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Auto pioneers inspiring

October 12, 2009

Auto pioneers inspiring

Automotive Hall of Fame deserves everyone’s attention


Here’s the problem in a nutshell, or maybe in a hubcap. Jeff Leestma, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame, was chatting with a retired autoworker at a car show.

The guy was smack in the middle of the Hall of Fame’s target audience — knowledgeable, enough of a car buff that he had stopped to admire Leestma’s 1949 Hudson, and blessed with plenty of spare time. Leestma mentioned what he does for a living, which essentially is to oversee and applaud the legacy of the car business from a snappy stand-alone building on the campus of The Henry Ford.

"I really do have to get over there," the guy said, and Leestma agreed with him, and then he asked where the retiree lived.

"Dearborn," the man said.

Dearborn? Dearborn? "He could probably walk here!" Leestma says.

As far as Leestma is concerned, the 241 assorted pioneers, visionaries and geniuses who’ve been inducted into the Hall should be instantly recognizable. Kids should collect their trading cards and pets should carry their names: "Here, Gottlieb Daimler! Here, boy!"

That’s not going to happen — but we could at least stop by once in a while.

A well-kept secret

Lots of places claim to be Metro Detroit’s best-kept secret. The Automotive Hall of Fame, or AHF to its insufficient number of friends, might just win the prize.

The Henry Ford Museum uses cars to teach about people. The AHF, around the corner at the west end of the lot, uses people to teach about cars. For only $8, or less if you’re old, young or part of a tour group, you can go there and see cool artifacts and find out why Daimler called his line of vehicles Mercedes.

OK, you can have that one for free. A French merchant said he’d only invest in Daimler’s business if the inventor named his automobile after the merchant’s daughter. And I’ll throw in what race driver Barney Oldfield said after he became the first madcap to reach a mile a minute, the unthinkable 60 mph: "No man can drive faster and live."

One of the inductees at the Hall’s 2009 ceremony last week was Craig Breedlove, whose jet-powered Spirit of America Sonic I hit 600 mph in 1965. So Oldfield was off a little, but he was still a vital piece of the history of the automobile, which made him a natural for inclusion back in 1968.

First class inducted in 1967

When the first class was inducted in ’67, the organization behind the museum had already relocated once, from New York to Washington, D.C. It moved to Midland in ’71, opened a building four years later, and then migrated south to the spiritual hub of the car business.

The current AHF opened in August 1997. The $10 million building is paid for, and the lease on the land is manageable — $1 a year; The Henry Ford has never exactly hounded Leestma for a check.

Annual attendance has hovered around 20,000, with most of the visitors from outside the area or even the continent. It was a more acceptable number when the AHF’s auto-related sponsors were healthy. Now Leestma admits to some concern, though 50,000 or so visitors could put his mind right back at ease.

This year, for the first time, the AHF began charging school groups $2 per kid. Leestma usually speaks to the classes himself.

"All of these people were not born great," he tells them. "They achieved greatness through inspiration, vision and hard work."

Inspiration, he says, he has in ample supply. But you have to gather up your good intentions and come see for yourself."> (313) 222-1874

Additional Facts

Nuts and bolts

The Automotive Hall of Fame is at 21400 Oakwood Blvd. in Dearborn. It’s open from 9 a.m. — 5 p.m. daily through October, then closed Mondays and Tuesdays through April. Call (313) 240-4000 or visit

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