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As published by The New York Times - Friday October 16, 1998
AUTOS ON FRIDAYS/Collecting
History From a Rearview Mirror
By Jamie Lincoln Kitman
FOR Walter Miller, the history of the automobile is about much more
than just motor vehicles. "There isnt a person living
in America today whose life wasnt influenced or shaped by
the automobile, Mr. Miller recently told visitors to the unorthodox
automotive museum he founded here last year. Its the single-most-important
invention of our time. Or any time.
But dont expect to see the usual menagerie of mint-condition
Thunderbirds, Stutz-Bearcats and Sting Rays; Mr. Miller doesnt
believe that the vehicles themselves reveal as much about us as
do the toys, publications and other accessories that are associated
with the auto industry.
In fact, there are no cars on display at the Museum of Automobile
History in downtown Syracuse, which houses one of the largest collections
of automotive memorabilia and art. The building at 321 North Clinton
Street, just off Clinton Square, is adorned with 20 authentic full-color
billboards -- each 20 feet wide and 10 feet high, advertising American
marques of 1940s and 1950s -- that set the tone for
the idiosyncratic, but mesmerising, show inside.
Every inch of the 12,OOO-square-foot museum is filled with items
like oil paintings, styling models and sketches and rare advertising
pieces, including a complete set of Burma-Shave rhyming road signs.
Racing memorabilia, auto gadgets and showroom posters also figure
prominently in the sprawling display, whose scope encompasses a
newspaper account of a proto-automobile demonstration from the 1770s
and late-model designer renderings from Detroit.
Mr. Miller, 43, says a childhood interest in automotive history
and world travel led him to a successful business as a dealer in
automobile literature. His museum, for example, displays an interesting
series of correspondence between the Japanese auto maker Toyota
and Jeny McCullough, a former stylist for the Ford Motor Company
who collected automotive sales brochures from around the world.
Following a request to Toyota for literature on Aug. 31, 1948,
Mr. McCullough received the following reply dated Oct 7: In
this war-devastated Japan, we are having a hard time keeping up
our production. It is very difticult for us to get information on
the latest developments in the automotive industry around the world.
We are deeply interested in the manufacture of American automobiles
and trucks. Kindly send us automobile and truck catalogues.
Perhaps equally curious is a letter received by the late Duesenberg
expert, J. L. Elbert, who had amassed a large collection of automobile
sales literature, which Mr. Miller purchased in the 1970s.
Mr. Elbert had written to Honda in Japan in 1962, hoping to obtain
brochures about its first line of automobiles, only to be told:
We are very sorry to advise you that we are not in a position
to offer our car to market, therefore, we have not prepared the
information on the new Honda automobile. Decades later, the
prospects of these one-time upstarts, which now operate huge plants
in the United States, have clearly improved.
Between 10 A.M. and 5 P.M. on Wednesday through Sunday, one can
wander the museums aisles without a plan or follow a route
that moves chronologically through the Age of the Automobile, beginning
in the 18th century. Admission is $4.75 for adults; $3.75 for seniors,
and $2.75 for children. Hundreds of hours of radio ads and jingles
are broadcast over the museums loudspeakers, enhancing the
nostalgia. The following are among the highlights of the collection:
A copy of the speeding ticket given to the actor James Dean
just two hours be fore he was killed in a crash on Sept. 30,
An original poster for the 1895 Paris-to-Bordeaux Race and
the Paris Automobile Exposition, one of the first car races
and the first auto show.
Original Art Deco renderings done by automotive stylists for
the Cadillac V 16 and Sunealist Cadillac prints by Salvador
Original United States patents for the Daimler-Benz and Duryea
Psychedelic showroom posters for Plymouths and Dodges from
1969 and 1970.
The Car-B-Que, a 1958 auto accessory that allowed motorists
to cook hot dogs in their moving vehicles.
Walter Chrysiers 1924 registration for the tirst Chrysler
and his driver's license.
In storage rooms beneath the museum galleries, Mr. Miller has piles
of unsorted material, ranging from Ford company archives from the
late 1940s (they apparently left Detroit with a disgruntled vice
president) to job-lot stocks of Opel Kadett sales material to film
strips aimed at helping DeSoto dealers bolster sales
This clearly is a place where history arrives by the crate load