Car History & Auto Shows in Detroit

July 26, 2022 | Story by Jennifer LaForce | Photos by Bill Bowen

A few years back, The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation took the wraps off its all-new premier permanent exhibit, Driving America. With that moniker, it could be easy to conclude this exhibit is just about cars, but don’t bet on it.

Driving America is more about the people that drive the cars than the cars themselves, said Bob Casey, the former senior curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. “Most other auto exhibits focus on the car – the technology behind it, the designer that created it, the company that built it. These are the standard lenses we seem to always use when looking at the car from a historical perspective. Driving America is different. It thoroughly examines the car from a perspective seldom viewed, that of the user.”

Those users are you and me, whether we own a car – or two or three – rent a car, ride in taxis, take the bus, or choose to coexist with traffic on foot or by bike. So whether you’re a car buff or someone who considers them a necessary evil, Driving America offers up an opportunity to learn a little bit more about yourself.

One of the most expansive automotive-centric experiences in the museum world, Driving America gives curators plenty of space to expertly map out an excursion that’s complete, easy to navigate, and highly interactive.

Driving America has more than 100 vehicles on display, from hybrids and electric cars to muscle cars, racers, and modern-day SUVs. Be sure to check out the 1931 Bugatti Royale Type 41. It’s a stunner. Like it a little more rugged? Feast your eyes on the 1943 Willys Jeep that was made famous during World War II.

Some of these vehicles are part of the Driving America Timeline, which offers a quick glimpse of the exhibit’s major themes and stories. Others are dispersed throughout the exhibit’s 20 focal areas that cover everything from hot rods and road trips to racing.

Henry Ford Museum Driving America interactive display

Driving America at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation by Bill Bowen

Interactive Learning

What’s interesting about the vehicles on display is that they aren’t just eye candy, but often act as a springboard for an interactive learning experience that helps you discover more. Some 18 large touch screens are sprinkled throughout the exhibit, offering hundreds of additional details, images, videos, and oral histories.

“We wanted to develop content around what visitors are seeing,” said Casey. “All of the interactives are designed to be more than stilted lectures or just engaging games and novelties, but learning experiences and activities that use artifacts from the entire Henry Ford collection.” (The Henry Ford has more than 26 million artifacts in its collection if you were wondering.)

With the tap of an icon on a screen, you can hear fascinating stories about how cars are interwoven in so many of our lives’ milestones and memories – from that first kiss at the drive-in and that favorite childhood road trip to grandma’s house to the drive home from the hospital with your newborn buckled up tight in the car seat.

Best of all, as you curate your own custom collection, you can set it up so you can take it with you. A handy Driving America smart card, given to you when you enter the exhibit, can store what you experience and then digitally transfer your personalized compilation for online viewing later.

To heighten the interactivity, you can fill out a copy of the original marketing survey that Ford Motor Company mailed to people in the ’40s to determine which features consumers wanted in their next vehicle. Ford designers actually considered many of these as they developed an all-new product lineup for 1949.

You can then participate in an eHarmony-type matching exercise that will ask you to describe your favorite vehicle features and then connect you with a car from the museum collection that best suits your personality.

Or take a minute and learn to talk like a trucker. Keep your mind out of the gutter, though – we’re talking CB radio here. This interactive allows you to listen to a recording of an album created at the height of the CB radio craze and learn the lingo. Have a blast trying out your best trucker impersonation as you drawl, “Breaker, breaker, good buddy. What’s your handle?”

Once you’ve tapped away at the touch screens and taken in all the cars, keep your eyes peeled for Lamy’s. It’s hard to miss. A gleaming blue-enameled beacon in the middle of it all, Lamy’s is the quintessential diner, completely restored and ready to serve. Sit down at the counter, slide into a booth or grab a chair on the attached patio and enjoy a coffee and sweet treat.

Beyond the fun and games and even the food, Driving America tells an inspiring story that gives you a little better perspective on how one of this world’s greatest innovations has affected you and everything around you, from the shape of our cities and the foods we eat to how we choose to spend our leisure time.

And what’s even greater about Driving America is that it lives in the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, so you can easily step outside the exhibit boundaries and take in another fantastic, completely different experience.

You’ll see an authentic reproduction of the Wright brothers’ flyer, get an up-close look at the limo President John F. Kennedy was riding in that fateful November day in Dallas, and consider the moment Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat as you sit in the actual bus where her actions helped spark the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks bus

Auto Shows & Car Cruises in Metro Detroit

Need to fill your senses with more about cars? Here are a few other auto-lovin’ events happening in and around The D that might interest you.

  • Cruisin Downriver packs half a million people into Downriver each June to pay homage to the automobile. There’s good food, great people-watching, awesome oldies and of course lots of cars, from T-Birds and Chevys to Mustangs and more. Cruisers cruise Downriver’s anchor cities, including Southgate and Lincoln Park to Riverview and Wyandotte.
  • Mount Clemens Cruise is the D’s oldest car cruise and continues to entertain, amaze and draw in big crowds of classic car owners and lovers along Gratiot Avenue. In addition to the cars, there’s a kids zone for the youngsters, and we can only hope the flame-throwing contest will be brought back again this year.
  • The Woodward Dream Cruise is the world’s largest single-day automotive event, bringing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars, street rods, and special interest vehicles each year from around the world.
  • The North American International Auto Show is a city-wide event as well as a traditional auto show within Huntington Place. Don’t miss this indoor and outdoor city-wide celebration of mobility in Detroit!

For more car-centric events, check out our events page.

Auto show Ford exhibit


Car Museums

The variety of institutions that pay homage to the automobile in The D is just crazy good. Take your pick from some of these additional area favorites or try to squeeze them all in during your visit – they’re worth it.

The Automotive Hall of Fame

Located next door to The Henry Ford, the Automotive Hall of Fame celebrates the contributions of the men and women who pioneered automotive innovations. Think Henry Ford, Eiji Toyoda, Walter P. Chrysler, Soichiro Honda, and many others. The venue is also home to the Hall of Honor, which is considered one of the largest single pieces of automotive fine art, along with Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle, which is on display at the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts. The Automotive Hall of Fame also has a full-size replica of the world’s first gas-powered automobile and many other four-wheeled beauties.

GM World

The GM World space showcases the company’s latest vehicles and provides a year-round auto show experience for visitors. Visitors can get up close and personal with the vehicles and have their questions answered by product specialists. Throughout the year, GM World will feature a rotating, curated display with the current theme being General Motors: Inspired by our past, committed to our future. This highlights some of the key modern and vintage vehicles focusing on electrification, innovation, technology, and design.

Ford Piquette Avenue Plant/model T Automotive Heritage Complex

Walk the plank floors where the first 12,000 Ford Model Ts were assembled. This is the actual birthplace of the most significant automobile of the 20th century. It’s where Henry Ford got his start. You’ll learn about his story of innovation, his early successes, his many false starts, and the failures that drove him to do better next time.

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Mentioned Attractions And Venues

  1. 1
    The Henry Ford
    20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124
  2. 2
    400 Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI 48243, United States