Car Passions in Print

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.

"The 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."

New 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.
According 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.  

Six 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

History 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?

Anderson 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."

Whether 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

Librarians 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 city.  

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.

Detroiters 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.

"This 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 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