GM's Archive Offers Glimpse Of Its Past And Future

Mar 14, 2013
Originally published on March 14, 2013 12:12 pm
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Let's consider a company, now, that's had lots of ups and downs - General Motors. Most of GM's history is in the form of cars, and that history is housed in a nondescript warehouse in a suburb of Detroit. It's called the GM Heritage Center. Not open to the public, it's an automotive archive.

NPR's Sonari Glinton got a tour.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: There's probably no better job for a car nut than to be in charge of a vast auto archive for one of the biggest and oldest car companies.

Greg Wallace is certainly a car nut. He's been with GM for almost four decades and he run's GM's Heritage Center; he was my tour guide.

GREG WALLACE: We're looking for reaction once you go through the door. So let's go in and take a look.


GLINTON: Oh my goodness.

WALLACE: As you can see, it's nirvana for the car freaks.

GLINTON: OK, so I won't play the tape of me catching my breath, but this was one of the most stunning sites this car freak has ever seen - laid out over a few thousand square feet, row after row of cars, trucks, buses, all of them important, many of them works of art.

WALLACE: We have some of Chevrolet's lesser-known cars - such as Corvairs. We have early Camaros. We have a very good grouping of Corvettes, starting with the '53.

GLINTON: Is that all of them?

WALLACE: It's not all of them, but it's a good portion. It's all the generations of the Corvette and their high water marks.

GLINTON: The way you just said that, we didn't walk across the museum, we just like turned around.

WALLACE: We're just inside the door.

GLINTON: Wallace says the old car phenomenon, you know, where people collect and auction off antique and vintage cars, is a relatively new thing - from about the last 40 years or so. But before that...

WALLACE: Old cars were just old cars, and this collector's thing started and you see the auction businesses are happening and how much drive they're getting for the antique vehicles, and now all of a sudden it's important to show your heritage.

GLINTON: This Heritage Center, a place to store GM's history, was Wallace's brain child. When he worked at the Cadillac factory, one of the big executives came strolling through, and Wallace asked a simple question...

And my question to him was: Where is the room full of old cars? And he says well, we really don't have a room full of old cars.

Eventually, the executives downtown realized it would probably be a good idea for a car company to have a car collection, and they let Wallace run it.

Being a car historian though, isn't necessarily the most secure job in a big car company - especially when the company is desperately trying to reinvent itself

WALLACE: There's been a few times when I've been called in to justify why we have such a thing. And, you know, our old cars sell our new cars. It's the emotion and passion that is surrounded around some of our vintage that drives what we sell today.

GLINTON: Movie and TV studios use the center and its cars now. The center pays for itself by being an event space for GM functions and it gets rented out for weddings and other private events. But in recent years, Wallace says he's noticed a new phenomenon - GM engineers and designers increasingly stopping by.

WALLACE: It's not uncommon for them to bring their whole group of people in and look at features on the car. This how they did it in the '60s. Well, sometimes it doesn't pay to reinvent the wheel.

GLINTON: Wallace's dream is to dust off GM's attic and turn it into a full-fledged museum, open to the public. He's told executives that, but they say building a museum would be like looking into the past - and that's the last place General Motors needs to be looking - the last place.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.