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Preserving Chrysler’s heritage: the Walter P. Chrysler Museum’s
James Worton and Brandt Rosenbush

chrysler museum

Take a virtual guided tour of the Chrysler Museum!

The Walter P. Chrysler Museum, in Auburn Hills, Michigan, shows around 70 antique, custom, and concept vehicles. As an adjunct to the museum, Chrysler maintains an archive of marketing, engineering and product information, to assist those needing such information for purposes such as restoration or general research.

James Worton became the Museum Manager in November of 2007. Brandt Rosenbush has been the Manager, Historical Vehicle Collection and Archives from the time the museum opened in 1999.  They sat down for an interview in late April 2008. Public relations consultant Pat Joy helped corral these two busy people, and offered her insights into what makes it all work.

How is Chrysler Corporation involved with the museum – currently and in terms of its creation?

Jim Worton: Well, as you know, I just started with the museum in November of last year. But Brandt has been involved with collecting vehicles to display with newer ones, even before the museum started. For example, he acquired a 1954 Dodge Power Wagon to go with the then new Dodge Ram, back in (late) 1992. So they had the vehicles and it became a matter of ‘Let’s build a museum for them.’ They wanted to show the heritage of the company to promote the company.

Brandt Rosenbush: I’m constantly sending executives material from the archives (today).

Pat Joy: A lot of material in the speeches that (Chrysler CEO) Mr. Nardelli uses has a heritage base.

hudson hornet

What is the role of volunteers in the museum – as docents, for example?

Worton: Volunteers are heavily engaged in the museum. For example, they’re taking a class of students through today. The students are putting together model race cars of Lego. They’re asked to redesign those models to improve speed.

We have around 200 volunteers – in the gift shop, as guides and as gallery guides to host journalists. During the most recent (North American International) auto show, we had a German-speaking guide for a group of German journalists. We also have Spanish and French speaking guides, to show the museum to journalists from those countries. Volunteers also help with (vehicle) maintenance.

Rosenbush: We get 3,500 requests a year for archival material – things such as the wiring diagram for a 1932 Plymouth. We have build records from 1920 to 1967, which we can supply to people doing restorations.

How do you interact with the various clubs Chrysler-related clubs – Walter P. Chrysler Restoration, Dodge Brothers or Plymouth Owners? 

Rosenbush: We get requests to participate in meets, all the time. For example, we participated in the Airflow club’s meet, on the other side of Michigan, last year. There are 60 meets, right here at the museum.

The Chrysler Employees Motorsports Association meets right here. That’s our biggest. Not all the cars they bring are Chrysler cars, but Chrysler employees own them. The (upcoming) 19th annual Employees Motorsports Association will draw 1,400 people and 300 cars.

The Metropolitan Club met here for the third time, recently. We had the Police Car Association, last year; we’d have them every weekend, if we could.

Some people use the front steps of the museum.

Joy (adding to the same thought): We host an average of six car meets each year at the Museum and the upcoming CEMA show has drawn up to 1,400 people and 300 cars in the past.

You probably know about the Woodward Cruise. Well, smaller cruises have grown out of that and we often participate in them. It helps the museum get out to the community.

meeting at the museum

How do you acquire cars for the museum? What role – if any – do auctions play in acquiring cars for the museum, versus estates (where cars are left to the museum)?

Rosenbush: The way things started, was we decided to make a list of the 50 most important vehicles to Chrysler’s history. To do that, we enlisted the aid of 12 former (Chrysler) employees, from various parts of the company. Those people came from all over the company – design, engineering, and sales – to get different opinions.

Well, whenever you have that many people, you’re going to have a lot of different opinions. So the 12 former employees made a list of 175 vehicles! We narrowed it down from there.

As many as two vehicles a year are donated to us. The 1939 Plymouth now on display is an example of that. We’ve never bought a car at auction. The logistics don’t allow that. We don’t get a blank check to purchase a car. When there’s a car available, we have two or three people go look over the car. There isn’t as much time to inspect a car, as we like to, at an auction.

car show at the museum

How are displays set up? What cars, or trucks, are in storage, awaiting display?

Rosenbush: In the atrium, there’s what we call The Tower. It’s literally a tower, holding five vehicles; and it is dedicated to concept cars. The Tower rotates, every 30 minutes. We’ve had parties in the museum; where people have been drinking; and when they notice that it has moved, wonder if it really moved, or if they just imagined it had. [Joy noted that most visitors are surprised to find the vehicle tower rotating, not just those attending private events.]

Walter P. Chrysler Museum tower

On the first floor, vehicles are arranged in chronological order, from the earliest years of the company. We have the American Motors roots of the company (a 1902 Rambler and a 1909 Hudson), as well as other products. We have one of the original 1924 Chrysler prototype phaetons that Walter Chrysler produced with Tobe Couture. The 1934 Airflow we have was actually a donation. Then, we have a 1939 Plymouth, a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country and a 1951 Chrysler New Yorker, along the way to where you can see features on Chrysler [called out in the signs and exhibits]. You’re welcome to wander the building.

(Editor’s note: The theatre features three continuously running short movies spotlighting Walter Chrysler’s life and times, muscle cars of the 1950s and ‘60s, and new vehicle development within the Chrysler Technical Center. Classic advertising and photo displays, and newsreel-style video kiosks highlight important historic and social events since the 1920s.)

The information tries to put the vehicles into a cultural content: what the average income was, the cost of gasoline.

Worton: The theater features three shows on design and innovation, a history of the company, and research and development that is ongoing. There are three levels; the garage level has Hemi-Cudas and it is like every guy’s ultimate garage.

It’s not just static displays. Some vehicles come and go. In fact, recently when John Herlitz (retired Chrysler automobile designer, who styled the 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, among other cars) passed away, the family had a service at the museum; and we had a 1971 Plymouth Road-Runner that he once owned, on display. (Mr. Herlitz also designed that car.)

What led to your position you have now, with the Museum?

Worton: I’d worked in a number of museums, up in Canada, some dealing with things from the gold rush to oil sands. I’d last been associated with a railroad museum. I was most excited to work for the Chrysler Museum, since its focus was on a company’s history, whether the cars themselves, or documents.

Rosenbush: I had no choice. I’m a third generation Chrysler person. My grandfather worked at the old tank factory. My dad was in Chrysler public relations for 40 years. I started working here, when I was in college, and was sort of the last man standing.

Joy: I’ve worked for the museum for 7 years (as a public relations consultant), starting when it was small and have watched the programming grow.

1929 DeSoto and 1939 Dodge

Is the museum self-sufficient, or does it rely on subsidies from Chrysler?

Worton: Right now, the museum is part of Chrysler LLC. But we’re looking at a new business model to become more self-sufficient.

Will the museum become independent?

Since this conversation with James Worton, the Walter P. Chrysler Museum became an independent, nonprofit organization governed by a board of company officials, dealers, and members of the public. The company filed for nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service on April 1, 2008. Dealers were asked to donate $5,000 apiece to provide the basis of an initial endowment for the museum.

Frank Fountain, Chrysler senior vice president of external affairs and public policy and president of the Chrysler Foundation, told the Detroit Free Press that the museum already receives about 50,000 visitors annually but museum officials hope the new status and independence will increase that number and permit more involvement with Detroit-area activities like the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Fountain noted that the non-profit status allows those who contribute to the museum (including people who donate their cars) to get tax benefits; he noted that several collections belonging to executives might be willed to the museum, allowing them to avoid an estate tax.

Jim Worton wrote about the ongoing change:

The Museum is in the process of exploring new approaches for the delivery of its educational programs, events, facility rentals, gift shop operations and exhibitions. We want to broaden our reach to local, state, national and international audiences to increase our visitation.

To assist us in this effort, we have visited other related museums such as the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum and The Henry Ford to gain insight from their success and develop similar benchmarks tailored for our own institution. Developing and introducing a new Museum membership program will also be an important part of this business model.

Before Chrysler declared bankruptcy, it donated a number of vehicles to the Museum, but the building still belongs to Chrysler, along with some of the collection.

Getting to the Walter P. Chrysler museum

The Walter P. Chrysler Museum (888-456-1924) is located in Auburn Hills. Michigan. The complex is approximately 30 miles north of downtown Detroit. From I-75, take exit 78 (Chrysler Drive) and follow the museum signs to the southeast corner of the complex (intersection of Featherstone and Squirrel Roads). Parking is free.

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