Car Fanatic’s Tour of Southeast Michigan

As motor heads shift into gear for Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (January 11–24), Dan Wiese, an automotive writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recalls a recent car lover’s dream tour of southeast Michigan he made for Michigan Travel Ideas. On a whirlwind two-day trip, he and his wife visit a working auto plant, the nation’s premier auto museum, an automotive hall of fame and America’s last still-operating Hudson dealership.

Day One

We start our driving tour at the Dearborn complex collectively known as The Henry Ford. This sprawling attraction encompasses the historic Rouge Plant, which has given birth to legends such as the Mustang and Thunderbird. Today, the plant produces the Ford F-150. Also on-site: the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village (now closed for the winter season) and Benson Ford Research Center.

Ford Rouge Factory

Ford Rouge Factory

  • Ford Rouge Factory Tour: We begin our morning at the Rouge, disappointed to learn the plant does not operate on Fridays. Still, the tour was available, and we eagerly took it. Although partially assembled trucks, silent parts pallets and immobile assembly robots were frozen in suspended animation, we enjoy our stroll along the observation platform, looking down on what any other weekday would have been a bustling assembly floor.

  • From there it was on to Henry Ford Museum, with displays on America’s civil rights. Historic home furnishings and a massive locomotive draw my wife’s attention. I am drawn to the car collection. The museum houses such rolling stock as an extremely rare—only six were made—1931 Bugatti Royale, Charles Lindbergh’s personal 1939 travel trailer (pulled in the display by a 1939 Mercury sedan) and President Kennedy‘s ill-fated 1961 Lincoln presidential limousine. I could have spent significantly more quality time with that 1950 Studebaker Champion Starlight Coupe parked in front of the faux drive-in movie screen.

Day Two

    • We begin at Dearborn’s Automotive Hall of Fame. It’s adjacent to The Henry Ford, but the Hall is not affiliated with the Ford complex. It is, however, deeply affiliated with the men and women who created and nurtured the automobile industry.

The Hall displays only six cars—among them a 1912 Flanders on permanent display, a 1956 Thunderbird and an immaculately preserved 1964 Plymouth Valiant convertible, the latter two on loan. The building is loaded with fascinating and interactive displays that describe everything from the 1914 start of construction on the Lincoln Highway, America’s first coast-to-coast road, to the invention of cruise control. It also includes a 1953 creation of Ralph R. Teetor, a then 63-year-old engineer who was blind!

  • From there, we drive to Auburn Hills (35 miles north of Dearborn). The Walter P. Chrysler Museum is a three-story showcase of great Chrysler cars. Amid the eye-popping collection is the car that started the company, the 1924 Chrysler Six; the original study in regular-production aerodynamics, the 1934 Chrysler Airflow; and a 1957 Plymouth Fury, known to Stephen King fans in its 1958 iteration as “Christine.”

    Interactive displays describe Chrysler innovations from the sublime (the 1951 New Yorker’s and Newport’s power steering) to the ridiculous (the 1941 DeSoto‘s “handy cigarette steering-wheel dispenser”).

Miller Motors Hudson

Miller Motors Hudson

    Miller boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of Hudson and of Ypsilanti’s automotive history. He began working here, in his family’s Hudson dealership, when he was 14. “I did everything,” he says. “Still do.”

    The modest and, yet, most compelling of all our stops, is this still-working Hudson dealership. “To keep that up, we still buy and sell at least one Hudson a year,” Miller says.

    This place is the real deal, down to the smell of oil and the 1933 Essex Terraplane Six that virtually fills the unchanged storefront showroom. The whole scene is untouched by time. I feel as if I should kick that Terraplane‘s tires and make an offer. I did, that is, until I was pulled back into the 21st century by this rare classic’s windshield placard: “Don‘t touch me, I‘m not that kind of car.”

Our two-day trip was that kind of experience—something of a sacred pilgrimage for those of us who really love cars. Not only did it engender pride in America’s automotive past, it provided hope for its future.

Trip Planner

Automotive Hall of Fame, Dearborn
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (closed Monday and Tuesday, November through April and some holidays)
Admission: Adults: $8, Seniors (62 and over): $6, Students (13-18): $6, Youth (5-12): $4

Henry Ford Museum (part of The Henry Ford), Dearborn
Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas)
Admission: Adults: $15, Seniors (62 and over): $14, Youth (5-12): $11, Kids (4 and under): free

Ford Rouge Factory (part of The Henry Ford), Dearborn
Tours: 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday - Saturday (last tour leaves at 3 p.m.)
Admission: Adults: $15, Seniors (62 and over): $14, Youth (3-12): $11, Kids (2 and under): free

Walter P. Chrysler Museum, Auburn Hills
Hours: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Noon – 5 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $8, Seniors (62 and over): $7, Juniors (6-12): $4

Ypsilanti’s Automotive Heritage Museum and Miller Motors Hudson, Ypsilanti
Hours: 1:30 p.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, Noon – 5 p.m. Sunday
Admission: Adults: $4, Children 13 and under: free with adult

Dan WieseDan Wiese is an automotive contributor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a stint that has lasted some 15 years. Although he loves all things automotive, his passion is four-wheeling, as his battered old Jeep testifies. Dan’s other passion is pounding a piano in “more than one saloon over the years.” His philosophy: “If you don't leave blood on the keys, you’re not really playing.”