On a snowy Saturday, 50 members of the Piquette Model T Club poke their
noses through stacks upon stacks of photographs, articles and books
about the Tin Lizzie and cars produced around the world for the last
100 years. All the materials are contained in a downtown Detroit
library underneath the surging People Mover.
"This is the
greatest collection of auto publications in the country, our members
were glad to find out more about what is here," said Jerry
Vanootegyhem, club president and owner of four Model T’s. "We’re
looking for research to help us stage the 2008 centennial celebration
of the Model T."
Over the past few months, John Bluth, historian
and volunteer publicist for the National Automotive History Collection
at the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library has invited the M.G. Drivers Club
, the Packard Club
, the Lambda Car Club International
, and the Model T Ford Club International
to tour the stacks and tell their friends about the treasures they find.
NAHC houses the nation’s largest collection of automotive material,"
says Bluth, currently researching a history of Detroit’s auto factories
for his third book. "It has more than 300,000 photographs and 600,000
items of automotive history, including books, sales catalogs, shop
repair manuals, magazines, biographical files and personal business
papers of auto industrialists."Enormous spectacle
Mark Patrick, director of special collections for the Detroit Public Library
dons white gloves before showing the group the most prized book in its
collection, acquired October 30, 1896. Notes on Motor Carriages with
Hints for Purchasers and Users
was written by John Henry Knight of
London. To be sure, Knight boosted the importance of the new machines
on wheels when he wrote: "The great advantage of the mechanical
carriage is that when not in use it costs nothing; whereas a horse
standing day by day in the stable proverbially eats his head off."
York writer Gregg D. Merksamer, author of books on auto shows and
funeral coaches makes periodic stops in Detroit to check out the Mecca
of auto research. Jay Leno, television host and classic car collector
pops his head in from time to time. Wayne State University Press has
published books on auto poetry, Henry Ford’s henchmen, the Dodge
brothers and lesser executives. Ken Burns, PBS documentary producer and
author, came here to prepare his 2003 program, Horatio's Drive, America's First Road Trip
Patrick loves to share stories of
finds from dedicated researchers with a passion for the makers of
piston engines. He invites car enthusiasts to tour the latest exhibit,
"The 1946 Automotive Golden Jubilee," on display in the circular
exhibit room on the second floor of the library.
to Patrick, Detroit civic leaders and automotive titans believed that
negative perceptions of the city in 1946 could be reversed by creating
an enormous and entertaining spectacle – the Golden Jubilee,
commemorating the 50th anniversary of the American automobile and the
150th anniversary of the raising of the flag over Wayne County.
blocks of Woodward Avenue were painted gold for the Golden Jubilee, and
a beauty queen named Mary Grace Simescu waved a wand of
neutron-splitting beryllium over a tube of boron, transmitting an
electrical impulse that illuminated a spiraling neon atomic symbol. Historians suggest the event marked the beginning of a
long era of car production dominance for Detroit.The machine gets a name
is a great unifier for car club members, according to Vanootegyhem. The
Model T lovers found scores upon scores of Tin Lizzie sheet music,
books displaying fashions and accessories for riding in an open auto,
vertical files of articles trumpeting Henry Ford’s newfound production
system, and photos of the Model T. There are photos of its predecessor,
the Model N, produced at the Ford Piquette Plant, a facility restored
by a group of car lovers and preservationists.
"There is more
than 5,000 cubic feet of ready-to-reference material on the second floor and
thousands of other files in accessible storage in other parts of the
Skillman Library," Bluth told the crowd. Detroiters can peruse the
files for free while researchers around the region and world can pay a
$100 annual membership or pay a $10
daily visitor fee. Most of the materials are donated. The Friends
Foundation of the Detroit Public Library stages fundraisers, industrial
leaders donate files. The librarians have begun to digitize some of the
collection for greater access to the public.
What are the most
common requests? Barbara Thompson, assistant director of the NAHC says
it is repair manuals for vehicles dating from Tin Lizzie to some
current products. Another common request is for car prices recorded in Kelley Blue Book
Included among the collection's jewels is a fanciful history of the highlights and sidelights of
autos. The Story of the Automobile
, by Rudolph Anderson, a journal
editor for the National Automobile Dealers Association
in Washington D.C., answers one of the common
questions to automotive librarians: how did the car get its name?
said early industrialists toyed with auto-mo-bubble, electromobile,
electrobat, gasmobile, petrocar, autocar and viamote before settling on
the French-inspired automobile. "The French Academy insisted an
automobile was masculine as a whisker," he writes, noting America
thought a car female.
Lansing car pioneer R.E. Olds pandered
to the public with the opposite assertion for his Reo in magazine
advertisements: "She is a Pleasure Car – for the woman who drives her –
for the man who owns her – for all who ride in her."
cars are male or female, the vehicles generate a flurry of
materials. The NAHC has 36,000 bound periodicals, 14,000 books
and 2 million factoids including business diaries of car founders such
as John Dodge, Henry Ford and Charles King. A portrait of King, the
first man to drive a car on the streets of Detroit, hangs over the
reference desk, in part because he bequeathed his 60-year collection of
papers and publications to the NAHC. Stepping into a jewel
Thompson and Kotsis field over 20,000 requests annually in the Skillman
Library, a lavishly restored art deco building built in 1932 and
reconditioned in 2003. The library is at 121 Gratiot, a short walk from
the Cadillac Center People Mover station.
For many years, the
second floor was devoted to foreign periodicals, a portion now housed
in the newspaper room downstairs. Beginning in 1944, the NAHC
collection was contained in the main branch of the library, until the
administrators sought to come closer to the downtown business hub of the
Visitors find the Skillman branch through its
monthly concert series and periodic lectures. The next concert,
sponsored by nearby Compuware
, will be held at noon March 21.
Rick Bower and Dan Treeder found this treasure while wandering around
downtown during the recent Detroit Kennel Club Show. They wandered past
skaters on Campus Martius and stepped inside the library.
is a deco feast inside. The wood furniture, desks and shelves are
beautiful," Treeder says. "I haven’t been in here in four years. I tend
to search for a lot of books on Amazon.com. I miss the wealth of
resources in a real library."
Bower read this prophetic statement
by Alfred Reeves, the general manager of the National Automobile
Chamber, from the 1932 edition of Motor Magazine:
"The motor industry has been riding on flat tires but it is now headed for prosperity highway."
Indeed, it did just that. The proof is in this stellar collection that draws car lovers from near and far to its doors.
Maureen McDonald is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
Piquette Model T Club
National Automotive History Collection
Skillman Downtown Library
Items in the Collection
Stairwell in the Skillman Library
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger