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The National Automotive History Collection

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by Joe Babiasz  More from Author

The NAHC features the most extensive collection of historic automotive and other forms of motorized, wheeled and land transportation information on the planet.

Tucked away on a quiet street in Detroit is a little known gem, the Rose and Robert Skillman Branch of the Detroit Library System. It is in this library that the National Automotive History Collection (NAHC) is housed. The NAHC features the most extensive collection of historic automotive and other forms of motorized, wheeled and land transportation information on the planet. It’s only right that this remarkable facility resides in Detroit, also known as the Motor City.

The roots of the NAHC began when the Detroit Public Library acquired its first automotive book in 1896, John Henry Knight’s Notes on Motor Carriages: With Hints for Purchasers and Users. Ever since then, the NAHC has continually expanded. In 1944, a special room was set aside at Detroit’s Main Library branch for the ever-growing collection. By 1953, the collection achieved divisional status, and in 1986 it was renamed the National Automotive History Collection. In 2003, the NAHC moved from Detroit’s Main Branch to the second floor of the beautifully renovated Rose and Robert Skillman Branch. The Skillman Foundation provided a large grant to renovate the historic 1931 library, and the collection has been aided over the years by a number of librarians and administrators who recognized the importance of the history of the automobile and other means of transportation.

The NAHC contains over 600,000 processed items. Included are thousands of photographs that depict the automobile’s historical, social, mechanical and design aspects are available for public viewing, research, and publication. The automobile manuscript files contain more than 350,000 technical and descriptive items that illuminate the styling detail, specifications and restoration of the automobile. Also available are clippings and brochures on various auto-related subjects, print advertisements, accessory catalogs, and product data books. Standard Catalog books, Price Guides, Catalog of American Car ID numbers, Lester-Steel Handbook of Automotive Specifications, Color and Trim Books, Motor Vehicle Manufacturer’s Association Specifications, and factory service manuals are also obtainable by the public. One of the NAHC rooms contains a complete set of Car and Driver, Road and Track and Motor Trend magazines that date back almost sixty years. Biographical files, personal papers and business documents of both pioneers and corporate leaders offer insight into the development, industrial psychology and economics of the automobile industry. The collection has approximately 80 manuscripts that include the James Scripps Booth, William and Semon Knudsen, and the Henry and Wilfred Leland manuscript collection. The amount of information is almost endless.

From what the public can see, it doesn’t appear that the facility could hold this vast amount of information. The reason is because the public is allowed in the reading room portion of the collection. In addition to the reading room, there are several other rooms and a basement full of documents that are accessible only to the staff. Overflow volumes of information are stored off-sight.

While this gem is a wonderful place to visit, enthusiasts from around the world who have questions about almost anything dealing with transportation can get them answered by phone, fax or e-mail. Whether you are looking for the chassis dimensions of a 1927 Oakland, the compression ratio of a 1959 Citroen 2CV, vintage factory photos of a 1936 Packard or a road test of a 1959 Rambler, more than likely, the NAHC can get you what you need.   

Mark Patrick, coordinator for Special Collections, oversees the NAHC with the help of assistant manager Barbara Thompson and librarian/archivist Gina Tecos. To make a request, simply contact Barbara or Gina by e-mail at nahc@detroitpubliclibrary.org or call 313-628-2851. They will research the NAHC to complete your request. There may be a charge for some requests. You can also fax your request to 313-628-2785.  

And for those who would like to help keep this facility growing, you can do so by joining Friends of the NAHC. The cost is only $40, and it goes a long way in guaranteeing this wonderful facility will be able to continue providing invaluable information to all automotive enthusiasts.  All members will receive Wheels, Journal of the National Automotive History Collection, a periodic publication written for automotive devotees. You can learn more about joining by going to the Detroit Public Library web-site listed below. The cost is tax-deductible and will help to assure future enthusiasts have a place to go for that hard-to-find information.

If you decide to visit Detroit, the NAHC is available for tours. Advance reservations are required. You will find the NAHC to be a gold mine of information. The library is located at 121 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit. Hours and additional information about the NAHC can be found on their web-site, www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/nahc.

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