Getting to the Detroit Historical Society’s reserve collection almost sounds like the beginning of a sci-fi conspiracy novel. I am given directions to a remote storage facility that I’m asked to keep secret. Their nondescript front office hides a door to a vast warehouse where footsteps echo past visible light. It’s filled with rows of machines sealed away in their own plastic pods, each with a layer of dust that makes it feel like a forgotten secrets.
Scared? Nope. I’m too excited about being let into the world of these treasures. Occasionally stories about this place come out because it’s home to a few priceless prototypes, but it turns out there are a lot more stories waiting to burst out of Detroit’s secret “bubble” cars.
It might be easy to overlook a Lincoln Continental Mark V, but the one here was Lee Iacocca’s personal car. It’s also likely one of his last company products before getting the boot from Ford. The legend is Iacocca went down the assembly line with the car and chose the components he wanted for the coupe, just as the rest of us built our high school cafeteria lunches.
Sitting in the same row as a 1963 Mustang II concept is what is quite possible the first AMC Pacer ever built. And if that wasn’t kitschy-cool enough, it still has a Burl Ives 8-track sitting on the passenger seat.
There are even some oddities like a factory-built Cadillac station wagon from the mid-1980s. This was developed in a series to show there was a future for body-on-fame Caddys, specifically by those who wanted to keep the historic Fleetwood/Clark Street plant open. The proposal failed, but the Detroit Historical Society got these and something else very interesting from this (more on that in a moment.)
But what about the really interesting prototypes? Two cars that come up very often are Ford proposals known as the 1963 Cougar II and XD. This coupe and convertible were styling exercises that also happened to be built on Cobra CSX chassis. So there are plenty of collectors out there who would be happy to make their home in the pods next to these concept cars.
One of the first reactions to seeing all these interesting cars locked away and frozen in time is that it’s a shame these are not shared with the world. But that is far from the truth.
The Detroit Historical Society has a large space devoted to automobiles at its Midtown museum. There are some great permanent exhibits, including allowing visitors to operate the body drop donated from the old Clark Street Cadillac assembly line. But there’s also space here for rotating displays from the reserve collection.
This museum can’t display all of the Society’s treasures at once, and so they have taken on a larger role in providing these vehicles across the country. They welcome invites for any of their vehicles, and often all an event needs to do is secure transport for the vehicle and its custodian. This is how both Ford prototypes were on the lawn at Amelia Island four years ago to celebrate unique Cobras. Some even have more permanent homes like a rare Ghia-bodied Chrysler Turbine car from the 1960s. The Society’s coupe has been given a prominent display in the Gilmore Museum for the last few years.
So while these vehicles in suspended cocoons look less accessible than Area 51, it turns out these secret cars might have been living among us all along…no alien conspiracy needed.