27 January 2015

Museum Power

When it comes to showcasing the historical significance and sheer beauty of vintage automobiles, museums are in a class by themselves. And that's exactly what they got last September at the Cobble Beach Concours d'Elegance — a class of their own!

As befits any signature event vowing to surpass itself, Chairman Rob McLeese wanted to add some extra torque to the second edition of his world-class concours. So with that in mind, museums of Canada and the U.S. were given a place of honor in a designated category throughout the weekend-long wheels fest. Thus, Class 22 was born, one exempt of judging by officials, where participating organizations would receive major exposure, if not exclusive recognition, thanks to the newly created Willis S. McLeese International Museum Award — an homage to Cobble Beach's co-founder and Rob's late father.

Organizers had installed an expressly appointed tent right in front of the venue's elegant Nantucket-style clubhouse, which served as an outdoor exhibition hall for the special class of nine hot vehicles pre-selected from five museums, each with its own glamorous pedigree. And the 5,000-plus participants loved it, which goes to show what happens when museums manage to bring their hallowed rolling sculptures to the public, particularly at events of this caliber.

Ottawa's national Museum of Science and Technology was nobly represented by an eclectic trio of rare beauties: the famed 1867 steam-powered Seth Taylor, Canada's first official car; a 1936 LaSalle, one of only several hundred such models produced in Oshawa, Ontario, between 1927 and 1936, its last year of production on Canadian soil; and the Science and Tech's majestic 1939 McLaughlin Buick limo, custom-built for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth's Royal Tour of Canada.

The Canadian Automotive Museum of Oshawa delegated two fine representatives from its extensive collection: a 1914 Galt Gas Electric — the only one known to exist — and a 1931 McLaughlin Buick 67 Four-Door Sedan, deemed Canadian Cultural Property by the Federal Government.

From the U.S. side, three highly acclaimed institutions joined their Canadian cousins. Hershey's AACA Museum supplied a dazzling 1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet, whose various claims to fame include starring in the HBO series Mildred Pierce. The Detroit Historical Society Museum lassoed the rarest of ponies from its stable: the 1963 Ford Mustang II Prototype originally driven at the Watkins Glen unveiling by Dan Gurney. While the Gilmore Car Museum of Hickory Corners (Mich.) featured a 1903 Ford Model A Runabout, as well as a 1930 Cadillac Convertible Coupe donated to the Classic Car Club of America by 104-years-young Margaret Dunning, in attendance as a Cobble Beach Honorary Judge.

Ms Dunning also had her much-celebrated 1930 Packard Straight Eight 740 transported from Michigan by handler friend Dan Clements, so that the two cherished 1930 beauties could be reunited “for the first time after a lonely 40-year separation,” she quipped. A lover of antique cars and a staunch believer in the social mission of museums, the Belle of Concours points out that the Plymouth Historical Museum she founded has the sole remaining Alter model built in that city between 1914 and 1916.

When asked why she's still so devoted at age 104: “I care about the children,” she promptly answers — a reminder that car museums, as they are commonly referred to, do immensely more than just put cars on view. In fact, they hold the encompassing power to inspire, entertain and educate children — of all ages. While making us discover our relationship with past events, they help us understand ourselves, both collectively and individually. Michael Spezia, who runs the fabulous Gilmore campus, puts it best: “Much as we tell the story through a careful conservation process of artifacts, it is ultimately the memory of people which we preserve.” That human narrative, which connects people to objects like the automobile, begins on a personal scale, if not right at home, as typified by the proverbial family album depicting members next to, or sitting in, their cars.

Whether large or small, public or private, theme- or marque-based, automotive museums familiarize us with our evolution — the result of many “revolutions” that have rendered us mobile and shaped the society we live in. The countless stories they tell are the building blocks of history itself, of which these unique hubs of knowledge become essential guardians. Beyond their cultural, scientific or even entertainment value, museums take us on virtual trips through time and space — journeys from which we emerge with sharper insights about people and places, creations and innovations, colors and shapes, esthetics and technology. David McGee is the Archivist for the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation in the nation's capital of Ottawa: “The objects we present to the public are the gateway to history,” he says. “Through them, the story unfolds as visitors project their own individual experience, literally from the driver's seat when it comes to vintage vehicles.”

This is a special tribute to the many men and women who bring us, often from behind the scenes, the museum experience that we so enjoy, wherever it may be found — in small towns or cities across the continent, and beyond. We salute these voyage makers' priceless expertise, caring dedication and love of their work. They make up the driving force whose broad impact is to captivate our imagination, feed our intellect, lift our spirits and fuel our passions. Children of all ages owe these folks a big vote of thanks.

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