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Henry Ford Museum Ravamps Auto Timeline Exhibit

Henry Ford Museum Revamps Auto Timeline Exhibit

Henry Ford Museum
Part of the Ford museum's automotive exhibit.

For 25 years, the Henry Ford museum's exhibit of historic automobiles-known to the curators as "the timeline"-remained virtually unchanged.

Even as the auto industry around its Dearborn, Mich., campus went through episodes of near-death, multiple product fads and a profound technological revolution, little was done to update the museum's sprawling, idiosyncratic collection of machine-age technology, weird Americana and more than 200 cars.

Now, thanks to some $8 million and more than a year of work, the Henry Ford (which dropped "museum" from its name several years ago) will unveil on Jan. 29 a modernized, digitally enabled relaunch of its main attraction.

"Driving America," as the new automobile exhibit is called, shows not just the cars but their effect on American culture. There's a classic neon McDonald's sign, a scale model of an old Texaco service station where kids can play at fixing a car and a mock-up of an early Holiday Inn, complete with cheesy laminated coffee tables.

But it's the cars that are the stars. Before, the first car visitors saw was a mid-1980s Honda Accord, one of the first Japanese-brand cars to be made in America. The lineup of classic cars is now ordered chronologically, starting with an 1895 Roper Steam carriage and Henry Ford's Quadricycle, the 1896 forerunner of the Model T.

While the Quadricycle, the 1909 Model T and a 1932 V-8 Ford are cars you'd expect to see in an array of historic vehicles, the value of "Driving America" is in the way that it presents cars you would be more likely to find in a junkyard than a museum.

A 1978 Dodge Omni is in the lineup as one of the first efforts by a Detroit auto maker-Chrysler Corp., several of its nine lives ago-to build a small, efficient, European-style car in response to the 1970s oil price shocks. The 1991 Ford Explorer reminds us of the days, not so long ago, when gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles ruled the American road. The four-door 1998 Dodge Ram Quad Cab shows how pickup trucks morphed from utilitarian work vehicles to substitutes for family sedans in America's heartland.

The last car in the timeline is now a 2002 Toyota Prius hybrid, standing in for the latest efforts by the auto industry to answer the call to burn less oil.

"Driving America" also offers plenty of car curiosities. A gorgeous 1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale convertible represents luxury autos. A purple Mercury '49 anchors the "Hot Rods and Cool Customs" nook. Curiously, a 1958 Edsel is displayed under the banner "Elements of Style," even though the word Edsel is now synonymous with flop, in part because so few customers appreciated its special looks. The 1975 motor home of CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, famed for his "On the Road" TV dispatches, is also on display.

It's all a trip back to an America where driving was fun, unencumbered by angst about pollution, congestion and urban sprawl.

For younger visitors, giant, iPad-like screens can-after some loading time-display 360-degree views of cars and images of historical artifacts and documents once locked up in the museum's archives. But young car enthusiasts will find little about the extraordinary advances in auto technology during the past decade: big gains in power and efficiency for small gasoline engines; leaps in safety technology; and the revolution in the dashboard, linking cars to the information matrix.

Since the fortunes of the industry can shift with brutal speed, the museum has readied itself for change. The Henry Ford has installed lifts at each end of the timeline, so that the exhibit can be updated more frequently. Good idea.

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