Early in October, my darling bride announced that she wanted to take me on a get-a-way weekend someplace for my birthday. She suggested going to Galena, Illinois, an area steeped in history and beautiful scenery, especially in the fall. We wanted to return to Stoney Creek Inn, which were the accommodations for the “Great River Road Tour” about twenty years ago. Unfortunately, the place was booked solid. In fact all of the places in the area were either booked or really expensive.
Pondering the possible alternatives, I recalled the Gilmore Auto Museum. The museum is located outside of Hickory Corners, Michigan, about 15 miles northeast of Kalamazoo. Gilmore is the largest auto museum in the United States, featuring nearly 400 automobiles on display. It is also the site of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Auto Faire held each August. Mrs. Sarro was fully agreeable to this suggestion, so we made our reservations and began making the plans.
The Gilmore Auto Museum is situated on a vast 90 acre complex. It was founded by Donald S. Gilmore to initially house his own collection of restored automobiles. The main building or “Heritage Center” serves as the entrance to the museum, and is actually a composite of seven exhibit galleries. Entering the first gallery, you first meet the exhibit for Karl Benz, the man credited for having created the first automobile. Included is a working replica of his “Motorwagon” which he developed in 1885. The other cars in this gallery are part of the “Donald S. Gilmore Collection”.
Entering the café, you come face to face with the No. 14 race car. This is the sister car to the one driven by A.J. Foyt to win his record breaking fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1977. If the Gilmore name on the car seems familiar, you’d be right, because Kalamazoo businessman Jim Gilmore, Donald Gilmore’s nephew, sponsored A.J.’s racing team from 1973 to 1985.
The other interconnected halls include the “30’s Gallery”, the “50’s-60’s Gallery”, the “Steam Barn” which features horseless carriages up to 1916, the “Lincoln Motorcar Heritage Museum”, and the “Franklin Collection”. Instead of being lined up side-by-boring-side, the automobiles are tastefully displayed at random on the gallery floor. This allows the visitor to walk all around the cars, getting optimum views and photographs without the hindrance of protective ropes. Huge oversized photographs, banners or replica advertisements from period hang on the walls, along with relevant artifacts to add interest.
The “Special Exhibit Gallery” featured “The Golden Age of Sports Cars, 1949-1967”, which had just opened on October first. This exhibit included many familiar sports cars… MGs, Triumphs, and Jaguars, an Alfa Romeo Guilia and Bug-eye Sprite, a pair of Corvettes, a Shelby Cobra and GT 350, a Mercedes 300 SL, and a Morgan Plus 4. The stars for this exhibit were a bright yellow Ferrari 275 GTB/4 belonging to Nicolas Cage, and Janis Joplin’s 356 Porsche, sporting a psychedelic paint job. Janis’ Porsche was missing for some reason, but a very nice red 356 coupe stood in to substitute. But the car that really stood out from the bunch was a wee red 1962 Lotus Elite S2, with the nicest paint finish ever to grace a fiberglass body. The car was flawless, save for a slightly deranged front bumperette, which only made itself known through the photographs. Once again, period photographs, advertisements and related artifacts complimented the cars on display. This exhibit will be on display through April 1st, 2017.
Once through the Heritage Center galleries, we explored the many outbuildings housing even more automobiles and collectibles. The “Campania Barn” is a huge 2 story structure built in 1897. It was relocated to Gilmore and now features pre-WWII cars instead of livestock and hay. The “Ford Model A Museum” has all things related to the Model A. A replica “Train Depot” houses the museum’s mascot and badge collection. The “Classic Car Club of America” has its own building, displaying American Luxury cars from 1091 through 1938. The “Carriage House” contains only a part of the Hudson Collection of Eldon Hostetler. Several other buildings are dedicated to Cadillac-LaSalle, Pierce-Arrow, motorcycles, pedal cars, and architectural miniatures.
There were two more items of interest to visit. One was a replica of a Shell gas station from the 1930’s, complete with the old visible, clock-face, and early electric gasoline pumps. The building featured a service bay, and all manner of signs, oil bottles and cans and other petrolinia in the office. The other was the “Blue Moon Diner”, an actual ‘40s era diner that was relocated from Meriden, Connecticut. Although a bit confining, the diner is fully functional, serving up sandwiches, ice cream, pie, and a variety of beverages. We sampled a BBQ pork sandwich, a cherry pie, and a locally brewed root beer… Very good!
After lunch, we visited the few buildings remaining to be explored. Towards the end, we had pretty much found ourselves all “car’d out”. Returning to the Heritage Center where we started from, we visited the Gift Shop which offers many different kinds of mementos of a memorable visit. The Heritage Center also includes an exhaustive research library, and a moderate sized theater that continuously plays a video to help introduce visitors to the museum.
It was an enjoyable if somewhat exhausting day. There were so many neat cars to see, and so much history to learn about. The museum staff are very knowledgeable and eager to share that knowledge with their visitors. The web site for the Gilmore Auto Museum provides even more detail and information than there is room for here. For any auto enthusiast, it is a highly recommended place to visit. And by all means, check out the “The Golden Age of Sports Cars” exhibit. In all, it was a great birthday experience.