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Commentary: Forgetting our heritage

The North American International Auto Show will be starting at Detroit’s Cobo Center in a couple weeks, and anyone who cares about cars can go see virtually every new model in existence.

This has been an annual tradition for more than a century. But I’ve thought for a long time that we don’t do nearly enough to celebrate the amazing heritage of our signature industry.

Think about it. Motor vehicles, primarily cars, are what transformed Michigan from a farm state not all that different from Iowa into the industrial powerhouse that put the world on wheels.

That’s fascinating, and there are few of us whose lives are not connected to the auto industry in some way.  But where do you go to learn about and celebrate that heritage? Sadly, fewer and fewer places.

Yes, there is the Henry Ford, which we used to call Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. Henry Ford the First conceived of this park as a museum of American history and technology, and it has a fascinating, if a bit Ford-centric, display of cars.

But that’s scarcely enough. For the past dozen years, Chrysler had a lovely small museum of its cars and technology at its headquarters in Auburn Hills. That’s off the beaten path, however, too few people knew it was there, and it lost money.

Chrysler closed it permanently to the public on New Year’s Day. The most impressive and most valuable set of cars I’ve ever seen are the vehicles General Motors keeps at its Heritage Center, hidden in a drab industrial area in Macomb County.

You might have trouble finding it, but don’t bother to try. It’s not open to the public either. I’ve been thinking about our bizarre lack of devotion to our own automotive history for a long time.

The Detroit Free Press’s Tom Walsh wrote a column about this last weekend. He noted that other places less steeped in automotive history do a better job, and also have special courses where you can drive cars the average person can never afford to buy. He had recently driven a couple of expensive Mercedes at the company’s world showroom, conference center and museum a few miles outside London. BMW has something similar in South Carolina. We have nothing.

Sometimes I drive north from downtown Detroit up Woodward Avenue. There, half covered with trees, is a sturdy brick building with a faded historical marker and a network of elegant Pewabic tiles at the top. This was Ford’s world headquarters in the glory days nearly a century ago when the Model T ruled the earth. A block or so behind it is a magnificent hulking long-closed factory. This was the building that literally put America on wheels. Millions of sturdy, affordable and cheap cars were made here.

Years ago, a student who grew up in Highland Park told me the building’s mere presence made her feel like she was somewhere special. There have been discussions forever about doing something with the site. But that would take money and dedication.

For many years, Detroit’s auto industry deliberately had a strategy of “planned obsolescence,“ to get people to buy new cars as often as possible. Ironically, we seem to regard our signature industry’s history in the same disposable way.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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