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Published: Friday, 7/2/2004

Chrysler museum a jewel for car buffs, gearheads

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Everyone who knows anything about cars knows about Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, the vast museum of American and automobile life the great automaker created in Dearborn.

Millions have made pilgrimages there to stare at historic cars and stroll among artifacts of days gone by. But how many of us have visited the gleaming new Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, a stone's throw from the automaker's North American headquarters?

How many people even know there is a Chrysler museum, or how to find it?

"Not enough," said Barry Dressel, the museum's droll 57-year-old manager, "but that's starting to change." Six years ago, he pulled up stakes and left a museum job in the Caribbean to help design and build the Chrysler museum.

"I like to say that I am the only completely sane person ever to move from the Caribbean to Michigan," he quips. That may be debatable, but what is certain is that he has helped build one of the automotive world's lesser-known jewels.

This summer, in fact, the museum, which opened to little fanfare late in 1999, has mounted its most ambitious exhibit yet, "Inspired Chrysler Design: The Art of Driving," which features several dozen absolutely gorgeous automobiles. They includes race cars from the 1920s, many elegant cars built for and owned by the Chrysler family, and a number of one-of-a-kind concept cars.

The exhibit also includes a look at new design concepts being pioneered and a good deal of automotive art, much of which is for sale.

"We've never done anything like this before, and it is long overdue," said Mr. Dressel. Besides the special exhibit, which fills the second floor of the 55,000 square-foot building, there are all sorts of attractive exhibits on the history of the company, the family, lots of other interesting cars and engines that only a gearhead could love, and a first-rate gift shop.

If enough people visit, the museum ought to help change the automaker's longtime historic image as that of the car company that catered to the working stiff, the guy who worked on the line in Hamtramck and bought what he built.

Oh, there were a few "muscle cars" in the 1960s, mostly Dodges, and a car called the New Yorker, which was sort of an imitation Cadillac or Lincoln Continental which fooled nobody, but mainly Chrysler was the automaker for the notoriously unstylish and uncool.

That was the Chrysler that nearly went out of business in 1979, but which was saved at the last minute by Lee Iacocca's salesmanship and a federal government bailout. Chrysler survived, of course, bounced back, and bought Jeep and the other remains of the old American Motors Corp. a few years later.

Eventually it was merged with (sold to, really) the German automaker Daimler, which left a few congressmen grumbling and brought a lot of executives named Jurgen and Dieter to suburban Detroit. You won't find any Mercedes in the Chrysler Museum, though; "we have made this a museum of Daimler-Chrysler's history in North America," Mr. Dressel says.

This year, they are hoping for 50,000 visitors. Part of the problem is that the museum is a bit out of the way, 30 miles or so north of downtown Detroit.

No one ever wanders into the Chrysler museum by chance, though attendance rises during the ultra-elegant Concours d'Elegance, an annual vintage luxury car show at the nearby Meadowbrook Estate, held this year on August 1. On Thursday evenings this month, the museum is sponsoring a series of Smooth Jazz concerts which may also raise awareness.

While the museum is easy to find, you have to make a determined effort to get there (take I-75 to exit 78, and follow the signs). Yet the effort is worth it, even for those who are only mild about car history, in large part because attractive displays interweave the history of our times with the history of Chrysler, which in some ways resembles a familiar pattern in American business; excitement, boom, bust, near-failure, revival, merger, and sale.



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