Past Forward

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When should protecting something’s authenticity outweigh our entertainment?

Malcolm Collum has a dream job. He’s the chief conservator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. That means he gets to play (in the serious sense) with historic aircraft and spacecraft every day.

Before that, he was a senior conservator at The Henry Ford, where he was the last lucky person to drive Old 16 — the first American car to win America’s first great international auto race in 1908. 

But long before Collum put on his official conservator’s hat, he was a collector. The proud owner of a 1967 MG MGB GT since 1984 — that still resides in his garage — he happily remembers taking it to car shows, often one among many polished and preserved beauties waiting to be admired. Collum’s car, however, was different. 

“In high school and college, I always saw the value of the authentic, even if it meant showing a little age,” said Collum. As a result of that conservator- style mindset, Collum never restored his MG to a state of imperfect perfection, as he sees it, preferring to appreciate and preserve the car’s patina and slight blemishes.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, other people were drawn to the car’s authenticity, too. “In these car shows, you would have a line of MGs beautifully restored. They all looked the same,” he said. “People would just seem to gravitate toward me and my MG. They appreciated the subtle details that are often lost when you start replacing parts.”

The phenomenon witnessed by Collum at car shows with his MG isn’t necessarily new news. This trend toward seeing greater value in dings and dents versus shiny and new has been growing exponentially in car collector clubs and car show circuits over the past decade or so. The Concours d’Elegance shows, for example, have long had a Preservation Class as part of their awards, honoring unrestored, historically significant entries with intriguing stories attached to them. At Pebble Beach last year, it was a rare 1961 Ferrari 400 Superamerica Coupe that made one of the biggest splashes among the judges, car aficionados and media. Unrestored and as original as the day it left an Italian dealership, the car is one of the only untouched and remaining such Ferraris built with an aluminum-alloy body.

This public pull toward the rare object that shows its age with grace is trickling over to other collectible communities, too, from toys and watches to antique tower clocks. “It’s
the beauty of the survivor,” explained Collum. “It gets people’s attention and opens up discussion of their story.”

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW EFFECT
Collum’s recollections of his MG allude to bigger questions that fall far outside the realm of collectibles. Questions that conservators such as Mary Fahey, chief conservator at The Henry Ford, and Clara Deck, senior conservator, think about every day. Is it better to restore or conserve? Just because we can fix something — or make it look better — does that mean we should?

Watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS, noted Deck, and you’ll quickly understand the heated debate and the marked difference between the two methodologies and mindsets. So often on the show, appraisers tell hopeful object owners that if only they hadn’t refurbished that chair or made that repair it would be worth thousands more.

“It’s called the Antiques Roadshow Effect,” said Deck. “People are starting to rethink notions about historic objects. Yes, anything can be restored if you throw enough money at it, but do you really want to?

Not to say that the conservator doesn’t appreciate the art or skill behind restoration or understand its place. At The Henry Ford, restoration is a daily practice in Greenfield
Village’s T Shed and roundhouse, where talented machinists, mechanics, engineers and expert hobbyists do whatever it takes to maintain the historical integrity of the institution’s Ford Model T’s and steam locomotives, while keeping them operational so they can provide a moving visitor experience. If a part breaks or fails, it must be repaired or replaced so the machine can run. Sometimes historical methods of repair and replacement such as pouring castings make sense, sometimes they don’t.

Where things can get gray between restoration and conservation, said Collum, is when you’re dealing with that rare, special item and what you should do with it. “I understand the innate joy people get in restoring things. When you take something tattered and worn and make it look new again. But what if you took an artifact like Old 16 — original paint, glorious varnish on the wheels — and restored it? It would ruin it. Make it a bad replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

clara working on paint


BEHIND THE SCENES

The Henry Ford recently faced its own conservation conundrum when one of its prized artifacts, a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, was damaged in transit for an event in England. This was the U.S.-built race car/engine driven by American auto racing legends Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt that won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. An all-American feat yet to be repeated.

While The Henry Ford does most of its conservation, restoration and repair work in-house in its Conservation Lab, a team of curators and conservators decided to send the vehicle to Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in Santa Ana, California, for careful inspection and treatment. “The project was the perfect merging of car restoration and conservator ethics,” said Fahey.

The ‘67 Ford GT40 was in Gurney’s shop for nine months. The directive was not to repaint or replace, only to disassemble and catalog damage, and make approved repairs where absolutely necessary.

“If this would have been a restoration, we would have taken parts off the car, replated, repolished, replaced. Made it look better than new,” said Justin Gurney, All American Racers’ CEO and racing icon Dan Gurney’s son. “Conservation is way different. We needed to leave the car just as it was when it came off the track.”

That meant green potted-plantlike foam found under the lower rocker panels was left as is because it was related to modifications made on the fly by the Ford team for better aerodynamics. Panels that had notes on the back — written in black marker by Ford team member Phil Remington — also remain. Cracks in the windshield, fiberglass and paint weren’t repaired either because they occurred during the historic race.

“One specialist at the 1967 Le Mans race had told us they remembered the crack in the windshield,” said Fahey. “It was important to us to keep it as part of the car’s race story.” According to Le Mans racing lore, the crack most likely occurred as the crew jumped on and rode atop the car in celebration after the big win.

Fahey said Gurney’s team went so far as to send her bags of paint chips, which popped off as the team disassembled and repaired the car. In-painting to repair damage to the car’s surface was later painstakingly completed in The Henry Ford’s Conservation Lab by senior conservator Deck.

The one thing Justin Gurney would have loved to do that certainly didn’t fall into the conservation column: Start the engine. He didn’t, of course. “We really wanted to get the motor running. Would have loved to hear that thing fire up,” he said. That would have required extensive restoration and replacement of parts that weren’t part of The Henry Ford’s conservation plan for the car.

“I see both sides of the story now,” said Gurney, who had never participated in a conservation effort of this scale before. “A lot of cars that sit in our museum are better than new. Sometimes it’s better to leave things alone. You can over-restore something.”

RESPONSIBLE UTILIZATION
Gurney’s revelation speaks to every museum’s ethical responsibility to its collections and its visitors, and how it determines when an artifact should be preserved and when it should be utilized in some state to entertain or educate.

Conservators would cringe at the idea of restoring the engine of the ‘67 GT40, turning the ignition key and taking it for a 200-mile-per-hour spin on a racetrack purely to entertain a crowd. Then the car quickly becomes more of a replica than an authentic
artifact with a compelling history of use worth preserving. “As tempting as it might be to put the pedal to the metal and show off, an artifact is not there for our personal gratification or to massage our egos,” said Collum.

“I call it consumptive adoration. There is lots of pressure to operate mechanical artifacts in the museum communities, but it comes to a point where we can love something to death, where we consume it by using it and the artifact deteriorates and is lost.”

Circling back to Collum’s story of his unrestored MG or the rare Ferrari, it seems that more people might be joining this conservator’s camp. That there is this societal shift happening, where both collectors and observers are beginning to see the value in
leaving things alone, keeping them in an original state rather than making them appear better than new.

And, as Collum explained, you know an idea is starting to go mainstream when a rogue group bubbles to the surface and tries to take advantage of what’s popular without actually understanding why it’s popular. “You’ve got people at car shows now that are trying to fake it up or Disney it up,” he said. “They are ‘unrestoring’ what they have already restored because they think it’s more glamorous and likely to win — latching on to an idea without fully understanding its meaning.”

By Jennifer LaForce





SAVING A SURFACE
Envision a car fender, bumped and bruised, with deep scratches in its paint. Most collision and body shops wouldn’t even bother trying to patch or cover, opting instead to just strip the paint, repair the damage and repaint the entire panel with sophisticated power spray guns for the best results.

Now, imagine those bumps, tears and missing areas of paint on a historic race car that belongs to The Henry Ford. While Dan Gurney’s All American Racers made careful repairs to the body of the 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV after it was damaged in transit, the painting was left to Clara Deck, senior conservator at The Henry Ford. Using a
technique called in-painting, which is the same technique art conservators would use to repair a famous painting or print, Deck spent hours color-matching pigments, creating her own custom blend of wax/resin paste. She then applied it over repaired tears, in between cracks, around rivets and in areas missing paint — all by hand with small
brushes, heated spatulas, irons and a hot-air tool.

All the work done by Deck is reversible and can be easily removed if required — a statement to the conservator’s pledge to maintain an artifact’s authenticity. Maybe even more interesting, Deck only filled in the cracks and blemishes caused by the transit damage. Cracks known to exist on the car’s surface as collateral damage from its hard-fought win were left as is, each representing its own small chapter in the story of the all-American win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

 

classic cars, conservation

Detroit Autorama 2016: Hot Rods, Customs and Classics at Cobo
"Jade Idol II,” built as a tribute to master customizer Gene Winfield’s original, is typical of the Detroit Autorama’s top-tier cars.

Even in the dead of winter, it’s never a long wait around here for the next car show. Soon after the North American International Auto Show closes its doors, we look forward to the Detroit Autorama, the annual show featuring the best in custom cars and hot rods. The 2016 show, held February 26-28, did not disappoint with some 800 vehicles spread over 750,000 square feet in Cobo Center.

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Concept cars of the 1950s were spotlighted. This ’54 Chrysler La Comtess came from FCA’s Walter P. Chrysler Museum. The show car was designed expressly to appeal to women.

Autorama always draws participants from throughout the United States and Canada, but its international reach is growing. This year’s show included a 1976 Ford Falcon from Australia. (The Falcon nameplate survived Down Under long after its U.S. demise in 1970.) Aftermarket performance parts companies, like Summit and Edelbrock, are long-time fixtures at the show, but the Detroit Three are now established exhibitors, too. No, you won’t find the latest models at Cobo, but the 2016 show did include a Chrysler Turbine from Fiat Chrysler’s Walter P. Chrysler Museum, a selection of concept Cadillacs from the GM Heritage Center, and the 1995 Lincoln L2K roadster from Ford Motor Company.

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Rat rodders reject the immaculate presentations favored by most customizers. They don’t get much rattier than this “1940ish” “Chevyish” beast.

Some participants describe Autorama as “the Oscars of the car show world” – a fitting comparison given that Sunday’s Autorama award ceremony took place on the same night as the Academy Awards. This year’s Ridler Award, Autorama’s top prize, went to a gorgeous 1939 Oldsmobile owned by Billy Thomas of Georgetown, Texas. The Ridler, named for early Autorama promoter Don Ridler, may be the most prestigious honor in the custom car hobby. It’s only given to vehicles that are being shown publically for the first time. If you don’t win, there’s no second chance. Winners enjoy a certain immortality. Their names are engraved on the trophy for all time, and photos of their cars enter the online Winner Archive where they inspire new generations of Autorama contestants. The $10,000 that comes with the prize isn’t too shabby, either.

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Not every Autorama entrant is a hot rod. There are a few straight restorations, like this 1966 Chevy Chevelle convertible, in the mix.

As in past years, The Henry Ford awarded its own trophy at the Autorama ceremony. Our Past Forward Award honors the vehicle that best combines the inspirations of the past with the innovative technologies of the present. We also look for a vehicle that exhibits the highest craftsmanship and, in the end, is simply a lot of fun.

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B.J. Boden’s 1985 Ford Ranger, a take on a scaled-down semi tractor, won The Henry Ford’s Past Forward Award.

Our Past Forward winner this year was B.J. Boden of Temperance, Michigan. Inspired by the ever-present semi truck, Boden took a 1985 Ford Ranger and fashioned it into his own little big rig. Boden’s extended cab, complete with suicide doors, came from two donor Rangers and a Chevy Suburban roof. His grille is from a 1952 Ford F2 pickup, while the dashboard came from a 1962 Ford Falcon. True to form, Boden replaced the Ranger’s engine with a turbocharged four-cylinder Cummins diesel. The wood-lined bed features a functional exhaust stack (that belches black smoke when Boden fires up the engine) and a suitably-scaled hitch ball in place of a fifth wheel. It’s a beautiful job, all the more so because Boden did much of the work himself.

All in all, it was another fantastic year at Cobo Center. Warmer weather means it won’t be long before we start seeing some of these great cars back out on the streets.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

car shows

leap year

Leap year--when an extra day is added to the calendar as February 29--offered a special "opportunity" for women. In folk tradition, it was only then that women could propose marriage. Nowadays, marriage proposals are fair game for either gender. In the early 1900s, postcards like this one were an inexpensive and novel way to send colorful greetings to family and friends.

Dated 1908, this leap year postcard was sent in April of that year and created by the Paul C. Koeber company.

leap-year-back

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life.

 

EI.1929.2469

When Henry Ford acquired a small house located just a few miles from his winter residence at Richmond Hill, Georgia, he believed it was either a tenant farmer’s house or the house of a plantation overseer. Later research revealed it was in fact the home of the African American Mattox family, built in 1879 on their own land. Visit Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village today, and you’ll learn about Amos and Grace Mattox and the children they raised in the house during the 1930s. We’ve just digitized some images related to the house, such as this contact sheet from the opening celebration held on August 8, 1991. View more Mattox-related images by visiting our digital collections.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

The Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village. THF 1882

Many of the homes of Greenfield Village are often admired for their architectural design and the historic furnishings displayed within them, but the really true connections are made when all of this can be combined with the stories of the people who actually lived there. The Noah Webster House, originally from New Haven, Connecticut, is no exception.

Portrait of Noah Webster, painted by Samuel Morse in 1823, and Rebecca Greenleaf Webster, painted by Jared Bradley Flagg, c. 1835.

This was home to Noah Webster’s family, and their descendants for nearly 100 years. It was purchased by Henry Ford in 1936, dismantled and shipped to Dearborn to become part of his collection of historic buildings. Greenfield Village combines the homes and workplaces of both notable Americans and those that lead everyday lives. Most show life as it was before fame. In the case of the Webster House, the opposite is true.

By the time Noah had the house built in 1822, the American Revolution was nearly 50 years past and he was among the last of the old patriots. He was viewed as one of the great American scholars and intellectuals, and a true celebrity. The Websters' New Haven home, through the 1820s and well into the 1830s, was essentially an American salon, welcoming notables in the worlds of politics, art, education, and literature. According to recent biographer Harlow Giles Unger, during the early 1830s “the Webster home was a center of social activity-for the Yale faculty, for visiting clergymen, the old Federalists, and for noted figures.” In a letter written by Rebecca Webster to her daughter she states, “I have had a large party with as many of the faculty as we could cram in. The party went off well, for all seemed happy.” In addition to notable guests, a growing brood of Webster grandchildren (20 by 1836) came for frequent and extended visits. When the oldest grandsons attended Yale starting in the early 1830s, Rebecca entertained them and their friends with musical parties, “old-time frolics”, and at least one costume ball. Continue Reading

 

A Swell Head,” ca. 1855 THF 126861

There is no other day like Valentine’s Day. It is a day in which we are strongly encouraged—by tradition, by our peers, by merchandisers and greeting card manufacturers—to express our positive feelings for another person. Generally, these feelings relate to love, affection, friendship.  Valentine’s Day cards are an easy way to communicate one’s feelings, preventing the sender from having to say these things in person. Often we find—in the plethora of cards available today ranging from humorous to “hot”—that the sentiment written in the card expresses exactly what we want to say better than if we’d said it in person.

Valentine’s Day cards have long served this purpose. During the late 1800s, most of these cards were frilly, draped with images of cherubs, birds, and flower garlands, and dripping with sweet sentimental verses. Intended to be sent to family members or sweethearts, these fit the moral tone and maudlin sentimentality of the era. Continue Reading

valentine cards, vinegar Valentines

EI.1929.2437

Many of the buildings that Henry Ford collected to create Greenfield Village are presented to match their original function—the Wright Home, for example, is set up as it might have been when the Wrights lived there. One building that has had multiple functions within the Village, though, is a machine shop built in Lapeer, Michigan, in 1888. Henry Ford met William and John McDonald, the two brothers who ran the shop their father started, and collected their building for the Village, where it now sits near the Glass Shop in Liberty Craftworks. For much of its history in the Village it has been a functional or maintenance space, but there are plans in the works to give it a bold new presence. We’ve just digitized several dozen photos that show the machine shop on its original site, including this exterior shot—visit our digital collections to see all of these images, and watch for news about this building’s future.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

 

Chest of drawers after conservation.

This beautifully embellished chest of drawers was made between 1800 and 1810 in New England, probably New Hampshire. The decorative quarter fan motif, the nicely figured mahogany and birdseye maple veneer make this an elegant example of the Federal style.

On August 11, 2014, six-plus inches of rain fell in Dearborn over several hours, causing a backup of the drainage pumps on Henry Ford Museum’s rooftop.  Water infiltrated the museum’s furniture storage area damaging many artifacts. With generous financial assistance from the Americana Foundation we have been able to direct resources to the conservation of this and other treasures that were damaged during the flood. Continue Reading

Part of the virtual visit you can now make to the Ford Rouge Factory Tour within Google Cultural Institute.

We're very pleased to announce that we are launching a new partnership between The Henry Ford and the Google Cultural Institute, available to anyone with Internet access here. The Google Cultural Institute platform features over 1,000 cultural heritage institutions worldwide, and more than 6 million total artifacts, “putting the world’s cultural treasures at the fingertips of Internet users and … building tools that allow the cultural sector to share more of its diverse heritage online” (in Google’s own words). Continue Reading

prius-toyota

When we look at an automobile, we are moved by what we see on the outside – its styling. But what moves the car is on the inside – its engine. Please join us for a rare look under the hoods of some of the finest automobiles at Henry Ford Museum. More than 40 cars have their engines exposed for you.

Here, Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, describes some of his favorites.

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Engines Exposed: 2002 Toyota Prius

Gasoline Engine: Inline 4-cylinder engine, double overhead cam, 91 cubic inches displacement, 76 horsepower

Electric Motor: AC, permanent magnet, 33 kilowatt, 44 horsepower

Hybrid cars are an old idea, but their moment arrived with the Toyota Prius. The car’s gas and electric power plants sit side-by-side. The electrical inverter, on top of the electric motor, converts DC current from the batteries into AC used by the motor. That motor becomes a generator during braking, turning kinetic energy from the car’s momentum into electricity fed back to the batteries.

engines