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The National Automotive History Collection in Detroit

Skillman branch

The National Automotive History Collection is a surprising find in the center of Detroit, within walking distance of Cobo Hall and the Greektown casinos. Stashed in the top floor and basement of the Stillman branch of the Detroit Public Library, it resides off the beaten path in an elegant Depression-era building resplendent with marble and brass.

library

The grand theme continues to the main public space of the National Automotive History collection, which is divided into a public reading / display room and a screened-off conference room. The public area has numerous displays of automotive material, including models (the NAHC has a moderately sized model collection), posters, and, when we were there, a series of brief stylist biographies with their sketches and drawings. The building is beautiful and was recently renovated, so it looks much as it must have when it was first built, except with brighter interior lights.

automotive collection

The Stillman branch of the library is right at the Cadillac Center People Mover Station, two blocks from Woodward Avenue and two blocks from Broadway on the other side, close to the origin of both streets, at 121 Gratiot Avenue (Gratiot is not pronounced in the original French manner).

lebaron bodies

The neighborhood the library is in seemed fairly good, especially by Detroit standards, probably thanks in large part to the Compuware corporate headquarters across the street. During the winter, the public parts of the library seem to fill with people seeking warmth and a place to be, and the library guards its bathrooms to prevent guests from trying to bathe in them; but the library is still inviting.

K-car ad

Former Chrysler engineer Bob Lees, now an active member of CEMA, introduced us to librarians/archivists John Gibson and librarian/archivist Gina Tecos, who led us on a tour of the facility. John is interim coordinator of all special collections at the Detroit Public Libraries, while Gina is based in the Stillman branch. We moved from the public reading/display room to the working area, a bullpen with numerous desks where archivists catalog, file, and digitize using standard equipment — no specialized book scanners or high-end equipment here.

archives

looking at materials

The first part of the collection is a series of sales brochures and literature in library boxes, going from the earliest days of the automobile to the present day; the collection is highly varied and while far from complete, even for domestics, it is much more wide-ranging than one might expect. It includes vehicles never sold in the United States, such as Commer and Bedford trucks from the United Kingdom, as well as long-dead brands such as Auburn and Reo. John Gibson quickly pulled out a collection of 1968 Dodge literature including a Charger brochure while we were tempted to pull out the two Reo boxes and see what was inside.

Plymouth brochures

Along the wall was the start of another collection, bound into standard library hardcovers: enthusiast magazines spanning a huge range of time. The museum collects all sorts of club bulletins and magazines, including the Plymouth Bulletin, and puts them into hardcover format for posterity. Some of these are in the basement as well.

Plymouth Bulletin

Stored in other boxes were personal papers, donated to the library by various individuals; there were also incomplete signature files, providing access to the signatures of various automotive personages through the decades for comparison to other documents. A fairly complete collection of automotive specifications, created by the Motor Vehicles Manufacturers Association (MVMA), provide an amazing number of details about the engineering of various cars and trucks. The MVMA went out of business once the automakers realized they creating a resource which was being used against them in personal injury lawsuits.

The collection also includes numerous dealer data books, the kind that dealerships used to get and show to customers or leave on display in a public area; manufacturers would put a lot of work into showing their cars and trucks (mostly cars) in the best possible light. Paint and fabric books were either integrated into those or issued separately, and the library has these as well; both are of great value to restorers. When duplicates are acquired or donated, they are examined by the library and, if one is clearly in better condition, the duplicate may be sold or transferred elsewhere, due to space limitations.

dealer books

In another room, open to the public with no need for appointments, are more typical books that one would expect a library to have; Dr. Charles K. Hyde, author of several auto historical books (including Riding the Roller Coaster and his newest work, Storied Independent Automakers), quickly found one of his on the shelf. This section also includes numerous repair manuals, covering motorcycles and trucks as well as cars (as does the entire collection).

dodge brothers book with dr charles hyde

In the basement, we found numerous other works. The basement is used for library supplies, oversized items, uncatalogued materials, and items that simply don't fit elsewhere. Those included a set of blueprints for the Duryea, from which one could presumably build a new 1910s car.

car history collection

basement

The collection is immense. The Detroit Public Library has aggressively collected automotive related materials since 1898, including books, periodicals, advertising, photographs, specifications, manuals, and personal and business papers. The NAHC itself was set up as a collection in 1953.

Viper ad

The NAHC has over one million items indexed and filed, with more waiting to be processed. Thousands of photographs which depict the automobile's history, social impact, mechanical workings, and design are available for public viewing and research. Manuscript files contain more than 350,000 items that illuminate the styling detail, specifications, and restoration.

motorbike blueprints

display caseReference questions are answered in person, and by telephone, fax, mail, and email; they make black and white copies for 20 cents a copy plus $2 postage, and have a photographic reproduction service. Tours are made by appointment; visitors can come between 10 am and 6 pm, Monday through Saturday.

The NAHC hosts an Annual Automotive Authors Book Fair in the fall of each year. The event is usually held about the third saturday of November, and usually twenty or more current authors are invited to sell and autograph their books. Please contact the NAHC for further details or to be put on the mailing list.

There is street parking via meters and there are numerous lots in the area, due to the nearby Cobo Hall. On weekdays, there is paid parking across the street; when we arrived on a Saturday, the lot was closed. Library customers who park their vehicles in the city-owned Premier underground garage can save $1.50 off the cost of the first two hours of parking (50% off) if they have their tickets stamped at the circulation desk.

The NAHC needs outside support to do its work, and the Detroit Public Library System makes it easier to provide that support through the Friends Foundation. Any contributions are deductible from Federal tax returns, and Michigan residents gain a 50% refund/tax credit. $40 donated to the Friends Foundation (5201 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202) will get the contributor a subscription to Wheels, the fact-filled NAHC publication; $150 and higher donations come with an application for a Detroit Public Library card. Make sure you specify that the funds should go to the National Automotive History Collection when donating.

If you have extra auto literature to donate — including recent press books — you can contact the Collection via their web site, or send them off to NAHC, Detroit Public Library, 121 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, MI 48226.

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