When I visit a museum, a large part of what I’m looking to do is help educate my children. But too many museums, if you ask me, stupefy kids with boredom or insult them with hands-on activities that mostly just serve as germ depositories.
Not the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. With 80,000 square feet of space containing 130 cars and a new, updated permanent exhibit, it’s pretty appealing to kids — especially those old enough to remember driving some of the past models on display.
Even if listening to Dad wax nostalgic about the cool ’65 Mustang or ’59 Volkswagen camper just like the one he had back in the day is inexplicably less than thrilling, there’s still lots to attract drivers-to-be in “Driving America,” the revamped permanent exhibit that opens to the public Jan. 29.
Unlike the previous exhibit, which dated from 1987 and assumed that visitors were all highly knowledgeable and car-crazy, “Driving America” aims to capture the car’s impact on society. Fortunately, the folks who designed it remembered to keep the cultural analysis fun for kids.
Take the Texaco gas station exhibit. The service bay is equipped with a mock-up of a car that your young ones can slide under on a creeper to change the muffler. Look kids, the car is a ’64 Ford Falcon! Just like the one I had back in high — uh, never mind. No boring the kids, remember?
But really, swapping the muffler on this one looks way easier than it was to get that rusted piece of, uh, junk off my Falcon.
And speaking of salty language, “Driving America” includes a “Talk Like a Trucker” exhibit. No, it’s not meant to teach the tykes how to curse. The idea is to teach them the now-obscure citizens band radio slang that was the lingua franca of truck drivers in the 1970s. For some reason, popular culture became obsessed with this subculture for a few years, with people buying CB radios for their homes (“base stations”) to participate.
At the time, you could buy a vinyl LP (you know, those things the dance DJs use) to learn how to speak this arcane language. The museum has digitized that recording and put it into a touch-screen app that today’s kids can use to learn the meaning of such phrases as “Smokey Bear in a plain brown wrapper.” That means “a police officer in an unmarked car.” Maybe if Dave Barry got behind it, they’d launch Talk Like a Trucker Day to go with Talk Like a Pirate Day.
These kinds of cultural influences are the focus of “Driving America,” says automotive curator Bob Casey. It may seem like chiefly a cool collection of killer cars, such as the ’65 Pontiac GTO or the ’56 T-bird, but it’s also a look at the fact that the Beach Boys sang popular songs about both those models.
Cars and music, in fact, are the theme of the “Car-Tunes” touch-screen exhibit. Another touch-screen app teaches you how to drive a Ford Model T. It isn’t much like driving a modern car. Hint: The “gas pedal” is a lever on the steering wheel and the brake is a lever on the outside, poking through the running board.
The exhibit’s goal, according to Casey, is to have you look at the car from a point of view other than the driver’s. That means displays of a roadside diner and signs for White Castle, A&W, McDonald’s and HoJo’s, reflecting the many jobs that sprang up in support of the car and the experiences many of us had at such places.
It also explores why people want cars. Turns out, they didn’t want them at first. The 1865 Roper steam car wasn’t much more than a curiosity. People paid to see it go at fairs, gawking as though it was the bearded lady. But “there was no clamor for people to buy it,” Casey says. By 1896, however, when the Duryea, the first gasoline-powered commercial car, was introduced, Americans were desperate to buy automobiles.
Their attitudes changed again later, as they were repulsed by the terrible quality of such models as the ’78 Dodge Omni and the ’81 Ford Escort, which are also on display, as are an ’89 Honda Accord and an ’02 Toyota Prius.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s “America on the Move” exhibit is similar in theme to “Driving America.” But although the Henry Ford includes other forms of transportation, the museum is not surprisingly more car-centric than our hometown institution. Still, you know that monstrous green 300,000-pound Southern Railway No. 1401 steam locomotive you’ve seen in the Smithsonian? The Henry Ford has an astounding 778,000-pound Chesapeake & Ohio Railway 1601 that’s bigger still.
Nevertheless, Casey says that most visitors to “Driving America” are drawn to the cars that hold memories for them. Which is why you can find me on the creeper beneath the Falcon mock-up, trying to improve my muffler-changing technique so that I won’t be so maddeningly frustrated next time. Otherwise, I’d have an unfair advantage in a talk-like-a-trucker contest.
The Henry Ford
20900 Oakwood Blvd.
Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. $17, seniors $15, ages 5-12 $12.50, 4 and younger free.
Carney is a freelance automotive critic for MSNBC.com. He lives in Herndon.