DETROIT - You could drive right past the General Motors Heritage Center and not realize that it contains some of the automotive world's greatest treasures.
That's because the center is in a nondescript brown building in an industrial park in Sterling Heights, Mich., near Detroit. Even the center's small exterior sign is easy to miss.
But step inside - if you're lucky enough to get an invitation because the center is not open to the public - and you'll realize its uniqueness. At any one time, about 180 GM specialty vehicles are housed there.
In all, the center has more than 600 cars and trucks in its collection. But many are loaned out to museums, exhibits, car shows and other displays. "It's sort of a movable feast," says Joe Schulte, who oversees the center's marketing and development.
GM concept cars from the 1950s are among the vehicles displayed at the General Motors Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich. About 180 GM specialty vehicles are housed there at any one time.
Ed Welburn, GM's design chief, also visits frequently.
Every vehicle in the collection is in operating condition. And each has a story.
Consider the Cadillac Popemobile. GM engineers designed the open-air Caddy for Pope John Paul II to use during his 1999 Mexico City visit. But the car, which has a thronelike seat that can be elevated, wasn't used because of security concerns.
It's now doing duty at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit, titled "Presidents, Popes and Potentates," also features Ronald Reagan's 1986 Cadillac presidential limousine.
A 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible is on loan in China. And a 1920 Cadillac coupe is at the former GM world headquarters in Detroit.
Here are some head-turners:
- Turbine-powered GM Firebird concept cars from the 1950s that inspired the first Pontiac Firebird in 1967. Think of their design as a cross between a rocket and car.
- The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone concept, which featured built-in radar and adaptive cruise control. The car emits an audible signal when it strays too close to another object and can apply brakes and reduce throttle opening to keep a safe distance.
- A hydrogen fuel cell car that GM developed in 1966.
But the 81,000-square-foot center doesn't house just vehicles. It also displays 1950s furniture from the former Oldsmobile headquarters and a boardroom table from GM's first r&d center. Old GM advertisements and drawings also are stored there. The center even has a working Chevrolet dealership sign from 1927.