Motor to Michigan for a vintage-auto-inspired road trip to these 3 museums
Roughly 160 miles separate Chicago from Hickory Corners, Mich., one of those one-stoplight villages commonly found when you veer off the interstate and onto the back roads.
Now imagine turning back the clock and making the journey in classic 1950s style, in a car you’ve likely never heard of: the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. It’s just one of the roughly 400 vehicles showcased at the impressive Gilmore Car Museum, located on a sprawling Hickory Corners campus in the countryside of southwest Michigan.
“The name says it all,” the museum’s marketing director, Jay Follis, said about the vintage set of wheels. “This top-of-the-line car would be a dependable car to hop in and cruise in comfort to any place.”
The museum’s Cruiser — with its two-tone, pink-and-black paint job and plenty of chrome — still looks road-trip ready.
“It was loaded with all the newest options possible in 1957,” Follis said. “Some may have called it gadget-laden, but to me, it was futuristic. ‘Twin Jet’ fresh-air intakes over the top of the windshield and a power rear window that created ‘Breezeway’ ventilation. A push-button transmission and even an automatically adjusting front seat with memory.”
People old enough to remember the ’50s wax nostalgic about days on the open road in regal cars that were, by today’s standards, huge. Even millennials often are awed as they come nose-to-dash with cars made by long-gone companies such as Auburn, Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer, plus more recent departures, like Mercury and Oldsmobile.
With its nearly 120-year history of auto production, Michigan is the perfect place to visit towns in which now-obscure cars once rolled out of bustling factories. Such a road trip is easily doable without even setting foot in Detroit (although this comeback city is a worthy road-trip destination, in and of itself).
Car museums tend to sprout in or near the cities where autoworkers once toiled, places such as Kalamazoo, Lansing and Ypsilanti. The most impressive, and the largest devoted strictly to automobiles, is the one closest to Chicago: Gilmore.
Begun in 1963 by David Gilmore, a pharmaceutical executive looking for a post-retirement hobby, the museum sits on 90 rural acres dotted with 30-some buildings. It’s a short drive from Kalamazoo, which once buzzed with 17 automakers.
“People don’t realize that, but we jokingly call ourselves the other Motor City,” Follis said.
The best-known and longest operating of those car companies was Checker, famous for the taxi cabs that were ubiquitous on the streets of Chicago and other big cities. Gilmore’s display includes the first cab, from 1923, and one of the last to roll off the production line, from 1982.
Just next to the main building, replete with stellar archives, is a row of car dealerships not unlike those of today. However, these feature vintage vehicles.
“We have a Model A dealership from 1928 based off original Ford blueprints,” Follis said. “We have a 1948 Cadillac dealership based off a Toledo dealer. We have a 1930s Lincoln building based off one in Detroit.
“Our oldest vehicle is an 1898 Locomobile,” he added. “It’s a steam car — the very first car that came to Kalamazoo. They would have bought it through an ad in a magazine because (back then) there were no car dealers.”
Hungry visitors can fill up their tanks, so to speak, at an authentic 1941 diner, once part of the Silk City chain. Blue plate specials are on the menu at lunchtime. Save room for a slice of delicious homemade pecan pie.
Follis pointed to a 1929 Duesenberg as the “jewel of the collection.” At the start of the Great Depression, the exotic car sold for $29,000 — roughly what it would have then cost to purchase six average-size houses in Illinois.
About 100 miles east along Interstate 94, the collection is far more modest, but no less interesting, at the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. Twenty-five vehicles can be viewed in what was once a Hudson car dealership.
“The museum is based on anything (vehicle-wise) that happened in Ypsilanti,” President Ron Bluhm said. And plenty happened here.
Preston Tucker worked on prototypes for his futuristic automobile in Ypsilanti. (The Tucker was later built in Chicago.) Kaiser-Frazer produced its cars here. Later, in 1959, Chevy Corvairs began coming off the assembly line at GM’s massive Willow Run complex. And workers made 10 million transmissions at the Hydra-Matic Plant.
Bluhm said his 1951 creamy-yellow Kaiser Traveler is the perfect car for a road trip.
“It has a tailgate that lifts up, and the seat folds down, so you can haul all kinds of things,” he said. His family’s vintage Thermos coolers and picnic baskets sit inside the Traveler, evidence of its roomy, ready-to-hit-the-highway design.
To no one’s surprise, an Oldsmobile is the top pick for an old-school road trip at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, just a few blocks from the state Capitol in downtown Lansing.
Executive Director Bill Adcock’s choice is a green 1972 Vista Cruiser, a station wagon noted for the views through its myriad windows. People too young to have actually seen the car on the streets may remember it from TV’s “That ’70s Show,” in which Eric Forman (Topher Grace) and his friends motored around Wisconsin in their trusty Olds.
Adcock proudly points to Ransom Eli Olds as the “father of the auto industry,” noting that he created the first assembly line seven years before Henry Ford opened his.
“R.E. Olds built more than 2,500 cars on a progressive assembly line before Henry Ford built his first car,” he said.
“He (Olds) hated horses,” Adcock added. “He is the guy who had to groom them and clean up their poop. … He figured there had to be a better way to get around.”
One of Olds’ first production cars, built in 1897, is displayed along with a wealth of other Oldsmobiles, as well as models from his REO brand. Certain to amuse rock music fans, the collection includes a 1923 REO Speedwagon.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
Get inspired to get away.
Explore California, the West and beyond with the weekly Escapes newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.