DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- In the Detroit Historical Museum, a Cadillac body is lowered again and again onto a chassis. Mannequins represent workers. Nearby murals show bustling streetscapes that have long since disappeared.
Among the institution's collection of about 65 classic cars are a 1924 Hupmobile Roadster, a 1950 Packard Deluxe Eight and a 1963 pre-production Ford Mustang. The future of that past is in doubt: They are among assets that may be sold to pay creditors in the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy.
Just as Detroit may not be able to keep the symbols of its proud past, it also must overcome their legacy. The auto business, which by 1950 made Detroit the fourth-largest U.S. city, also enabled its destruction and depopulation.
It created a place larger than San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan combined that today is impossible to maintain. The car allowed jobs to migrate out of the city itself, and even discouraged creation of a regional transit system that would have let workers follow.
"It has provided so much for us, and it is still today a deep part of who we are," said Dan Kinkead, executive director for Detroit Future City, a nonprofit recovery project. "On the other hand, it has contributed to some of the biggest challenges that we face right now."
Detroit filed an $18 billion bankruptcy July 18 and may sell assets, including its parking garages, and lease its Belle Isle Park to the state. While Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has said he has no plans to unload holdings such as the car collection and the paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts, there are no assurances that a judge will protect them, said Mike Smith, a former curator at the Detroit Historical Museum.
The car collection, valued as much as $15 million, should be preserved for history's sake, said Smith, now archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.
"This is the Motor City," Smith said. "We follow cars, we love our cars, we live in our cars, and you drive everywhere."
Detroit grew to 139 square miles (360 square kilometers) in part because of the cars that workers could afford with factory wages and company discounts, said Robin Boyle, chairman of the Urban Studies and Planning Department at Wayne State.