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Inside the Chrysler Museum and a ride around the Chrysler headquarters

Just thought I'd get back to everyone with my report on my recent visit to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, MI. I wouldn't have minded it being bigger; there is room on the grounds to expand further, and I hope that happens some day...

walter p. chrysler museum

Imperials were, sadly, underrepresented there, although the prime example, a 1957 Imperial Crown Southhampton, is very nice indeed, as is the somewhat Imperial-like 1951 New Yorker convertible. There were two Airflows on display, and one of these may have been an Imperial. Other Forward Look cars (my favorite era) on display included a 1956 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer hardtop, a 1957 300C, a 1957 Fury, a 1957 Dodge Sweptside pickup, a 1960 Valiant, and a 1961 300G. One of the Ghia-bodied Thomas Specials was also in attendance.

The stepsiblings are represented as well, with a former Metropolitan show car and a Nash-Healey and Hudson Hornet from earlier in the 1950s adding to the period feel. I also enjoyed the 1969 2-seater AMX, which was apparently bought and restored by AMC for their own collection pre-merger; this restoration was apparently done in the Kenosha plant and at one point allegedly involved sending the AMX through the paint line in the middle of a group of Renault Alliances...

Other cool FL-era displays included one of the plastic stress-test scale models from the Unibody program (this one being a 1960 Dodge hardtop), an alternator-vs.-generator comparison using a 1960 Valiant grille and headlights as part of the prop, an aluminum-block 225 on an engine stand (probably a display from one of the auto shows of that era) and a video showing various 1950s and 1960s accessories (the swivel seat clip, interestingly enough, showed a 1959 Chrysler drawing in the background but the voiceover discussed swivels as a Dodge option). This part was particularly cool in that the videos were viewed over the top of a 1957-58 Chrysler dashboard, and to make it play, you push the "D" button... A few feet away, I found a styling exhibit, and was delighted to see a film clip in which Virgil Exner discusses design...

enjoy

It was interesting to see the museum's handling of the orphan makes. There was as much discussion of DeSotos as anything else, which suggests to me that DC is at least comfortable with make cancellations that happened 40 years ago. Imperials are generally treated as a top-line Chrysler rather than as a separate make, although the basement snack area, which is in a replica of a 1930s MoPar multimake dealership, has Imperial listed as a separate make in the showroom window, which would not have been correct at the time. This gets a little dicier in more recent times. The LH car on display is an Eagle Vision TSi, and other than a print ad for the Vision showing the Jeep-Eagle logo the display doesn't really explain the Eagle brand (admittedly, this might be more necessary ten years from now than it is now). I was considerably more annoyed by the video on the Hemi program, which referred to "Chrysler products" finishing 1-2-3 at the '64 Daytona 500... ...I think when one includes Dodges, the "Chrysler products" finished even better than that, but was perturbed that, in this case, the phrase "Chrysler products" appeared to have been used to avoid saying "Plymouth"... makes me wonder if they plan to convert the Horizon, Reliant, and 1st-generation Voyager minivan on display into Dodges as well...

Walter P. Chrysler Museum tower

There was even an inside joke for Forward Look fans as part of the Exner exhibit, in the form of what appeared to be a cartoon from the New Yorker or a similar publication, presumably from the FL era. The cartoon shows a side profile of a man standing at a receptionist's desk, and closer observation shows this man to have a Forward Look emblem for a face (the wide shallow part acting as his face, the front of the narrow deep part acting as his nose and the trailing edges acting as eyebrows and a mouth - I wish I had this cartoon to send, as it was very cool). The receptionist is speaking into an intercom, and the caption reads "The gentleman from Chrysler is here..."

Well worth doing. I recommend it highly.

A later report (by David Zatz)

We visited the Walter P. Chrysler museum for the 2005 Allpar meet, sponsored by catNET, and found both similarities and differences. First, the museum is fairly large in size, with three floors, but it is nowhere near as large as the Henry Ford museum complex; still, it packs quite a bit in. One of the main attractions for history buffs may well be the non-automotive pieces - one of the legendary Chrysler tank engines, designed by putting five six-cylinder engines into a radial design, each with its own distributor, sharing a cooling system that included the largest radiator most people will ever see.

Another attraction is Chrysler's very first Hemi, a sixteen cylinder aircraft engine said to have been tested at Chrysler's expense to show how good it was in aircraft. Designed in a surprisingly short time, and apparently both inexpensive and efficient, this engine fell victim to the coming of the jet and the end of the war (not a bad tradeoff to be fair), but for the most part, its basic design was used in the Hemi engines of the 1950s. The museum has a mirror set up on both sides so you can see into the top of the engine, which is absolutely immaculate and well polished; apparently the internal parts are also well ported and polished.

Some of the museum staff are retired Chrysler employees, some of whom have engineered the vehicles on display. Visitors can get an unusual experience, and learn more than the official histories.

Mike mentioned the treatment of the orphans, and they are surprisingly well represented. Though the display cars do turn over, particularly according to exhibit themes (during our visit, modded and altered cars were on display, including a Neon, minivan, and the original High and Mighty car), Plymouths, Imperials, and DeSotos are still represented, and the same AMX and Hudson Hornet are still on display - the Hornet quite conspicuously. The interactive displays are also still there, along with a power steering demonstration featuring two period steering wheels, along with a Floating Power demonstration. Performance enthusiasts may be more interested in seeing Cell 13, which has been brought in, complete with scale and control panels. There is also a Hemi cutaway, and an auditorium in which movies play in rotation.

We took the opportunity of being in the area to take an external tour of the Chrysler facilities as well. The Chrysler Technical Center and Headquarters are in separate towers that look adjoined at the base, the headquarters tower including the massive glass pentastar seen in early publicity photos, but they are not the totality of the complex, nor is this Chrysler's only engineering area. There is a separate training facility, a power plant, and a number of other buildings hard to identify from the outside. The Chrysler facility is like a small city, and indeed is not much smaller than Detroit's "skyscraper downtown." There are hiking trails, a forest, and a dedicated exit from Route 75, and that's just what is visible. In the past we were told about a full-fledged gym inside, as well.

The sheer size of the installation is far greater than one would expect, and illustrates the number of people needed to engineer, build, and test vehicles. (Within the gates are not just engineers and managers but also test areas, prototype construction shops, a full sized wind tunnel, vehicle forensics areas, and a full-fledged test factory intended to both train factory people and find the optimal way to build the factories themselves — for details see other Allpar sections. Incidentally, none of this is visible from the outside, but past publications have noted their presence.) That's not all; Mopar Performance operates out of a separate building a small distance away, and Jeep-Truck Engineering still works out of the old Kelvinator plant in a nasty section of town far away. (The JTE building, by the way, is beautiful to look at — the factory dates back to a time when architecture and detail were important to a company's prestige, and has reportedly been restored inside and out.)

By comparison, the General Motors facility, which is about to be greatly expanded but which is still huge, seems smaller than the Chrysler headquarters and technical center, but seems more crowded, and has less of a "campus feel." Parking lots are massive and some people would have a long walk to their GM building were it not for shuttle busses.

The Chrysler museum is certainly worth a trip; but the nearby buildings where cars are designed and marketed are also fascinating, albeit from the outside. If Allpar is invited by Chrysler officials for a tour, we'll see what the inside looks like, as well.

Additional note from Chrysler

It sounded like a straightforward assignment -- locate and acquire a multibank tank engine for display in the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. But it took almost four years to complete.

multibank tank engine at the chrysler museum

The Chrysler multibank engine was five flat-head six-cylinder production engines. One engine was positioned vertically, two were at 45 degrees, and two were at approximately 90 degrees -- all synchronized to drive a common output shaft. It had been produced as an alternative powerplant for the Sherman tank and entered production in 1942.

The search started at the Warren (Mich.) Tank Plant, but led to a worldwide search ... until one was located in Argentina in February 1997, about a year after the effort began. It took until April 1999 for the Argentine Army to agree to donate the engine to the museum. The engine arrived at a warehouse in Michigan in July, but red tape prevented its release until Nov. 1, 1999, when the shipping case could be opened and the engine viewed for the first time before it headed to its restoration.

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