Car nerds have a historical advantage over other enthusiasts because unlike video games, fantasy football, or the latest Netflix series, automobiles have been around for a long time. It’s been almost 130 years since Bertha Benz took that fateful 66 mile drive in her inventor husband’s “motorwagen,” and as the automotive world teeters on the edge of autonomy, one can confidently say that we’ve come a long way in regard to transportation.
Since we’re always looking to find fresh ways in which we can get in touch with our automotive roots, an invitation from Ford to tour its museum was warmly welcomed. Housed in a building that was dedicated to Henry Ford’s good friend Thomas Edison in 1929, this monolithic exhibit is not just home to automobiles like the bus that Rosa Parks refused to ride in the back of, but a a treasure trove of historical artifacts pertaining to all manner of industry and history. From archaic combine tractors and massive steam locomotives to airplanes and the chair Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in, the amount of historical preservation and documentation within this place is mind-boggling.
But given that you’re here for the cars, our focus will stay on the obvious, and there’s plenty of automobilia to cover in this place. Take the license plate pictured here for instance: Back in the early days of motor cars, there were no regulations hampering drivers, stop lights to control traffic flow, or long DMV lines for tag renewals. Back then, people made their own license plates, many of which were stitched out of leather, and utilized house numbers from the local hardware store.
We could go on for hours about the museum’s full-size metal diner, where you can order shakes and burgers beneath a massive neon McDonald’s sign, or the collective of pop-up campers, vintage gas station essentials, and period-correct magazine advertisements. This is not just a Ford museum, but a collection hall for all manner of automotive oddity, and we strongly encourage anyone with an interest in the iconic and the obscure to take the tour. Here are 10 of our favorite cars from the Henry Ford Museum, all of which are uniquely amazing in their own way.
1. 1961 Lincoln JFK edition limousine
Used from 1961 to 1977, the Kennedy car is one of several presidential limousines on display at the Ford Museum. This model was extensively overhauled after Kennedy’s assassination, making the already reinforced land yacht even more stout. With its permanent armored steel top and trunk, bullet-proof fuel tank and tires, and special modifications for presidents Johnson and Nixon, this elongated slab of Detroit steel is both posh and haunting to look upon up close.
2. 1896 Ford Quadricycle runabout
Let’s be very clear about one thing: Henry Ford invented this car, and did not invent the car. In the late 1800s, dozens of inventors in Europe and America were rushing to make the best horse-less carriage possible, and Ford had zero interest in utilizing steam or electricity as a source of energy. Weighing in at 500 pounds, Ford’s two-stroke gasoline-powered internal combustion engine produced just four horsepower, had just two gears, and was built in a shed. But even though this model worked surprisingly well, success didn’t come right away, and its inventor had to go through several more vehicle designs and two failed companies before finally succeeding with the Ford Motor Company in 1903.
3. 1963 Chrysler gas turbine car
Chrysler’s regenerative gas turbine car was in theory a brilliant idea, as it took aerospace engineering and infused it within an automobile. Although several other automakers were looking into similar technologies after World War II came to a close, Chrysler was the only one to really take it to the next level. Fifty lucky people were allowed access to this automobile in 1963 in exchange for some unbiased real world feedback. While people loved the car’s styling, low maintenance needs, and the fact that it could run on almost any combustible fluid — including diesel, gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, moonshine, and vegetable oil, it bombed in a lot of other areas.
Consumer focus groups said it sounded like a giant vacuum cleaner, and many lamented the fact that the option for a rear bench seat was impossible due to the massive turbine housing that ran down the center of the vehicle. The car also had issues starting at higher altitudes, and some people found the startup procedure to be tedious. Although the engine produced an insane amount of torque, it also fell flat on its face at higher speeds, and since Americans tend to ignore low end grunt in anything that isn’t a truck, the Turbine Car never made it into the mainstream.
4. 1967 Ford Mark IV
The Mark IV embodies the first time an all-American car and race team was able to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a feat that was commemorated this year by Ford’s GT race team and LEGO. Reinforced with aerospace aluminum, and equipped with a stock car V8 that spewed forth over 500 horsepower, the Mark IV only competed in one race, finishing 32 miles ahead of the V12 Ferrari competition and averaging 135.48 miles per hour. Dan Gurney’s post race celebration included the first-ever champagne spray, a podium tradition that continues to this day at racing events around the world.
5. 1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale
Measuring in at almost 19 feet long and costing $43,000 in 1931 ($682,987 today), this beast of a Bugatti is easily one of the most ostentatious automobiles at the Henry Ford Museum. Only six of these French-made versions were ever produced, and because they are so rare, each one has its own transcribed history.
This particular model was first bought new by a German physician by the name of Joseph Fuchs in 1932, and came from the factory dressed in black with yellow trim. After fleeing to China with the vehicle the year following to avoid Hitler’s reign, Fuchs remained in Asia until 1937 when the Japanese invaded, at which point he fled once more with his prized possession, this time to Canada. After finding refuge in New York, the car’s block cracked one winter due to the cold, leaving it lifeless for many years. Then in 1943, a chief engineer at Buick by the name of Charles Chayne bought the vehicle and restored it after changing its color scheme to white and green. By 1958 Chayne was vice president at GM, at which point he donated the car to the Henry Ford Museum, and in 1985, all six of the original Bugatti Royale luxury barges were reunited for the first time in history.
6. 1965 Goldenrod land speed racer
Seeing this vehicle in person is easily one of the most amazing things you will ever experience if you’re into cars. Holding the four-wheeled land speed record title for over 25 consecutive years, brothers Bob and Bill Summers’ creation featured 2,400 horsepower, tipped the scales at 4 tons, housed four 426 cubic-inch Chrysler engines, had two manual gearboxes, and topped out at 409.277 miles per hour. Measuring 32 feet long, this monster was built inside a converted vegetable stand on a shoestring budget out of aluminum plates and steel tubing and held the record at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats from 1965 to 1991.
7. 1948 Tucker 48
Much like Chrysler’s Turbine car, the Tucker 48 took airplane power and popped it into an automobile. But where the Chrysler was jet-turbine inspired, the Tucker 48 used leftover World War II fighter plane engines, which were then cleverly installed within the rear of the vehicle. Sporting six exhaust pipes, a center mounted headlamp that turned in tandem with steering inputs, doors that fed into the roofline to aid in access and regress, and rear fender grilles for increased cooling, the Tucker 48 was the automobile that could have changed the game forever. Unfortunately, a series of scandals soon left company founder Preston Tucker penniless, meaning only 51 of these futuristic unicorns were ever produced.
8. 1927 Blue Bird school bus
Apparently no one had considered aerodynamics or drag coefficients in 1927, because the oldest school bus in America looks like a hulking yellow brick on bike tires. Originally built by Ford as a Model TT truck, this two-speed tank had a maximum of 20 horsepower to its name, and replaced the old wooden frame, horse-drawn barges being used at the time. Modified by Fort Valley, Georgia Ford dealer Albert Luce Sr., this rarity was sold off, tracked down, restored, and gifted to Luce by his employees in 1947. Years later, the Blue Bird name remains synonymous with yellow school buses everywhere.
9. 1950 Nash Rambler convertible
Taking a small, inexpensive chassis and giving it a spacious interior during an era when large cars reigned supreme was a gamble that was way ahead of its time, and ultimately didn’t pay off. This car was a rolling contradiction too, as Nash desperately attempted to attract customers with things like economy and luxury, a convertible with a hardtop, and the fact that it was as safe as a sedan and as sexy as a sports car. Sporting 82 horsepower, and a price tag that would equal out to around $18,000 today, the Nash Rambler was a good idea that just happened to be poorly executed in the wrong decade.
10. 1949 Mercury convertible
Our last entry is a bit of an oddball, as it is extensively modified. Ford went out of its way to include a plethora of information on this vehicle and its build too, as well as a list of the practices utilized during the 1950s to modify a vehicle to this level. Nosed, shaved, filled, frenched, chopped, and lowered, the Mercury badge was a favorite platform for hot rod enthusiasts to modify back in the day. These cars often had their body panel gaps filled with lead for a smoother finished look, earning them the name “lead sleds.”
Modified by Barris Kustom Industries in North Hollywood, this 280 horsepower Merc features shaved door handles, a chopped roofline and windshield, a lower ride height, and a profusion of missing standard trim pieces. It was resprayed this purple Metalflake color in the 1960s, at which point it also received those bright blue “scallops.”