Museum Classics: Visiting The WPC Museum In Its Final Week – So Long, Walt

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There are a lot of great car museums here in the U.S., including the Studebaker Museum, in South Bend, Indiana, and the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum, in Auburn, Indiana. Out on the West Coast, we have the amazing LeMay Collection and the Petersen Museum in L.A. But for Mopar mavens, there was one at the top of the list: the WPC Museum, in the heart of the Motor City. Sadly, it was closed to the public on December 31, 2012. Fortunately for you, though, we had a man in the field…

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No, I was not the lucky man to visit this wonderful museum; our own Richard Bennett made the trek to Auburn Hills and took these most excellent photos. He did provide a bit of context, however:

The museum was opened in 1999, and has featured a revolving collection of various Chrysler cars, both production models and concepts. The centerpiece of the museum was a spiral in the center of the building, two stories tall, with cars placed on staggered tiers. When I visited in 2008, the spiral turned slowly; this last time it sat still. Some of the highlights included a Chrysler Turbine car; one of the first Chrysler cars; the first minivan; and a number of concepts. My personal favorites were the Tom Gale-era concepts from the 1990s and early 2000s. Sadly, they had taken many of them out by this time.

So, let’s take a virtual tour. JPC, if you start to get too excited, breathe into a paper bag. Okay, let’s get underway…

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Not too far from the main lobby was a lovely beige Airflow. (The Airflows) were a failure, despite their space, efficiency and even safety–remember that vintage film of the Airflow going over a cliff? Remarkable.

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But the public didn’t go for it, and the more traditional Chrysler Airstreams quickly outsold it. A real shame, as I love the lines of these cars. So did much of Europe: Just off the top of my head, I can recall the Peugeot 402 and Volvo Carioca. Yes, there was a Volvo Airflow! Chrysler attempted damage control by tacking on a more traditional nose, but I like originals like this one, with that graceful curve from bumper to windshield.

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Here we have the 1941 Newport dream car, a companion to the ’41 Thunderbolt retractable hardtop. A handful of each were built, and a Newport actually paced the last prewar Indy 500.

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One nice thing about Chrysler is they take their acquired companies to heart: Jeeps, AMCs and, I believe, even a Hudson or two were all in attendance at the museum. Another cool touch were dioramas, like this one featuring a WWII Jeep.

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Let’s be honest, how could the WPC not have a 1946-48 Town & Country? This is one of the most collectible cars of the immediate postwar period; take one look at this beauty and you can understand why. Too bad the two-door hardtop T&C never went beyond a few prototypes–it would have beat GM’s Roadmaster Riviera and Coupe de Ville by three years.

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The design of the “jukebox” radio, speaker and clock is a prime example of industrial art. As beautiful as it is, I imagine you got some glare driving down the road with the top down, but it would be worth it just to pilot one of these beauties. I still have a maroon, 1/24th-scale T&C by Danbury Mint on my desk at home; it was a Christmas gift in 1993 or ’94.

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This lovely blue convertible is a 1951 New Yorker, and just about my favorite car that Richard captured. Sure, the bottle-green T&C is wonderful, but you see them in car books and online on sites like Hemmings so often that you tend to get used to them, if that’s possible!

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The Kelsey-Hayes wires help, but I think I was particularly drawn to the dark-red Highlander plaid interior. And the fan-type instrument clusters on these really stood out, too.

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Here we have a dream car from the early ’50s, the so-called “Thomas Special.” As I understand it, several were made; in fact,  in recent years a green one has made the rounds at Pebble Beach and other concours events. If it looks a bit like a big VW Karmann Ghia (it rides a New Yorker chassis), it’s because it is one of many Mopar dream cars built by Ghia of Italy.

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A lovingly well-preserved 1986 Town & Country convertible was also in attendance. If its pristine condition was not enough, it also sported the seldom-seen alloy wheels. While these can’t compare to the original T&C shown earlier, I have to admit I love these things, perhaps due to John Candy’s metallic avocado-green version in the classic John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

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Say what you will about Lee’s mini-Mark Broughams, the Mark Cross interior on these Town & Countrys was pretty snazzy. Do you suppose the radio plays “Mess Around” by Ray Charles? It should!

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Here we have what has to be the most pristine Reliant coupe in existence. I am unsure if this one is a prototype, but it is clearly an early version. And what’s that behind it?

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If that K-car is a little too pedestrian for you, this ’61 300G will fix you right up. Fins, chrome and lots and lots of power!

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And check out that interior, with swing-out seats, soft leather upholstery, and a translucent steering wheel rim.

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Found elsewhere was this tri-tone ’56 D500, quite striking in red, black and white. The D500 was Dodge’s mid-’50s performance car, much like the Plymouth Fury, DeSoto Adventurer and the venerable 300. Unlike its corporate cousins, however, the D500 was available, at least theoretically, for any Dodge, and did not include special paint or trim.

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Of course, there was an original 1955 C-300 as well–this is the W. P. Chrysler museum, for crying out loud. You might have noticed that Christmas tree and other holiday decorations in some of these photos.

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As Richard told me, “Because it was December, they had the museum decorated for Christmas, and the theme included trees that represented the decades, and they decided to feature women’s wear from the decades as well.” Kind of a neat idea! I wonder if they did Halloween decorations in October too? Maybe not, but there was a snazzy orange-and-black Turbine Car!

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The Turbine Car was an amazing jump forward in Chrysler’s attempt to bring turbine power to Mopar showrooms. Fifty-five were built by Ghia of Italy and then loaned out to U.S. families between 1963 and 1966 for testing. Ultimately, it was not deemed practical for production, and most of the cars were crushed to avoid import duties on the Italian-built bodies. An interesting first-person experience of one man’s family getting one to try out can be found here; it is well worth a read!

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A very nice ’56 Imperial Southampton was also on display–in jet black, of course. While the inaugural 1955 Imperial was quite an impressive vehicle, I prefer the ’56 with its edgier rear quarters.

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Of course, Richard had to get a shot of the trademark free-standing taillights, which have been referred to as “microphone” or “lollipop” taillights over the years. Whatever you call them, there is no mistaking them on an Imperial. Their last year was 1962.

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Bookending the Imperial was this one-off Cordoba. It made the car show rounds when new, and as I understand it, was given to Ricardo Mantalban afterward. After he’d driven it for a time, Chrysler apparently re-acquired it.

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The interior was customized as well, with a unique silver-and-black leather interior (Was it soft Corinthian leather? Of course it was!). The floating-pillow upholstery reminds me a lot of the then-current New Yorker Brougham. You could never get a high-back split bench in a NYB, however–at least not in the 1976-78 period.

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While the Cordoba never came with two-tone paint, this custom job reminds me a bit of the two-toning on 1975-77 Pontiac Grand Prix coupes. This may also be the last Cordoba on Earth without a vinyl roof!

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Here is an example of the very first Town & Country. Unlike the big luxury wagons of the 1950s-1970s and the plush minivans of today, the original was more of a fastback sedan, with clamshell loading doors instead of a tailgate.

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Inside, it was just as upscale as you’d expect, with solid wood door panels and leather seats. And I love that steering wheel!

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Fast-forward a few decades and we have the woody Voyager, in this case the very first one Lee Iacocca drove off the line. This is most likely the nicest 1st-gen Chrysler minivan on the planet.

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This one is clearly an uplevel model, judging from the nice upholstery, wood sides, sport wheel covers and whitewalls. They really put the “mini” in minivans; today’s Caravan and T&C are a fair bit bigger than these originals.

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 As Richard related, “In the basement was the area they called ‘Boss Chrysler’s Garage’, where they kept many muscle cars, trucks, Jeeps and AMC models. Some highlights included the Dodge La Femme, a car that was marketed to women, an early 70’s Plymouth Duster, a 1968 Fury convertible, and several Chargers.” First up was this amazing Plum Crazy-over-white Hemi ‘cuda. Let’s see what else is around down there!

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Here’s a requisite Charger for you Bullitt fans to drool over. Nice to see one that hasn’t been given the Pukes of Hazzard treatment, huh?

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Here’s a car I have always wanted to see in person–a Dodge La Femme. Chercher la femme? Au moins on est dans ce musée!

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Whatever you think about Chrysler’s attempt at making a car designed to appeal to women, there’s no denying that the ’56 Dodge is a looker.

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I’m sure our own JPCavanaugh will have a marked interest in this ’67 Fury III convertible. Alas, Richard took only this front view and a close-up of the hood ornament, but you can see a bit more of it in the Duster photo a few pics down. Besides, we just had an up-close-and-personal look at a ’67 VIP!

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Moving away from the land yachts, there was this mint Shelby Charger. I always liked the “pepperoni” alloy wheels these cars had, which I believe were available on Dodge 600s as well. I had a blue, snap-together model of one of these Chargers back in the ’80s, and it may still be in a box somewhere. I’ll have to look for it…

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How about a finny pick ’em up truck?

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Or an Airflow prototype? I am getting a serious VW Type 1 vibe from this one.

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Here’s a nice 340 Duster. With similar scoot for a lot less money, these sportier Valiants and their Dodge brethren were single-handedly responsible for the failure of the E-body Barracuda and Challenger.

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This triple-black Charger is pretty menacing, especially with the hidden headlights. Although most folks go for the 1968-70 models, I really like these ’71s.

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In a nod to AMC, which Chrysler gobbled up in 1987, a nice Eagle SX4 was on display…

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…not to mention an AMX, one of my most favorite late-’60s cars. Is it me, or does the SX4 have some resemblance to this AMX?

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Let’s just take one look at this nicely restored Charger drag car before heading back upstairs. The variety of cars at the WPC is pretty diverse, don’t you think? Something for everyone.

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Well, our tour has come to a close. What could be more appropriate than a look towards Chrysler’s future, in the form of the 2005 Firepower concept? I recall seeing this at the 2005 Chicago Auto Show.

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What I did not know was that it was based on the Dodge Viper and sported a 6.1-liter, 425-hp Hemi. Despite the rumors and hints from Chrysler involving production plans, they never came to fruition.

And with that, folks, we’ve come to the end of the tour. I’d like to express my appreciation to Richard for sharing his pictures with us. Although I was not able to visit this place before it closed, thanks to his photo tour, I almost feel like I’ve been there. Many thanks, Richard!

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