormous trust between the two men. Within months, Patch had recruited Schmidt to help him build his car collection.

“Glenn never asked me about price,” Schmidt says. “It was always, ‘Do the best you can.’ ”

By 1994, Schmidt sold his restoration company to Patch and went to work for him as a full-time employee. He spent most of the next 15 years locating the museum’s cars and restoring them to their Eisenhower-era prime. Along the way, the collection expanded to include assorted hardtops, wagons, trucks, even a tractor.

“At one time, I had 10 employees and I was putting in 100 hours a week flying around the country,” Schmidt says.

When Schmidt heard he was being laid off, he said, his reaction was “mis-belief.” “This is my life’s work here.” He still comes around to help with the cars and talk to his former co-workers.

Patch says it was a difficult decision.

“If it weren’t for economy, I wouldn’t be selling,” he says.

Patch has much of his personal fortune tied up in a huge residential development outside town called the Communities at Branson Creek. He needs to raise money, he said, because in the current climate, he can’t sell lots when home builders can’t find financing.

Patch has had a few tire-kickers for the car collection, but no buyers. He wants to sell it in one piece, but vintage car expert Gross thinks that’s unlikely.

“The fun of these cars is in the collecting and restoring,” Gross says. “What can you do with these cars? You can’t drive them. You can just look at them.”

As for the $17-million price tag, Gross says Patch is “dreaming.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they go to Dubai or someplace like that,” says Schmidt, climbing into his overcoat to leave the museum. He’s signed up for Social Security now, and he’s got a DeSoto Fireflite two-door hardtop restoration going in an unheated storage unit in Branson.

“It’s cold but, hey, I’m from Wisconsin,” he says.

An authority on Detroit’s glory days, Schmidt’s advice for the Big Three is uncomplicated but indisputable: “Make fun cars with great styling that remind people of great cars of the past.

“They should make cars so good that one day people will want to put those in a museum.”

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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latimes.com

/columnone

Previous Column One articles are available online.


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