Research Resource: The National Automotive History Collection
Preserving the history of wheeled land transportation, the Detroit Public Library's National Automotive History Collection is the largest public automotive archive in the world.
In 1896, the modern Olympic games debuted in Athens, William McKinley became the 25th president of the United States and—following the headlines after Charles B. King became the first to drive a “horseless carriage” down the streets of Detroit—the Detroit Public Library decided to purchase its first book on cars.
John Henry Knight’s Notes on Motor Carriages: With Hints for Purchasers and Users is part reference manual and part argument for all the advantages a car had over the horse, according to Mark Bowden, DPL’s Coordinator for Special Collections.
“The great advantage of the mechanical carriage,” wrote Knight, “is that when not in use it costs nothing; whereas a horse standing day by day in the stable proverbially eats his head off.”
“The National Automotive History Collection is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world,” says Bowden, adding that Knight’s book containing this favorite quote is the one that started it all.
Located on the second floor of the Rose & Robert Skillman Branch Library in downtown Detroit, the NAHC and its dedicated staff of experts serve automobile historians, hobbyists, authors, journalists and home mechanics.
“Factory service manuals, sales literature, and old photos are probably the most popular items people want to see,” says Bowden. In addition to over 200,000 automotive photographs, the NAHC houses books, automotive memorabilia, biographies, artwork, business papers and manuscripts of the sort not found anywhere else in the automotive world.
“The most significant collection we have comes from the Automotive Council for War Production,” says Bowden. “These are the papers, records, documents and invoices of Lieutenant General William Knudsen who, during World War II, was appointed to head the council by President Roosevelt.”
Knudsen, an expert on mass production, was the president of General Motors when Roosevelt asked him to come to Washington to help oversee war production.
“During World War II, automotive factories began turning out tanks and airplanes,” says Bowden. “Detroit became the arsenal of democracy and this collection tells that story.”
Other notable collections at the NAHC include the papers of Charles E. Duryea, who with his brother Frank produced America’s first gasoline car. There are also the papers of Henry Leland, founder of Lincoln and the Cadillac Motor Company, and the letters of Charles B. King. After King made headlines by becoming the first person to drive a motor car in Detroit, he embarked on a letter-writing campaign to sell his unique engine design. King kept carbon copies of those letters that are now housed at the NAHC.
“Automotive pioneers of that era were inventors, businessmen and women,” says Bowden, adding that the NAHC also is home to the photographs and papers of Aloha Baker, who from 1921 to 1925 was known as "The World's Most Traveled Girl" after she completed in a four-year-around-the-world endurance competition known as the Million Dollar Wager.
In addition to the wealth of historical knowledge and resources available to the “restorationist,” the historic documents preserved at the NAHC provide a warehouse of captivating stories and colorful characters and, says Bowden, it’s all open to the public to enjoy.
For more information, go to www.detroit.lib.mi.us/nahc/index.htm.