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Preserving automotive history costs big bucks

Wed, 29 Jan 2014

$1.8 million is spent each year to maintain GM's fleet of 600 production and concept cars.

When at least two of the Detroit Three were on the verge of death a few years back, one of the tough questions that was asked of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler execs – outside of why execs were still taking private planes to meetings – was why each company maintained huge archives of old production and concept vehicles. GM, for example, had an 1,100-vehicle collection when talk of a federal bailout began.

"Heritage," Greg Wallace, the manager for GM's Heritage Center, told Automotive News. "We've got a great history, and his is how you tell the story." There's a more pragmatic purpose for the collection, though. "It's important for design and research," Wallace said. "There's a reason the new Camaro looks like the 1969 Camaro." On top of the cars, GM's collections contains things as diverse as old advertisements, mechanical blueprints and even paint swatches from classic models, all at the ready for an employee that needs inspiration. In the end, GM did curb the size of its collection. "We had to ask ourselves: Did we really need to keep 60 different Monte Carlos from 2002 to 2006?" Wallace said. Yet even with the downsized collection, $1.8 million is spent each year by the company to maintain an aging fleet of 600 production and concept cars.

GM's collection isn't unusual, either. Chrysler maintained a 300-vehicle archive on the grounds of its headquarters (shown above). Unlike GM's Heritage Collection, though, Chrysler closed its museum in 2012 when attendance fell, selling many of its vehicles.

Japanese brands, meanwhile, have had their own troubles. In Nashville, Nissan maintains a fleet of concepts in the basement of the Lane Museum. It's not open for show. A larger, 280-vehicle archive of the brand's products sits in a more dedicated museum at its Zama, Japan battery factory. While it sees 5,000 visitors per year, guided about by 12 volunteers, the collection is incomplete and the battery operations are threatening to expand into the collection's space.

Other brands have been luckier. In Germany, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen all maintain mammoth collections of vehicles in artsy, high-dollar museums. AN reports that Porsche dropped $130 million to build a museum for 80 of its models in 2009. It now draws two-million visitors annually, each paying $11 for entry. Mercedes, meanwhile, has a collection covering its 114 years of car building that has brought in over 5 million visitors.

What are your thoughts? Is it worthwhile to maintain these huge collections, despite their considerable expense? Could American manufacturers be doing more to promote their collections? Let us know what you think in Comments.

By Brandon Turkus

See also: First-ever Porsche headed home to company museum, Chrysler nets $1.6B income in Q4, Fiat profit up 5%, National Geographic Channel balances Ford F-150 on four coffee mugs.