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Detroit - Motown Celebrates

Motown celebrates the American car industry's first century.

1909 Model T Ford, at the Henry Ford Museum, image
Photo caption
A 1909 Model-T Ford poses grandly at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.

It seated two and could bowl along at 20 mph, but the most unusual thing about the 1896 Duryea was that there were 13 of them—all alike. People had built a car here and a car there before, but no one had a production run of identical cars. It was the birth of Americas car industry, and a hundred years later, Detroit—that synonym for the car industry—is taking note.

One of those original Duryeas still exists, and Motown has it. Its the centerpiece of a vast array of planes, trains, and cars that fills the superb Henry Ford Museum.

Fords first car, also a 96, is on display. A gallery of U.S. presidents vehicles begins with T.R.s carriage and includes the car in which J.F.K. was shot. The 999, which Barney Oldfield drove 91 miles per hour in 1902, lets it all hang out. Admiral Byrds transpolar plane stands near Floyd Bennetts transpolar plane. Don't miss the gallery on the Motown sound—or the letter Clyde Barrow (then on the lam with Bonnie) sent to Henry Ford noting, "For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned." Although Washingtons bed and Lincolns chair from Fords Theater are on view, perhaps the least likely exhibit is Edisons last breath, captured in a glass tube.

The Ford Museum was created in the 1920s, when American ingenuity combined with American enterprise seemed the guarantee of a brighter future. Its part of Greenfield Village, a 93-acre complex of buildings (many moved there) and exhibits spanning 350 years of American life. A sample: Noah Webster's house. The Wright brothers house. Harvey Firestone's farm. The lab in which Edison invented the light bulb, phonograph, and 400-odd other things. The courthouse where Lincoln practiced law. Wear comfy shoes and plan to stay a while. The Henry Ford Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Greenfield Village has the same hours, but is closed January through March. Information: (313) 271-1620.

Once Duryea got the ball rolling, some 5,000 other domestic marques tried, with varying success, to win the hearts and wallets of car-loving Americans. Some carmakers (but not the Duryeas) were wildly successful and built themselves homes worthy of their status. Today, four of Detroits auto barons homes are open for tours.

You get the impression that 70 years ago, you couldn't swing a cat locally without hitting a shipment of exotic wood, a consignment of marble, or an Old World Craftsman imported to shape them into a grand estate. Visions of majesty varied from baron to baron, as you can see at Henry Fords Fair Lane, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Meadow Brook Hall (Dodge), and the Fisher ("Body by Fisher") Mansion.

They're all worth seeing: The first three are operated as museum/shrines to the people who built them and to lush times in Detroit. The atmosphere can be genteel indeed-at the Edsel Ford House our guide appeared to be an American translation of Kenneth Clark. The Fisher Mansion is operated by the Krishna community and so doesn't necessarily give the impression that some auto baron is in residence.

Detroits streets first felt the caress of an auto tire on March 6, 1896. Afterward, change was profound and swift-and not everyone in town lived like the Fords. The Detroit Historical Museum has a new gallery giving a broad view of the resulting social, cultural, and mechanical evolution that's still in progress. Although you can sit in a 1911 Model T and try to dope out the controls and watch the transplanted Cadillac assembly line perform a body drop onto a chassis, this is not primarily a display of iron. Rather, the exhibits are designed to involve you in exploring effects on people and society both in Detroit and, more broadly, the country.

Take advantage of this museum-rich neighborhood by visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts across the street to get an artists view of the car industry. The DIAs collections include a survey of world art and a good representation of big name artists. But the museums glory is the Detroit Industry fresco cycle by Diego Rivera. Painted on all four walls of a large, indoor court, the cycle depicts—and interprets—Detroits industrial history.

If during your visit to the history museum you noticed that it wasn't all milk and honey even in the citys palmiest days, this huge work eshes out the notion. It does celebrate enterprise and hard work, but Rivera also was celebrating diversity before the notion became a clich. His resistance to investing his creations with left-oriented political comment was always low, and Detroit presented an irresistible target. Its one of Riveras best works.

For information on other centennial-related doings and the citys other attractions, contact the Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau, 100 Renaissance Center, Suite 1900, Detroit, MI 48243. Telephone: (800) DETROIT.

Photography courtesy of the Henry Ford Museum

This article was first published in March 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.