Collin Morgan takes us on the first of a two-part tour of North America’s largest car museum. Located midway between Detroit and Chicago, it’s home to almost 400 cars on a 90-acre campus!
If you ever get the chance to drive through southwest Michigan – just northeast of Kalamazoo – you’re bound to overlook numerous small lakes, rolling hills, and old farmsteads. Traffic jams aren’t caused by angry commuters bottling up the roads, but rather by farm equipment hogging up a lane, or a lone cow lazily crossing the street. What you might not expect though, is a sprawling automotive museum consistently rated with the best museums in the country: HICKORY CORNERS: GILMORE CAR MUSEUM
The campus of cars is the largest of its kind in North America, spanning 90 acres and displaying almost 400 cars. There are seven independent museums located on the grounds, each displaying their personal history. The staggering number of vehicles takes an entire day to fully explore, and the grounds are impeccable. Hemming’s Auto News declared, “Beyond any argument, this is one of the world’s greatest car collections.”
The collection began when the wife of Donald S. Gilmore decided that her husband needed a hobby for retirement, and promptly bought him a car, launching the passion on display today. Some of the earliest cars that started the collection include a ‘13 Rolls Royce, a ‘20 Pierce Arrow, and a ‘27 Model T. Since then, the museum has expanded exponentially, and attracts more than 112,000 visitors annually from all over the world.
The first room I entered was called the 1930s Gallery, and contained impressive examples, including this ‘36 Cord 810 Sportsman convertible. The iconic coffin nose is instantly recognizable and the car was surprisingly innovative, utilizing independent front suspension that accompanied the front-wheel drive. In the background is a Chrysler Airflow. A similar ‘37 Cord 812 was the inspiration for the original, circa 1941, comic book Batmobile.
The adjacent room contained cars from the late-1950s – 1960s including this ‘69 Plymouth Barracuda Hemi Under Glass wheel stander. The 426-inch, 2,500 horsepower engine was mounted by driver Bob Riggle directly above the rear wheels for better launch and outrageous performance. However, Bob didn’t anticipate how just much torque this Hemi would produce, and the car would pop wheelies at 100 mph down the track! This particular car is one of four built and was featured in an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage.
The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was a perfect place for Ford to showcase their new Mustang. This ‘65 Mustang convertible is one of the five surviving World’s Fair Mustangs. It’s beautifully displayed in HICKORY CORNERS: GILMORE CAR MUSEUM.
Ford partnered with Italian manufacturer DeTomaso to produce a car that would compete with Ferrari and the Corvette. This ‘72 Pantera underwent an extensive 2,400 hour refurbishing process, and was one of my favorite cars at the museum.
The ‘82 DeLorean DMC-12 is one of the most recognizable cars in the world, due to its fame in Back to the Future. John DeLorean is responsible for the DMC-12, but he was also a GM engineer, Pontiac General Manager and GM vice-president credited with creating Pontiac’s GTO in 1964.
Chrysler’s ‘83 Turbine car is a testament to Chrysler’s venture into turbine technology. Turbine engines needed less maintenance due to the reduced number of parts, and could run on any flammable liquid including peanut oil, tequila, and Chanel #5 perfume. In the end, the car became too expensive to produce and Chrysler shut down the program.
The Musclecar room is a celebration of the musclecar era, and housed some of the best known performance models, such as this ‘67 Shelby GT500 Mustang Prototype. This GT500 was the Shelby American promotional postcard car, and has since been tediously restored and took first place honors at the St. John’s Concours D’Elegance. There’s also a great selection of big-engined Ponycars like Camaros, Mustangs to name a few.
This is the Franklin Collection, covering the relatively short existence – 1902 – 1934 of the Syracuse, NY manufacturer. Franklin was known for being a leader in air-cooled engine innovations. They had a massive advantage over water-cooled engines during winter, making them popular with doctors and other owners who needed year-round vehicles. The ‘32 Franklin Series 16 Airman Sedan was surprisingly luxurious, and came equipped with extensive sound deadening, new supercharged forced induction, walnut interior trim, and adjustable Ride Control.
Up next is the Lincoln Motorcar Heritage Museum, showcasing everything within its extensive history, including concepts. Note the ‘17 Continental Concept, painted in the Continental’s signature Rhapsody Blue. The ‘36 Lincoln Zephyr was a massive sales success, and regarded as one of the most stunning vehicles on the road. Even though these cars were equipped with a V12, they only produced a measly 110 horsepower. The V12 was desirable due to its being a status symbol, and had the reputation to run so smooth that it purred like a kitten.
I found this is ‘03 Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout in a car-filled barn housing some of the oldest cars in the collection. The Olds is credited as the first mass-produced automobile in the U.S. One of the advertisements for the Runabout was that it could travel “40 miles per gallon of gasoline.” Not bad for 110 years ago!
Words & Photos: Collin Morgan
Due to the massive size of this museum, I’ve decided to split my tour into two parts. Keep an eye out for Part II! For more information about HICKORY CORNERS: GILMORE CAR MUSEUM, please visit https://www.gilmorecarmuseum.org/