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.