In yet another indication that the Chrysler ship is taking on water at a rapid pace, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Chrysler LLC is dumping the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Chrysler committed to the museum back in the days when it was doing well – back before it was merged into Daimler-Benz, though the museum did not actually open until after that deal had closed. The only museum actually operated by an auto company in the United States (though these things are common in Germany), the museum has been housed in a state of the art facility, with a collection that focuses on Chrysler branded vehicles. This is in contrast with General Motors’ Heritage Collection, which is not open to the public, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, which has never been directly focused on Ford products and has always been independent of the Ford Motor Company.
The Museum’s collection includes Chrysler concept cars and historic vehicles, including the Chrysler turbine car, various muscle cars, and classics. The museum itself is comprised of a 55,000 square foot building located on ten acres, designed to mirror the Chrysler Technology Center nearby.
Although both Mercedes-Benz and BMW have built lavish museums dedicated to their respective brands, and which are integrated into a customer experience geared to the buyer that includes special delivery programs, Chrysler did not make any similar effort with the Chrysler museum. (Only Chevrolet actually delivers a car at a museum – that National Corvette Museum located across the street from the Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky – but the Corvette Museum is an independent charitable entity not organized by General Motors.)
In the United States, automobile museums have often been dicey propositions financially, even when originally funded at a lavish level. The Peterson Museum in Los Angeles, named for the founder of Motor Trend and Hot Rod magazines that was its biggest donor, and a number of lesser museums have closed. Currently, the LeMay Museum which is to open in Tacoma, Washington in 2009 is expected to be the next big thing in auto museums, with a $17,500,000 facility housing the LeMay collection of more than 3,000 vehicles – the largest private collection in the world before Harold and Nancy LeMay created the museum as a charitable entity to house and display it.
Though the Chrysler Museum did not equal the breadth of that contemplated for the LeMay collection, the Museum’s unique connection with the automobile company it was created to honor provided to it a unique place among American automobile museums.
Without Chrysler, the museum will be forced to compete for funding with some rather heavy hitters in the car museum business, such as the LeMay museum and the Peterson museum in California. To that must be added the disadvantage of being located in Auburn Hills, not in a location more accessible to tourists and vacationers and having a collection which is decidedly skewed toward the Chrysler brand.
At the time Chrysler initially decided to create the museum, the underlying rationale was oriented toward the business of the company. The belief was that the company had a tradition of which it, and its employees, dealers, and customers, could be proud. The museum was designed to make that tradition accessible, at a time when the company was searching for a sense of its own image.
Though the intervention of Daimler seems to have undercut that plan, the concept was a good one. It can be argued that it is even more valid today, when Chrysler’s public image has taken a beating from the very people who purchased the company and speculation about the company’s chances of survival is rampant. That would be a good time to stress the company’s tradition and longevity.
But, that wouldn’t be the Nardelli way.

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