Travelogue: Detroit – The Very First Time

Renaissance Center
All Photos by Randy Stern

Every year, I try to go to a new destination to visit. It has been a long standing tradition that has not held up some years, but when they do – they create great memories.

In 2006, I visited Detroit for the first time. It took me 42 years to get there – a long stretch considering I was some sort of “car guy.” However, it became a destination after my media work picked up, mostly on business. However, getting that chance to visit a city that is a vital destination in this work was indeed a bucket list line item fulfillment.

This first trip to Detroit was a short weekend excursion over Veteran’s Day in 2006. Let me recount the story itself. But I have to make this caveat that the city is evolving and changing. But, for that first time, I must say that the experience was indeed fulfilling on several levels.

The first day of any trip – to anywhere – was usually full of anxiety and uncertainty. However, that went away with a practically smooth run through the security checkpoint at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. This trip was done on Northwest Airlines – prior to its merger with Delta. I’ll admit that it was drama-free. I got there a bit late, but happy to get to Detroit. Hertz came through and had a 2006 Ford Fusion waiting for me. I was extremely happy and, yes, this car is fantastic!

2006 Ford Fusion at Ford World Headquarters

My first stop was to check in at my hotel, which I got a bit lost getting to. Mapquest’s directions can be a bit misleading – which sounds like most web or app-based mapping systems these days. Marriott offered up an extended stay brand called TownePlace Suites. They run it like a lodge/townhouse complex. The room is nice and will be a comfortable place for me to bed down for the two nights in town. My location couldn’t be any better. It’s in Dearborn, across from the Ford World Headquarters campus. I love the fact that it was located halfway between Metro Airport and downtown Detroit.

My run into downtown Detroit was made easier by the fact that everything was close by. One disappointment was at the Renaissance Center, where the “World of GM” was going through a renovation and was closed. Since then, this area became a showcase for all of the North American brands and their current products.

The People Mover is very convenient and easy to get around in. This covers the entire downtown area, connecting COBO Center with Greek Town, the stadiums, Foxtown, and other key parts of the city. The newest addition to the transportation picture in Detroit is the Q Line running down Woodward Avenue in downtown. I will make a note on checking that out my next time to Detroit.

While downtown, I took an interesting adventure. I jumped on Transit Windsor’s Tunnel Bus underneath the Detroit River into Canada. This was the first time I did a border crossing by land into Canada. This was far from the crossing I did ten years ago into Tijuana. Custom officers from both sides asked a battery of questions of me, but after their brief interrogation, I was let across and back. When you take the Tunnel Bus, every time you go through customs, they let you back on the bus to your destination. This was quite an interesting and, admittedly, an intimidating experience. Now, the same journey must be done with a passport. I have not done this border crossing since this first time.

Fox Theatre

Foxtown is Olympia Entertainment’s jewel in Detroit’s renaissance. Aside from the iconic Fox Theatre, the two newest sports nvenues for the city also share real estate in this part of downtown Detroit. I was impressed with both Ford Field and Comerica Park. At the Tiger’s store, I had a chat with a local who was praying for the recovery of Minnesota Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano…as long as he doesn’t come and beat up on the then-defending American League Champions that next season.

An early dinner was spent at the Hockeytown Cafe, another Olympia Entertainment property and a paean to all things Red Wings. Luckily, it’s a short walk back to the People Mover and the Joe Louis Arena. The arena was my final stop of this wonderful day with my first NHL game in seven seasons featuring the Red Wings and the Nashville Predators. My ticket inside The Joe said “obstructed view.” They weren’t kidding. I was shoved somewhere in a nook or cranny somewhere below the suites. You had to really stand to see all the action. Coming down those stairs made me a woozy.

In case everyone was wondering, the Red Wings won, 3-0. And the Red Wings no longer play at The Joe, since Little Ceasar’s Arena will open this coming fall.

Saturday began at the Henry Ford Museum and the first tour of the Rouge River Complex. As a dream of Henry’s to create an integrated manufacturing center, Ford gave itself an opportunity to convert this historic location into a showcase of modern automobile manufacturing combined with environmental stewardship. The Dearborn Assembly Plant made Ford F-150 and Lincoln Mark LT pickups for the 2007 model year. The plant continues to make certain F-150 pickup models today. Doesn’t seem odd to build a consumptive vehicle in an environmentally friendly facility. To see the Green Roof was amazing. To tour my first ever automobile manufacturing facility was even more breathtaking.

The Henry Ford Museum

Back at the Henry Ford Museum, perhaps the highlight of this place was to view and sit inside the Rosa Parks Bus. What was even more compelling than being on the bus was listening to a teacher who was with her two young children. Five years ago, the Henry Ford acquired the bus from its owner who had it in his backyard. Originally, the bus was to be sold to a museum in Chicago to be displayed outside. However, no one knew that it was going to the Henry Ford instead. When the bus showed up in Dearborn, the teacher took her students to see it at the Henry Ford’s storage area. The kids ran towards the bus, which was in disrepair and ready for its renovation. The kids stopped and began crying. When you see this bus, you can experience how powerful this symbol of our nation’s history truly is.

The automobile exhibit is not exactly a museum of everything that Ford made, but there is a significant area for the company’s history. The key to the Henry Ford exhibit is an overview of the automobile and its contribution to American life. From historically significant automobiles to the various uses the automobile was employed by its owners, you are treated to vehicles of many different eras and types.

The centerpiece of the Henry Ford’s automotive area is a long highway-like display encompassing 100 years of automobile history. You start from the first Ford Escort and the first Honda Accord made in the USA all the way back to the motorcar’s origins. Along the way, a historical explanation of each automobile is given as you go through the decades and the changes in the automobile on American soil.

Throughout the automobile area, you encounter everything from concept cars, racing cars, recreational vehicles, custom vehicles, Presidential limousines and displays showing cultural points of reference created by and for the automobile.

1986 Ford Taurus Design Concepts

Of personal interest is an extended display surrounding the 1986 Ford Taurus. The timing of witnessing each part of the display couldn’t have come at the right time after the closure of the Hapeville, Georgia plant that built its last Taurus a couple of weeks prior to my visit. This was the first time that I was able to see artifacts from the development process of this significant automobile and how it related to the development of today’s vehicles.

The only issue I had with the Henry Ford is the lack of light in this area. Photography was quite the challenge when it came to taking other photos throughout the exhibit. There was also another item that was listed on the web that I was unable to locate. Supposedly, there is a GM EV-1 at the Henry Ford that I could not find. I suppose the Henry Ford ultimately killed the electric car.

My last museum stop was the Walter P. Chrysler Museum on DaimlerChrysler’s (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) USA campus in Auburn Hills. The place was a paean to all things Chrysler, AMC and Jeep. There were plenty of things to see and do, but I came away with a greater appreciation for automobile history at this location. Compared to Henry Ford or anyone at GM, Chrysler was an unsung hero in terms of the automobile industry as he was more of an innovator than a tycoon trying to expand his business everywhere and anywhere.

In contrast to the paean to the collection of American history, the Walter P. Chrysler was a place washed with light to illuminate the efforts of the companies that eventually became the North American part of the merger with Daimler-Benz AG. Chrysler has always been a company that highlighted its engineering and design edge above the leading two North American automakers. At the Walter P. Chrysler, you get to experience these tenets of the company up close and personal.

Walter P Chrysler Museum

When I visited the Walter P. Chrysler, the staff was in the midst of decorating a holiday theme for each of its automobiles on the main two floors. This was also includes signage that reflected the era of the automobile in the context of the holiday season. The one thing that this museum does very well is provide relevant signage putting information about the era, the story behind the product and details about the item you are seeing.

On my first visit to the museum, I was able to view a great collection. This collection included a lovely 1934 Chrysler Airflow, an early-1950’s Hudson Hornet, a pristine late-1940’s Chrysler Town & Country convertible and a 1984 Plymouth Voyager in perfect condition. The collection continued down below the main two floors, down to the basement into the “Boss’s Garage.” Here is where you find Chrysler’s racing heritage along with a sampling of its various products, including vintage civilian Jeeps, classic truck models and the two greatest muscle cars ever: the Plymouth ‘Cuda and the Dodge Challenger. There was an “interactive” Dodge Viper down there for the kids, meaning you can sit in it and play with the shifter.

They have since closed the Walter P. Chrysler Museum to make way for new offices. A shame, really. It is my understanding that FCA has retained the archives and collection somewhere at the Auburn Hills campus. What really bothers me today is that we will never see this amazing collection in its entirety ever again.

A drive down Woodward Avenue and an early Sunday morning excursion into Ann Arbor capped off a weekend devoted to automobile heritage and the feeding of the enthusiast. Every time I talk cars with someone around town, I get an immediate invitation to come back for the Dream Cruise the following year. That remains on my bucket list to fulfill some year…

Joe Louis Fist 3

One thing I discovered on this first trip was the Michigan Left Turn. It is a practice where instead of turning left at the intersection, you drive past the street, make a legal u-turn and make a right turn instead. Confusing? Try it once! We have a few of them in Minnesota. I find them fascinating myself…

In the subsequent rips to Detroit and Southeastern Michigan, my time became more limited due to the nature of my trips. I did notch a North American International Auto Show under my belt in 2013, followed by two trips out to FCA’s Chelsea Proving Grounds west of Ann Arbor and a visit to Motor City Pride a couple of years ago. Each trip deepened my appreciation for the Motor City towards the next trip – whenever that happens.

Here’s my advice: You cannot be a proper car person without a visit to Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. There is always something happening that is worth checking out, like Pasteiner’s in Birmingham on Woodward Avenue where you can check out some cool cars every Saturday morning. Not to mention some yearly events, including the Woodward Dream Cruise and the Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti. Not to mention, taking on a huge dining scene in the city – starting with Vinsetta Garage in Berkley, Slow’s in Detroit…among other experiences.

I would love to return to Detroit and catch up on all of the updates around the city. My first time certainly opened up my eyes, as was the last time. Like I said…take a visit and enjoy Detroit from an automotive point-of-view.

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