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USA Diary, Part 2

More from our US trip - this time, Chicago and Detroit

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Dumbed-down Museum of Science + Industry, Chicago
  • Very good Field Natural History Museum, Chicago
  • Life-changing: Stewart McMillan's personalised tour of Detroit in ruins
  • The excellent Henry Ford technology museum in Detroit
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Today we went to the largest technical museum in the western hemisphere – the Museum of Science + Industry, Chicago.

We added this museum primarily because of two exhibits – the wonderful Burlington Zephyr train, and the Spirit of America Land Speed Record car driven by Craig Breedlove. Add to that the U505 German submarine captured by the Americans in WWII – and you’d have to say that there’s a pretty world-class museum.

And seeing these attractions in the flesh was really fantastic.

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The Breedlove car – probably the first Land Speed Record car built on a budget – is petite and beautiful. It can hold its head high in appearance and execution even in the mega-cost company of cars like Donald Campbell’s Bluebird.

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The Zephyr – the holder of a lot of railway ‘firsts’ including stainless steel cladding, lightweight engineered truss construction, aerodynamic streamlining and the use of a diesel-powered rail-car set – is exhilarating beautiful.

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The U505 – a complete German WWII submarine out of the water on display - is fascinating.

But oh my god. Overall, what a dumbed-down, trivialised, infantile place for the ignorant is this museum! It’s a parody of a museum, a theme park to entertain airheads. Every exhibit had to be equipped with flashing lights, or pre-recorded narration, or animatronic figures. For all the people who cannot read, apparently.

So the incredibly significant Burlington Zephyr train was internally equipped with – and I am not joking – an animatronic donkey. The donkey ‘talking’ to the guide was a major part of the tour. And the tour guide? Like the later submarine tour guide, she’d just memorised a spiel and knew very little about the subject of the tour. Worse, she recited falsehoods. The reason for the light weight of the Zephyr? Cos it was made of stainless steel, not iron she said. Well, riiiiiight.

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The submarine tour guide rushed us past the fascinating parts of this extraordinary machine, and instead paused where we could pretend to be depth charged (the cabin lights inexplicably brightening – not darkening - every time a pseudo depth charge exploded).

At least the Breedlove car could simply be looked at, without stupid sounds and talking donkeys and ignorant tour guides spouting nonsense.

And the aforementioned exhibits were the best part of the museum: much of the rest was absolute rubbish.

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But there were some occasional gems sprinkled among the dross: the 100kW(!) electric light bulb; the Boeing 727 suspended from the roof and wonderfully accessible; the early steam locomotives (but typically, no mention of which were replicas and which were real historic artefacts); the bicycles and the recording baromoter that lived through a tornado.

But overall, a lesson in how to not do a museum.

Before we left Chicago, we did a couple of other things. Firstly, we went to the Field natural history museum, and then we went for a long walk around Chicago’s CBD.

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Firstly, the Field museum. This is a really, really good natural history museum. The ‘trip through time’ exhibit is the best I have ever enjoyed: from the literal beginnings of Earth right through to the current day. Told in a narrative flow, supported by fossils and skeletons, with high quality signs and simple (but not simplistic) videos accessed by pushbutton, I think almost anyone would have learned and enjoyed. (And such a contrast to the Chicago Museum of Science + Industry!)

We also loved the gem display (the finished jewellery displayed right next to the uncut rocks from which the gems came), and the sheer range of rocks on exhibit. The geomorphological folds and faults (all real but miniature examples) were scintillating.

The long walk around the Chicago CBD was also quite interesting.

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Chicago is the city that gave birth to the skyscraper – where the height of the building did not need to be supported only on the walls. Instead, steel framing and just a cladding of brick (or stone) veneer was able to be supported by that framing, freeing designers to go tall. This early adoption of the technology means that there are lots of buildings – art deco and the like – that are wonderfully grand and elaborate but also high… a bewitching combination of extravagant style and engineering.

But that was a few days ago – now we’re in Detroit.

On some good advice, yesterday we went to the Detroit Historical Museum. Why was the advice good?

Well firstly, the museum is free (and you need to keep in mind that for two adults and a child, most major museums here have been charging something like US$80-100 admittance!). Secondly, the museum was quiet, and many museums here are incredibly noisy – screaming out of control children, bellowing displays, even bands playing.

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The 1916 V12 Packard on display was – I think – likely to have been the first V12 car in the world; the 1896 four cylinder car on display was – I am almost sure - the very first four cylinder car that ever existed.

There was also a Model T Ford on display – but unlike nearly all others, this one you were encouraged to sit in. As I sat down, I noticed that the springs deflected very little. Quick as a flash, I dragged out my iPhone, turned on the ‘vibration’ app, and measured the natural frequency of the Model T suspension. It was no less than 3.6Hz - I don’t think Model T Fords had very high ride quality!

But it wasn’t just about cars – the re-created late 18th century shops were fascinating, and after all the horror of looking out at Detroit from the taxi windows, it was wonderful to see pride in the history of the city so strong in this little museum.

What horror?

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Well, Detroit must be the only city in the western world that has declined so greatly in population over the last 40-odd years. Whole blocks are empty, razed to the ground or destroyed by fire, the remaining hulks standing roofless. There are burnt-out cars, even ten storey hotels standing empty, windows broken and the building vacant… all less than 500 metres from our hotel. That could all be seen in the first hour of arriving, but it was on the next day’s tour that it really hit home.

We went on a four-hour personalised tour with Stewart McMillan, a local historian and retired school teacher. Before travelling from Australia, we’d tee’d up a trip with him to focus on the automotive-related sights of Detroit’s history - and he developed a complete afternoon itinerary, compete with printed notes for us. In our email back-and-forth correspondence, we’d also asked to have included some of Detroit’s most famous ruined buildings. We rode in Stewart’s car, with Stewart narrating constantly – on history, sociology, religion and change.

The afternoon was one of the most memorable of my life.

In many places Detroit is like a scene from a fictional apocalyptic film set in a major city.

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On Stewart’s tour we drove down streets where previously houses had stood on every block. One-third of the bocks were empty, the houses having been bulldozed. One-third of the houses were in ruins, roofs open to the sky and walls showing the black of fire. Other houses were largely intact, but the broken windows and walls covered in graffiti showed they were empty. Discarded cars stood in the remains of front yards, the flat tyres indicating that they’d been there for many years. And on that whole suburban block, there might have been literally only one house left standing intact and used, resident apparently steadfastly staying put.

But a few streets away, the suburbs were as normal. Every house filled, gardens neatly kept, cars in driveways, houses painted and maintained. In fact, Stewart took us down the street in which he lives, middle-class housing that no-one would look at twice.

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And then we’d get on a main road, and start seeing the derelict commercial buildings. Multi-story offices, the ground floor boarded-up and all the other floors obviously empty. Or complete factory buildings, perhaps six stories high and a whole block wide and deep, covered in graffiti, every window broken and not having been used for 20 or 30 years. Fifteen storey high hotels, recognisable only as hotels by the faded sign, neon tube long gone and even the backing paint to the sign so pale that ‘hotel’ was only just recognisable.

It was like passing through a war zone, but a war that had been going on for a generation with no repairs having been carried out in that time.

The required mental shift was immense: you started to look at every house, every apartment block, every hotel, every factory… assessing to see if it was derelict. In many areas, half of the time it was.

And Stewart’s causal comments were often astounding.

The swish hotel that we’re staying in? “Oh yes,” he says, “that was empty for 20 years before they did it up again.” Our minds jarred with the modern pastel décor overlaying the empty, vandalised brick shell it must have been.

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In the area of the Highland former Ford factory, a place now of low socio-economic status and with African-Americans hurrying in and out of an unremarkable modern shopping centre: “Most of my [white] tour groups won’t get out of the bus here.”

The reason Stewart’s car has only one hubcap? “I took off the other three to make myself look poor. That reduces the chances of car-jacking.”

In an area of Detroit that looked relatively normal, Stewart enthusiastically said of its renewal: “Now single women will walk their dogs here!” What came before was not said – it didn’t need to be.

Written large between his lines was the crime, the black/white divide, the fear – especially held by white people – and the homelessness.

And also that things are getting better in Detroit, that urban renewal is starting – oh so gradually – to occur.

“Look, there’s a restaurant there now,” says Stewart enthusiastically, pointing to a large corner building just out of the city centre. “Before that, it was empty for 20 years.”

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For Australians who have experienced 25 years of unbroken economic growth, Detroit is a terrifying sight of what might have been, of a downwards spiral of unemployment and social outcomes of alienation and anomy and racial divides and income inequity. I thought the closed factories of the former East Germany disconcerting, but Detroit – even on the way back up – is a hundred times greater anything I have seen before.

And mixed-in with this extraordinary visage of societal failure are the car plants and buildings, often built in times of prosperity and optimism that make their juxtaposition with the present landscape utterly jarring.

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The well-maintained Fisher Building, built in 1928 for the Fisher Body Company, is the most extravagant commercial building I have ever seen. The 30-storey art deco design is incredibly ornate, with no less than 40 different types of marble used in just the foyer! The lift lobby is jaw-dropping in its studied ornateness. To say that it was built in a time of wealth and optimism is to state the obvious.

The derelict Ford manufacturing building at Highland (the factory where they churned out hundreds of thousands of Model T Fords) is huge – and huge even with half of it replaced by a modern shopping centre.

The Chrysler plant looks the epitome of a modern, large car factory – as you’d expect with a current production of more than 300,000 cars a year. And yet within a 5-minute walk of the plant’s chain-wire fence, there are houses in ruins, squirrels hopping through broken windows….

Detroit makes you re-evaluate your whole thinking about modern capitalistic democracies. Things are much more tenuous and fragile than you might imagine.

An afternoon I will never forget – and one nearly impossible to adequately describe.

Stewart’s a lovely guy and one who knows more about Detroit’s history than probably anyone alive. He was extremely obliging, helpful, erudite and down-to-earth. However, he’s in his mid-seventies and his driving isn’t quite up to his historical knowledge. If you want his services, I’d suggest you hire a car and ask him to come along as a guide. We paid Stewart US$170 for 4 hours.

Today we went to the Ford museum in Detroit, slightly confusingly called just ‘The Henry Ford’. This is a significant technological museum, curated with intelligence and even-handedness.

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If you were to expect it to be just a car museum that held only Ford cars, you’d be sorely disappointed. Instead, there are exhibits of farm equipment, aircraft, trains, home life in the decades from the 1920s to current – even the state-of-the- [then] -future, late-1940s Dymaxion house (pictured).

Many manufacturers – not just Ford - are represented in the museum, and there was not at all the bias so pronounced in the Porsche and the BMW museums in Germany.

The Henry Ford museum is eclectic and assured, the curation focused on technologies that have changed mass production and the lives of normal people in the United Sates. In fact, with its mix of social and technological awareness, it reminded me a little of the brilliant Mercedes Benz museum in Stuttgart.

In the Detroit museum they had no problems with the most expensive classic car you can buy – the Bugatti Royale – rubbing metaphorical shoulders with an interstate truck of the 1950s.

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One of my favourite machines was the Goldenrod Land Speed Record car.

Goldenrod looks far more elegant in the metal that in any photos. One of the 1960s American Land Speed Record holders that achieved success with the car built on a low budget and in humble surroundings, it held the wheel-driven (as opposed to thrust-driven) Land Speed Record from 1965 to 1991.

The 2400hp to drive the streamliner (and streamlined it was - incredibly, the Cd was 0.1165, with a frontal area of just 8.53 square feet) was provided by four fuel-injected Chrysler Hemi engines, mounted in-line. The speed of 409.277 mph (658.526 km/h) was amazing – and even more extraordinary, it took the record from Donald Campbell’s mega-cost Bluebird, built by the pride of UK industry.

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The Chrysler Turbine car was also impressive. In the metal it looked exactly as I’d pictured it – I’ve seen plenty of pics and read a lot on these cars. That meant that perhaps it wasn’t such an exciting experience as with the other machines, but it was still great to eyeball it in the metal.

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The General Motors EV1 – as the signage said, the most successful electric car of the 20th century – was quite different to how I’d pictured it.

Firstly, it was smaller – bigger than my Honda Insight but not by the margin I’d thought. Secondly, it was far less ‘blobby’ in body design. In the metal it looked aerodynamically slippery (which of course it was) but also more elegant. However, looking at the shape, it does look like it would develop a lot of rear lift.

Given the relatively small number of cars leased and then the dismal fate of those cars (they were crushed), I was also surprised at how professional the EV1 appeared – it certainly doesn’t look like a car designed and built with anything less than 100 per cent company commitment.

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The Allegheny is a steam railway locomotive of such gigantic dimensions that the mind boggles. The locomotive and tender weigh a combined 603 tons, and the enormous locomotive (designed for freight) could reach 60 mph. The 2-6-6-6(!) locomotive could develop momentary peaks of 7500hp and continuously, about 1000hp less than that. Looking at the machine, it is not the size of the driving wheels that impresses, but instead the enormous boiler and diameter of the cylinders. Falling from the walkway around the boiler could have killed you…

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I also need to mention the awesome production line machine that churned out up to 600 light bulb glass envelopes each minute. When I first saw its length and complexity, I mentally pigeon-holed it as a rather advanced 1950s design, or, more likely, a 1960s machine. Then I saw the date: 1928. The more I looked at it, the more I realised that I’d overlooked the enormous strides made in mass production in the US in the 1920s.

Yes, even knowing about Henry Ford’s production line.

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Those ideas were confirmed when I looked through the display of machine tools developed specifically for the Model T production. Gosh, they were impressive. Tools that machined fifteen Model T engine blocks at a time, drill presses that could make eight holes simultaneously, indexing tools for high speed gear cutting. I don’t think that these tools existed anywhere else in the world in the 1920s.

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I also loved the giant traction engine, the railway snowplough (the plough blade bigger than a room in a house), and the very large and elegant stationery steam engines (most of the examples powering electricity generating plants).

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There were also some highly significant unique machines in the museum – the Sikorsky VS-300 (the world’s very first practical helicopter), and the tractor that Harry Ferguson used to demonstrate his hydraulic attachment system to Henry Ford (a 3-point linkage that greatly improved safety and utility, and was subsequently integrated into Ford tractors).

The Henry Ford museum is in Dearborn, what here in Australia we’d call an outer suburb of Detroit. But Detroiters tend to suggest it’s another city, so bringing up an interesting spatial question. Above, I described Detroit’s incredibly run-down buildings. But drive past the sign that says ‘Detroit city limits’ and the picture dramatically changes. The outer suburbs look quite normal!

So it’s the city of Detroit – as opposed to the outer suburbs – that has experienced such dramatic decline.

Still, for this little timid family of field mice venturing into the big city from the country, walking around the Detroit CBD at dusk (about 4.30pm at this winter time of the year) to buy some groceries was a rather daunting affair. We went into a beer and wine shop, only to find the counter (and all the expensive booze) screened-off from the rest of a shop by ceiling-high, bullet-proof glass. After you selected your bottles, a little turnstile set into the glass allowed the bottles to be transferred to the other side, scanned and then returned to you. The money? It was slid under the glass, just like in a high security bank.

We didn’t hang around on the walk back to the hotel…






Museum of Science + Industry

Dumbed-down museum but with three major attractions – Zephyr train, Spirit of America LSR car, U505 WWII German submarine; expensive entry charges and parking, 2 hours

Overall: 3/10

Nominated attractions:



Field Natural History Museum

Top quality museum, 3 hours



Walk around CBD

Fascinating early 20th century skyscrapers, best at dusk, free, 2 hours



Detroit Historical Museum

Excellent smaller museum with a few quite significant cars and automotive artefacts; free entry, 2 hours



Stewart McMillan, personalised tour

Extraordinary experience, eye-opening and life-changing. Suggest you hire car and get Stewart to guide.



The Henry Ford museum

Excellent technology museum, especially in mass production and resulting societal changes. Smart choice of cars on display.


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