DETROIT — THERE'S a good reason Ron Grantz is so thin and wiry. "Some days you just don't get to sit down," he says with a grin that blends pride with a dose of exhaustion.
Mr. Grantz is in charge of the nation's largest collection of automotive publications, photos, and a few other items that aren't so easy to classify. It's made him a much-sought-after expert for those from Ann Arbor to Australia who are looking for answers to automotive questions. The collection sprawls across much of the fourth floor of the main Detroit Public Library. A massive card file covers one wall of the National Automotive History Collection's (NAHC's) reading room. There are 435,000 items liste d in the card catalog, says curator Grantz, and "there are probably the same number we haven't processed yet, maybe more."
With only a half dozen staff members, including volunteers, it's hard to keep up with all the material gathering on the shelves, desks, and chairs. When Grantz sits down with a visitor in the conference room, he has to hack through a pile of magazines like an adventurer carving a path through a rain forest.
The NAHC began almost as an afterthought. "The library started collecting these things when the car first came on the scene," he explains. "In 1953, we became a separate department," and in 1988, the NAHC took over much of the fourth floor of the main Detroit library. Within its 11,000 square feet, the collection is a treasure trove of information about the evolution of the auto industry: the cars, the people who design them, and those who sell them. One of the most unusual items is a dealer manual conta ining paint samples of the various colors customers could choose when buying a 1937 Lincoln.
THE first periodicals date back to the early 1890s, and refer to the new phenomenon of "horseless" - or self-propelled - carriages. The NAHC's oldest book is "Notes on Motor Carriages," published in 1896 by John Henry Knight. On March 3 of that year, Charles King became the first man to drive a car on the streets of Detroit. A picture of that momentous event can be found in one of the NAHC's file cabinets. There is, in fact, a vast photographic archive, including file cabinets of pictures collected by th e defunct Packard Motor Co.
There is also the collection of Nathan Lazarnick, who chronicled the first decades of the automobile. But his collection also highlights other aspects of American life, including the days following the devastating San Francisco earthquake. Browse and burrow deep, and you'll turn up new car service manuals, even records of who bought what car and in which year. There are also detailed models of concept cars like the Firebird III. Even automotive jigsaw puzzles.
Among the biographies, researchers can tap the papers and personal collections of some of the auto industry's earliest pioneers, such as Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet. Grantz claims he knows of no scandals lurking amid the molding pages. But he says that if something too spicy turns up, it might be relegated to the library's locked vault.
For the moment, the entire collection is open to inspection 20 hours a week. And the NAHC draws a steady stream of inquiries. It has become the resource of choice for anyone who needs a definitive answer about automotive history, business details, or product specifications. Grantz estimates his overworked staff will field as many as 22,000 calls this year from as far away as Australia. He boasts that the NAHC always gets the answer - though it can occasionally take a while.
Access to the NAHC is free. For out-of-state callers, the library assesses a small search and photocopying fee.
Money is a big problem for Grantz's operation. The cash-strapped city provides only $6,000 a year for acquisitions, so the NAHC depends heavily on outside contributions. The Big Three automakers are prime sponsors, but Grantz also welcomes private contributions of cash or reference material.
Apparently, Grantz prefers standing. Any more material and the chairs are likely to disappear entirely.