The Henry Ford Museum is home to about 260 cars, most of which were picked out or purchased by Henry Ford himself. “He had the means to get whatever he wanted, but he was also buying these cars when they were twenty or thirty years old, so it was easier for him to find some of these rare marques you just don’t see today,” explains Matthew Anderson, who’s been the museum’s curator of transportation for three years.
Worried the museum won’t know how to repair or care for your rare marque? Fret not, the Henry Ford is fully capable of handling small repair and restoration jobs—or, more specifically, their team of volunteers is.
“We call them our ‘Thursday Squad,’ our group of volunteers, most of them retired from the automobile industry, who like to come in and prove there’s nothing they can’t do,” says Anderson. “Last year they were working on a 1905 Franklin air-cooled car [previously restored in the ’60s], and they just relished the challenge, talking to the Franklin club and getting the information they needed and getting the car running again.”
Crappy, throwaway econoboxes
“I’ve been talking with curators at other car museums, and we’re realizing a lot of these ’80s and even ’90s cars are now getting scarce,” says Anderson. “Somebody needs to collect those cars from the early 1980s that weren’t all that good necessarily, the cars that aren’t remembered fondly today, like the Chevrolet Citation, for example, just as kind of a reference of where the industry was.”
Case in point: when the Henry Ford revised its major Driving America exhibit in 2012, it added to the display a less-than-collectible 1973 Chrysler Newport and a 1978 Dodge Omni, which proved to be one of the hardest they’ve ever had to track down recently.
“People used them and threw them away,” says Anderson. “So we had to work through a dealer in Ohio to find these cars, and they had fielded some contacts and searched long and hard for this Omni and eventually found it from a guy in Pennsylvania who collects Omnis and Horizons for some reason.”
“It can take some hunting, but eventually you’ll find somebody who loves every kind of car.”
The Henry Ford isn’t looking exclusively for crappy cars, don’t get us wrong: they’d like to get their hands on some of the good cars from those periods, too. “One I’d love to have, for example, is an ’86 Buick Riviera, which is one of the first cars with an interactive touchscreen in the console so you could turn on your radio, climate control, whatever,” explains Anderson.
Also appreciated? Some of the expertise required to keep these more modern collectible non-collectibles in working order. “The kind of thing that gives us nightmare is it’s going to be impossible to keep some of these cars running. With those kinds of electronics, I’m sure it was a challenge to keep running in 1986, much less thirty years later.”
Cars that aren’t model Ts
“Most of the cars we get offered are Model Ts and Model As—we tend to turn those down at this point,” says Anderson of the museum’s collection. “We have a solid selection of both of those types of vehicles, and how many do you need to tell their story, even for a museum that does so much about Henry Ford?”
Anderson’s not saying they won’t take in any more Ts, though, since there are benefits to having a small fleet of the things around. “We’ve been able to use some out in the [historic Greenfield] Village, you can ride in one and get that full experience. We’ve got what we call our “exploded” Model T across the plaza, and the Build-A-Model-T—that’s basically a sacrificial car that we use it until it’s used up, but that gives visitors a chance to actually put one of these cars together.”
Cars that are the Batmobile
“One of the cars we would love to have is the Batmobile from the original TV show,” confides Anderson. “I mean, it was a Lincoln Futura originally, so it’s got some history with it, but besides that it’s probably the ultimate TV and movie car, the one that people think of right away, and there was just no way we could touch it [when it was being sold several years ago].”
[Since our interview, the car’s come up for sale again—with an asking price of $5 million. “I hope the museum will be around forever and that its owner at some point will have to part with the car (…) and he’ll at least give us a shot at it,” chuckled Anderson.]
Well-worn but original cars
Got a showroom-fresh never-driven classic with all of five miles on it from when you took it home from the dealer? Keep it. “We’re looking for cars that are in reasonable condition, and that doesn’t mean mint, out-of-the-box, we like cars with a little mileage on them, that look kind of lived-in,” explains Anderson. “We also like cars that have stories, so if it comes between two vehicles, one of which we know nothing about the owners, and the other with a rich story where we do know the owners and what they did with it, we’ll probably go with the one with the stories.”
If it checks off all of the rest of the boxes, the Henry Ford will even consider cars that don’t start. “The majority of our cars do not run, we’ve got them sort of mothballed, we drain the fluids and put them up on blocks – literally, we put them up on jacks so the tires don’t get flat spots – and that’s it,” says Anderson.
Bonus points if your non-runner still looks great and has mostly original parts on it—the museum is, of course, big on originality, except for in the cars it uses for rides. “Even when we do have to replace parts, we tend to hang on to the original parts, because they’re part of that original fabric,” Anderson explains.
Do you have a car you’re thinking of donating or selling that checks off at least a few of these boxes? Give the museum a call. If they like it, the car’ll be reviewed by the formal collections committee, which votes on anything that comes in or leaves the collection, then go through the rest of the selection process, which includes several rounds of voting.
If it gets past that, it might just join the roughly 100 other cars on display in the museum. Never been? We highly recommend it.
(top image from the Henry Ford Collection)