Concepts keep coming, but historic autos are a chore to store
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misreported details about the closing of a Chrysler historic vehicle museum.
NASHVILLE -- If you see a dazzling concept car at an auto show this year, consider this: Somebody is going to have to find the space to park it and maintain it in a heritage collection, perhaps until the end of time.
Preserving this year's hits as the museum pieces of the future is one of the great backroom issues of the auto industry.
If you need to see the first wood-paneled Honda Civic Country station wagon from 1980 for some good reason, Honda has one in storage in Japan. The eggish Gobi Concept that Nissan displayed at the 1990 Detroit auto show, a never-built C-segment SUV-type vehicle that now seems 25 years ahead of its time? It's still around.
Anybody remember the Chevrolet Bel Air convertible concept car from the 2002 Detroit show? It didn't result in a production car, but the handcrafted show vehicle is sitting in storage in Sterling Heights, Mich., for designers and marketing execs of the future to dissect and study -- just in case.
Each new year pours forth a river of new cars, new concepts, new designs and new takes on old brand histories. Each one of them was arguably a work of automotive art that, 50 years from now, someone will wish was still around.
Automakers pay to maintain warehouses of yesterday's new cars. Employees tend to old rubber hoses and track down discontinued sun visors. Curators stare down painful decisions about culling the herd, getting rid of one less-than-historic car to make room for another incoming beauty.
"Heritage," says Greg Wallace, manager of the General Motors Heritage Center in suburban Detroit. "We've got a great history, and this is how you tell the story.
"We keep vehicles we think will be important to the future of the brands. It's important to our identity. It's important for design and research. And it's important to people outside the company.
"People all over the world ask to use our old cars. You'd be amazed at how popular GM is in a lot of overseas markets. If I had five 1963 split-window Corvettes, I could keep them busy all the time."
On one hand, heritage is a branding touchstone. Vehicle designers often seek inspiration by strolling through factory collections, looking at hood lines and examining instrument panels.
"There's a reason the new Camaro looks like the 1969 Camaro," Wallace says, recalling the stream of GM designers who crawled over GM's warehoused '60s era cars and pored through the archives of drawings and engineering specs that he manages.
Yet it was not until the 1980s that GM began officially gathering its history into a "collection." Wallace is a former Cadillac dealership employee who was chosen to create Cadillac's first collection of heritage cars. And then in the 1990s GM asked him to do for the entire company what he had done for Cadillac.
The gathering now includes about 600 vehicles and 5 million pieces of potentially historic material -- such as old magazine ads, paint swatches and design blueprints. The collection consumes three buildings and 15,000 linear feet of shelf space. A full-time employee is dedicated to digitizing anything of possible future interest, including executive speeches and auto show photographs.
Remember the Chevrolet Bel Air convertible concept car shown at the 2002 Detroit auto show?
Wallace spends about $1.8 million a year keeping his cars in good condition. In 2009, with the collection bulging with 1,100 vehicles and GM sweating out the possibility of bankruptcy, management decided to trim back the archives, sending some of its redundant holdings off to auction.
Said Wallace: "We had to ask ourselves: Did we really need to keep 60 different Monte Carlos from 2002 to 2006?"
But since then, the inventory has resumed growing by another 25 or so cars a year.
"We try to keep everything," he says. "It might not look like a piece of history today. But someday it will."
Historic cars often get thrown away before they are recognized as historic. Some companies have no clue as to how valuable one of its cars might become. In 1962, Ferrari built a small number of 250 GTOs, which sold at the time for $18,500. Within a few years they were selling used for about $6,000. Last October, one sold at auction for a record $52 million.
Concept cars are tricky assets. Building one can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and the glue and show-biz tricks that hold it together only permit a few public showings before they are moved into history. And who can throw away such an expensive asset?
But heritage can also be a marketable commodity.
Heritage helps Ford Motor Co. pitch Mustangs and pickups. Chrysler's TV spots have been playing on the company's heritage as a brash Detroit producer of big-wheeled Jeeps and cushy sedans. Nissan is now reminding U.S. consumers of its heritage of producing moderately priced sporty cars in the 1970s and '80s. And 30 years after it wiped the name "Datsun" off of its company marquee, Nissan is relaunching the Datsun brand in various world markets, conjuring up the name's old heritage of small cars with small sticker prices.
Porsches of the past
In 2009, Porsche opened a fetching $130 million museum near Stuttgart where it displays 80 or so Porsche cars of the past. Since then, more than 2 million visitors have come to look, paying about $11 per ticket.
"The German car companies are way ahead on this idea of preserving their heritage," says Ken Gross, a veteran automotive journalist and an expert on vintage cars. "Mercedes and BMW and Porsche, and even Volkswagen, really get it. It's a link to their customers. But it's also a link to their past -- to everything about their past that they want to celebrate today."
Mercedes-Benz has the granddaddy of heritage collections, spanning 114 years of keepsakes. It maintains car museums and collections around the world, with a showcase museum in Stuttgart that recently welcomed its 5-millionth visitor.
U.S. and Asian automakers are waking up to that same opportunity. As a point of comparison, in the early 1990s, Chevrolet turned down appeals for financial support from a group of Corvette enthusiasts who wanted to build a Corvette museum near the factory in Bowling Green, Ky. After raising the necessary $13 million from a consortium of car club members, parts suppliers, government sources and others, the museum opened in 1994 and is now one of Kentucky's top tourist draws.
Gross previously was executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, a renowned collection of 300 vintage cars that opened to the public 20 years ago. Although the size of a department store, the Petersen museum keeps half of its collection in storage.
And last summer the museum caused gulps of Internet worry among the car-collector world when it whittled down its collection, sending more than 100 cars to auction. Critics worried that Petersen was dispensing with less-valuable 1960s and '70s cars to focus on rarer models from the '20s and '30s -- a rumor Petersen roundly dismissed.
But the fuss illustrates a point: The public wants car companies and museums to keep old cars. But there are simply physical limits to keeping them.
The Nissan Gobi Concept truck is stored in Nashville.
Chrysler backs out
A Chrysler historic vehicle museum opened in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 1999. But the museum closed at the end of 2012 because of a lack of visitors. Chrysler Group acquired the museum's collection of 67 cars, and no vehicles were sold off in the transaction.
In Nashville, where Nissan's North American business is based, the company is building a heritage collection that illustrates both how vital the collections are becoming, and also how difficult they can be.
Nissan's growing fleet is stored in the cramped basement of the Lane Museum, a private local auto museum housed in a large former commercial bakery.
Nissan's basement collection is not for public viewing. The valuable old cars and trucks -- several of them one-of-a-kind concept cars from past auto shows -- are packed like sardines in the space.
Among the shadows, there sits the phantom Nissan Gobi from the 1990 Detroit auto show. There is the Bevel, the 2006 concept for a small work van that anticipated Nissan's current NV200.
Across the room sits the Cocoon, Nissan's 1991 three-row people hauler that anticipated its Quest minivan 12 years before the fact. There is a nostalgically small Datsun pickup from 1965, and from 1983, the first long-bed pickup Nissan built in North America. There is a 1967 Datsun Patrol and a rare 1970 Datsun 1600 Roadster.
Nissan’s 1991 Cocoon three-row people hauler anticipated the Quest minivan.
Nissan's mother lode
But this is not even Nissan's official cache of heritage cars. Officials at Nissan North America have not decided what they will do with the basement collection in Nashville, which continues to grow. There has been casual talk of opening a U.S. heritage museum.
The real mother lode of Nissan posterity is housed in Zama, Japan. There, the public is invited to stroll among 280 historic cars parked in a cavernous annex at Nissan's Zama production factory, where it produces battery modules for the electric Leaf. A staff of 12 volunteers gives guided tours to 5,000 visitors a year along the rows of Japanese and U.S. models. There are some duplications. But mostly the vehicles differ by engine variation, model-year design tweak, trim package and nameplate changes.
There seem to be endless Datsun Skylines -- the hot-roddy 1960s Japanese-market sedan that morphed into the present-day Nissan GT-R. There is but one representative of the luxury Infiniti line, which isn't offered in Japan.
Eiichi Shimizu, a retired manager from Nissan's domestic market section who now is one of Zama's tour guides, confesses that there are other holes in the heritage collection.
"We're missing so many models," he sighs. "We're hoping enthusiasts out there who own them will donate them to us."
Shimizu says the collection lacks Nissan buses and work trucks. But, he says, "They're not hard to find on the road -- but people who own them tend to drive them until they're worn out."
The building used to hold more than 400 cars, he says, but it was getting too crowded.
So, Shimizu is asked, where will the heritage center museum put all the additional cars he wants?
"Space is an issue," he agrees. "We're actually a little worried about that. Lately, we're feeling pressure from the plant here. They're threatening to take this space to expand production of battery modules.
"If that happens, I will have to appeal directly to the president of Nissan to stop it."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.