I’ve learned a lot about cars since I met Ben, but just when I think I’ve heard it all, there’s more to learn. When we planned our summer trip, he said he wanted to stop at “a car museum in Kalamazoo.” I was all in for that because of an almost mythic attachment I have for the song “Kalamazoo,” made popular in 1944 by the Glenn Miller orchestra. Mind you, I wasn’t around in 1944 for the song debut; I learned the song at my parents’ house parties. My parents had what would today be considered a jam band. Dad had a trap set, mom played the piano and their friend Woody played the tenor sax and clarinet. Other friends present either brought other instruments and those who didn’t play were responsible for the vocals. “Kalamazoo” was in regular rotation when they played, and as a kid I imagined Kalamazoo must be the swingenest city in Michigan.
Ben told me he’d been wanting to see the Gilmore because a few years ago a 1914 Pierce Arrow stake bed truck belonging to his grandfather, Harry H. Price had been donated to the museum. It was a company truck used for Harry’s business, the Columbus Tool and Die Company. Harry used the car for about three years, then put it in storage until his son Harry Jr. (Ben’s dad, for those of you who are into genealogy) sold the car. It was restored to running condition it changed hands a few times over the years but remained in Columbus in the hands of car collectors until it was donated to the Pierce Arrow Museum section at the Gilmore.
We arrived in Kalamazoo and the next morning we headed out to the Gilmore Car Museum. It’s situated north of Kalamazoo on 90 acres of farmland in Hickory Corners. You drive up to the main building which is styled like a turn-of-the-century factory. For your admission fee you get access to 400 vehicles and 190,000 feet of exhibit space. The collection is set up to follow the development of the American automotive industry and how we went from an agrarian-horse-and-buggy bunch to the car-crazed country we became. Ben asked about his grandfather’s truck, then we were told it had been taken off the exhibit floor for repairs. Still, we had 400 other cars to look at, so we headed into the exhibits.
In the earliest years automobiles were small and typically crafted from the same materials as were buckboards and buggies—wood, iron leather and steel. Before chrome plating technology, brass was the go-to metal for cars, hence the exhibit title “Brass Era Cars.” Some of them had so much brass they looked like circus floats; and a common characteristic of Brass Era cars is they were mostly enormous. My favorite vehicle was a hearse (those of you who know me well aren’t surprised). The chassis was built in 1916 by the Winton Car Company in Cleveland Ohio, and the body was done by Crane & Breed in Cincinnati. Crane & Breed made all kinds of funerary items, from plumes and hats to caskets. Abraham Lincoln was buried in a Crane & Breed metal casket. They were the prime hearse makers of the time. In keeping with the solemnity of its use, there is no shiny brass on this Brass Era car. It is all black and gray, gleaming painted steel and carved wood finishings. The thing is HUGE. An advertisement in a local newspaper features lines from poet F.F. Woodall: “I am the Hearse – Death’s taxicab; the carriage of the dead! None ride with me but once. Thereafter upon earth – Their riding days are over.” That’s a slogan totally unfit for our squeamish times.
Another car that interested me was the 1954 Kaiser Darrin. The car was designed for Kaiser Motor Company by Howard Darrin. Darrin had designed for other car companies and was a big fan of streamlining. One of his design trademarks was a sweeping fender that dipped at the end like the DA hairstyle that was so popular at the time. I thought the doors were cool. They weren’t hinged to open outward—they slide on tracks into the front fender wells behind the front wheels. There are no side windows were built into the doors. The car got rave reviews for its beauty, but Darrin was too temperamental and left the company. There were all kinds of design flaws like dirt getting into the door mechanism which caused them to jam, and the first Corvettes went to marked before the Darrin. A limited number were built.
By now you’ve figured out that I am not really qualified to review cars in a meaningful way, since I am attracted more to oddities rather than form, function or whether they won races. This museum has cars you, your parents and great-grandparents once drove. It also has rare cars made by companies you’ve never heard of, built by collaborators from all over the world. Since the invention of the first true automobile in 1885, hundreds and hundreds of manufacturers have come and gone. Ben had a framed set of 150 miniature enamel car company badges (the emblems you see on car hoods and the like) which he sold a few years ago. The badges are collector items, memories of brief successes and many failures. Something I’m not used to, living in a time where car companies are saved from demise.
We Americans of a certain age adored our cars in a way few people do now, with good reason. Styling had little to do with how well the car drove or performed. As long as it wowed the public, a car make was a sure-fire winner. A car was status, a shrine to personality on wheels. The rise of auto racing also helped market cars, particularly in the rise of the muscle cars. Ben told me a saying common among dealerships; “Win on Sunday, sales on Monday.” Car manufacturers waved that racing cachet to buyers looking to model themselves after racing heroes.
Car cachet took a serious hit shortly after I graduated from high school. Regardless of how amazing old cars look, all those thousands of pounds of steel chrome and leather did little to protect their occupants, and gas mileage was an afterthought when gas cost pennies a gallon. The Oil Embargo and the rise of the mileage-conscious small car changed how cars are made. Ironically, as cars were made lighter, safer and more efficient, they also became—in my opinion—boring.
To paraphrase a tired old saying, “I may not know much about cars, but I know what I like.” Here’s a slide show of some of my favorites. Below the slide show is a copy of “The Hearse” written in 1914 by F.F Woodall. If anyone knows any strings to pull, I’d sure like to take a ride in that thing before I meet my maker. Heck, I’d be happy just to sit in it.
P.S. Remember how I thought Kalamazoo would be a swingin’ town? It was very nice, but there were no hepcat clubs and certainly no one using words like “piperoo.” Here’s a link to the song, Kalamazoo. It will give you an earworm. It also features renditions by the Glen Miller Orchestra and the Nicholas brothers–who also dance. It’s a long clip but worth a listen. Here are the written lyrics.