The Gilmore Car Museum offers an outstanding collection of mobile ingenuity.
By Sandra Reed
There is nothing more American than the automobile, and no better place to relive automotive history than the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan. Here, more than 200 classic automobiles are displayed in renovated historic barns.
The museum features the private collection of Donald Gilmore, as well as the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) Museum, the Pierce-Arrow Foundation Museum, and the Tucker Historical Collection and Library. In 2004 an expansion to the CCCA barn nearly doubled its current size, and a new building also was added to the Pierce-Arrow Museum. The Gilmore Car Museum’s collection continues to grow, too, and all of it is on a sprawling 90-acre site.
Donald Gilmore began his interest in classic cars in 1963 when he and some friends began restoring a 1920 Pierce-Arrow that he had received as a birthday gift from his wife. As his hobby grew, he purchased the 90-acre farm to house his collection, which then totaled more than 30 automobiles. In 1966 Gilmore opened his collection to the public.
The ticket office, a replica of a small-town railroad depot, will be your first stop. For a modest fee of $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $5 for students, you are on your way to a wonderful day exploring early Americana through the history of the automobile. Incidentally, parking on this expansive site is free and plentiful.
As you start your self-guided tour, you are likely to begin with a re-creation of a 1930s Shell Oil gas station. It will definitely bring back a sense of nostalgia when you see that the price of gas on these old-fashioned pumps is 19 cents per gallon. If you happen to be looking for rest rooms, what better place than here at the gas station?
Outside the Shell Oil stop is a double-decker bus that you can climb aboard and explore. This is a working bus, and on weekends or special events you are likely to spot it and other antique cars carrying visitors around the grounds. Yes, in case you were wondering, 98 to 99 percent of the vehicles in this museum are operational.
Lunch will be part of the museum experience this year, too, at the 1941 Silk City Diner. As of mid-July, museum officials expected the diner to soon serve up a typical menu of hot dogs and hamburgers, in addition to functioning as an exhibit. You also can bring your lunch and enjoy a picnic at one of the many tables that are intended for that purpose. Or, if you aren’t in a hurry, you can complete your museum visit and then drive approximately three miles into Hickory Corners for lunch at the Hickory Cafe. It’s not fancy on the outside, but the inside is cozy and the food is excellent. Keep in mind that you should plan at least four hours to visit all the barns and see the cars.
The oldest automobile on display at the museum is an 1899 Locomobile. This small steam car is one of only seven still in existence. It is displayed with other steam cars, including the popular Stanley Steamer, as well as an old American La France steam-powered fire engine. In the same general area with the steam-powered cars are some early electric cars.
Gilmore himself experimented with electric cars. In 1944 he converted an old Ford Model T to run on electricity, in an effort to beat the gas rationing that was prevalent during World War II. He claimed to get 28 miles between charging, but the notion didn’t catch on with the public.
The first mass-produced American car was the 1903 Oldsmobile Runabout, which is also represented at the museum. That year, 3,750 of these cars were sold at a cost of $650 each. They were small and very modest when compared to some of the other cars in the museum. It is reported that this model was the inspiration for the song “In My Merry Oldsmobile.” Who would have thought that this nameplate would have lasted 100 years?
The new Pierce-Arrow Foundation Museum barn allows for a greatly expanded Pierce-Arrow display. This barn was constructed exclusively for the museum, but it fits nicely with the other historic barns on the site. Pierce-Arrows were built in Buffalo, New York, and were very popular luxury vehicles of the time. The first Pierce-Arrow was built in 1901; in 1928 Pierce-Arrow merged with Studebaker. Unfortunately, the ensuing economic depression forced Studebaker into bankruptcy in 1933. Pierce-Arrow continued to produce cars under independent ownership until 1938.
Anyone who has ever owned a Ford will be impressed with the Ford exhibit. Then, as today, Fords were more affordable than many other cars and still seemed stylish. I was particularly amused by a conundrum posed on a museum sign: “Did Henry Ford make the Model T, or did the Model T make Henry Ford?” In reality, it was probably a little of both.
One barn is devoted to more modern cars but also has a display of children’s pedal cars mounted on the wall. If you owned one of these as a boy or girl, you will enjoy looking for your particular model.
The youngest vehicle in the barn and in the museum is a 2002 Camaro. It is supposed to be the final Camaro GM will ever make . . . but then again, perhaps these cars will return some day. Also in this barn is an extensive Corvette display that chronicles the evolution of this popular sports car. Another model, from Chevrolet, the Corvair, also evokes memories. This car had a rear mounted, air-cooled engine, and a suspension that consumer advocate Ralph Nader claimed made it liable to roll over “” and thus unsafe at any speed.
Be sure to inspect the cars in the CCCA Museum barn. You will stand in awe of the 1929 Duesenberg. A plaque describes this car as an 8-cylinder, 265-horsepower model that cost $8,500 in 1929; it was definitely a luxury automobile. Also on display and equally impressive are the Packards and Cadillacs. These cars are huge by today’s standards, and very heavy. Many incorporate an abundance of polished chrome, which adds beauty, but also weight.
Don’t miss the 1908 and 1910 Packards in this barn “” they’re real charmers. Overall, the CCCA Museum could easily convince you that you were born in the wrong decade. It’s no wonder that so many people have joined in the hobby of restoring classic automobiles. How satisfying it must be to return one of these cars to their original beauty.
Remember the Hudsons? This display begins with the 1908 Hudson and shows the evolution of the Hudson through 1956. A particularly cute Hudson on display is the 1940 business coupe. If you pull out a shelf in its trunk, the car becomes a pickup truck. One of the more recent Hudsons is a handsome 1951 Hornet convertible. In 1957 Hudson merged with Nash, and the Hudson nameplate ceased to exist.
In addition to the cars that would be most familiar to all of us are some lesser-known but very impressive vehicles. Look for the 1948 Tucker, with its modified helicopter engine and center headlight that turned with the steering wheel; the 1937 Cord; and a French car, the 1939 Delahaye. It will be hard to pick a favorite, but I know mine was the 1929 Duesenberg.
The next time you travel in the Midwest, put the Gilmore Car Museum on your list of stops … it’s a time to remember.
Gilmore Car Museum
6865 Hickory Road
Hickory Corners, MI 49060
The museum is open daily between May 1 and October 31. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and AAA members, and $5 for students ages 7 to 15. Children 6 and under are admitted free. The museum is located between Chicago, Illinois, and Detroit, Michigan. A map to the museum is available on the museum’s Web site.
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory as well as the Business Directory, found in the June and January issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at fmca.com.
Schnable Lake Family Campground
1476 115th Ave.
P.O. Box 222
Martin, MI 49070
Whispering Waters Campground and Canoe Livery
1805 N. Irving Road
Hastings, MI 49058-9582
Camp Michawana Christian Campground
5800 Head Lake Road
Hastings, MI 49058