Jukeboxes to Happy Meals: on the road in America. Dearborn's Ford Museum re-creates era of the automobile

The 20th century could rightly be called ``the era of the automobile.'' Few modern inventions have had such a profound impact on life, not only in America, but around the world as well. The car has shaped the way we live: how we work, where we stay while on the road - even how we eat.

Until now, those museums that have allotted space to the subject have eviscerated the soul of the automobile. Their displays consist of forever-silenced relics of the past - their gas tanks drained and batteries removed.

Small placards declare the year of manufacture and a few other technical details of interest only to the more knowledgeable car buffs. These exhibits ignore the real significance of the automobile and its role in American culture.

But at least one exhibit attempts to put the role of the automobile as a cultural icon into perspective.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., presents ``The Automobile in American Life,'' a permanent exhibit replacing a decades-old, classic display of historic automobiles. It serves those looking for the broader meaning of ``on the road,'' but at the same time won't disappoint the automotive enthusiast.

The stars of the show are still the cars, of course.

Among the 109 vehicles on display, there are more than enough antique Nashes, Packards, Hudsons, and Chevrolet Bel Airs.

The museum went to tremendous lengths to obtain some of the rarer vehicles on display, including a Chrysler Airflow truck, GM's 1959 Firebird III show car, and USA-001 - a Honda Accord that was the first Japanese car made in America.

The most difficult car to obtain was a classic American hot rod from the 1950s. After a seemingly endless search, museum curators just found what they were looking for: a chopped and channeled 1932 Ford roadster with a Chrysler engine that had been stored in a garage in California for 30 years.

What sets ``The Automobile in American Life'' apart from other automotive exhibits, however, is its vast and well-coordinated display of automotive trivia and memorabilia - everything from 75-year-old maps to a full-size original McDonald's sign. Remember when there was only one golden arch, and burger sales were measured in the millions?

``Our old exhibit certainly met the needs of the car enthusiast,'' says Harold Skramstad, president of the museum. ``All you had to do was put the car out there, and they'd know what to look for, what story it would tell.''

But that wasn't enough.

``We don't want to preach to the already converted,'' he adds. ``We want to involve people in history.''

Most of the exhibit is divided up by themes.

In one section, museum visitors see some of the many roadside signs that lured travelers of earlier generations in for a fast meal and a cup of coffee.

There's a classic silver diner, where the pie is always fresh, the coffee always hot, and the jukebox is always blaring out the latest songs from the Andrews sisters and Nat King Cole.

Elsewhere there's an early tourist camp, with a collection of campers and Airstream trailers. A drive-in theater endlessly entertains visitors with a film on the car and American culture.

A 1940s Texaco station features a streamlined gasoline tanker and display ads for some of the technological wonders of the day, including Rhino-flex tires - guaranteed never to go flat.

Other exhibits illustrate the painstaking process of making a car from idea to production.

The only chronological portion of the exhibit, the so-called ``spine,'' begins by taking you back to the year 1896, to the birth of the American car industry with the Duryea, the country's first mass-produced automobile.

Moving along through the age of the automobile, you view not only the most representative vehicles of each period, but a collection of magazines, ads, road signs, and other memorabilia. TV monitors run newsreel clips and industrial films, documenting the life of past generations.

This is the first major change at the Ford Museum in more than 50 years, says Mr. Skramstad.

``We're far more sophisticated today than in the past,'' he explains.

``We're living in the age of television. To communicate with people today, you have to use different techniques than you did in 1929 when the museum was dedicated by automotive pioneer, Henry Ford.''

If there is a single message from this exhibit, says Skramstad, it's that ``all our lives have been transformed by the automobile. We are in a culture that has been dominated and created by the automobile.''

The Henry Ford Museum is in the western Detroit suburb of Dearborn, off the Southfield Freeway (M-39), near Interstates 75 and 94. The museum is open daily, from 9-5, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission is $8.50 for adults, $4.25 for children, and $7.50 for senior citizens.

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