America’s famed Motor City, Detroit, is back on the road to recovery after its financial breakdown. Peter Ellegard checks under the bonnet of the city that not only gave us Motown, but also some of the world’s most iconic automobiles...
Anyone reading about Detroit over the past two years might be forgiven for thinking that the wheels had come off America’s motor city. The once-mighty industrial powerhouse, and original home of the Motown (motor town) record company, hit the headlines in July 2013 when it became the largest city to declare itself bankrupt in US history.
That, coupled with the fact that its ‘Big Three’ car makers – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (or Fiat Chrysler Automobiles subsidiary FCA US as it now is) – have significantly cut production and laid off staff led some commentators to gloomily pronounce that Detroit had reached the end of the road. However, reports of its death have, to paraphrase Mark Twain, been greatly exaggerated and there is still much to enjoy in Michigan.
SLOW COMBACK. After a court-approved plan allowing The D, as it’s known, to restructure its finances and cut its debt by $7 billion, Detroit exited bankruptcy in December 2014. Thankfully for the city, the plan did not involve disposing of the treasured art collection, housed in the venerated Detroit Institute of Arts – a proposal labelled by some observers as akin to selling off the family silver.
Detroit’s comeback road will be long and arduous but its resilience is confounding critics. And it makes a fascinating place to visit, particularly for anyone interested in America’s automobile history, its music heritage and the arts. From this summer, new direct Heathrow-Detroit flights from Virgin Atlantic will make it much easier to visit, too.
I explored Detroit on a tour of Michigan that took in culture, the arts, music, automobile history and, of course, a spot of gulf. My journey took me from gateway city Chicago across to the lakeside town of St Joseph on the opposite shore of Lake Michigan. There I visited Silver Beach, not for its soft sands fronting the lake, as it was early April and still in the grips of a long winter, but for its wonderful carousel, a replica of the popular Victorian fairground rides built just five years ago.
I travelled on to Kalamazoo, made famous by a Glenn Miller song and once home to the world’s largest taxicab manufacturer, Checker Motors, whose vehicles were a familiar sight in American cities for decades. The last Checker cab to roll off the assembly line in 1982 is one of the prize exhibits in the Gilmore Museum, which displays a fascinating collection of American vehicles.
TOP MUSEUM. One of America’s top five car museums, it houses more than 250 vehicles and motorbikes, from the earliest days of motoring up to 70s muscle cars. Star vehicles include classic Duesenberg, Cadillac and Mercury convertibles, while the collections of several partner museums are also on display.
Just outside Kalamazoo in Portage is the Air Zoo; a homage to aviation, and the history of flight is guaranteed to delight young and old. An aircraft spotter in my teens, I literally had to be dragged away from the rare and historic exhibits that range from a replica of the Wright Brothers’ Flyer and World War II veterans to the fastest and highest-flying aircraft ever built – the awe-inspiring SR-71B Blackbird, which could reach speeds of Mach 3.5 and fly at 85,000 feet.
After a pit stop in the artsy, university town of Ann Arbor to stroll along its lively Main Street and enjoy a contemporary American dinner, my colleagues and I pressed on to Detroit, where we checked into the aptly named Westin Book Cadillac. Those who want a more vibrant experience can stay in the MotorCity Casino Hotel, with its own theatre, neon-lit casino and restaurants, including the top-floor Iridescence giving diners grandstand views over the city.
SPLIT CITY. Detroit is a city with a split personality. Areas of urban decay and run-down buildings underline its financial plight. Yet its centre has some glorious architecture, with historic art deco and post-modern neo-Gothic skyscrapers, such as the over-the-the-top interior of the Guardian Building and the ornate exterior of the Fisher Building, juxtaposed with gleaming new glass and steel towers that soar above its revitalised riverfront.
The jewel in Detroit’s crown, the Detroit Institute of Arts, is the fifth largest fine arts museum in the US. Its collection spans 100 galleries, with art from around the world from ancient civilisations right up to modern times. Among significant works are the famous Detroit Industry fresco cycle by Mexican artist Diego Rivera and Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait, the first work by the artist to enter a US museum collection.
HITSVILLE USA. The highlight of Detroit was the Motown Museum. It is located in an unassuming two-storey white house fronted by a trim lawn and a sign reading Hitsville USA. This was the epicentre of America’s soul music scene – from when impresario Berry Gordy founded it in 1959 until he relocated to Los Angeles in 1972.
This was the music I grew up with. It seems incredible that the careers of so many famous names were launched at such a small building, although Motown eventually occupied seven other neighbouring houses.
The list of artists with the Motown and Tamla record labels reads like a Who’s Who of 60s and 70s pop giants: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, and many more besides.
Converted into a museum in 1985, with everything left as it was in its heyday, a guide talks about its history and takes you through the house to see displays of memorabilia culminating in its legendary Studio A, where you can sing along to familiar Motown songs.
The city is still a music hub today. It hosts the world’s largest free jazz festival – the Detroit Jazz Festival – each July as well as the three-day Movement Electronic Music Festival every May.
THE MODEL T. But no visit to Detroit is complete without exploring its motoring history. The redbrick Ford Piquette Plant building, completed in 1904, was the Ford Motor Company’s first factory. This was where the legendary Model T was designed in 1908 and built until 1910 when Ford moved to larger premises and another famous motoring name, Studebaker, took it over.
Century-old cars are displayed on the original wooden factory floor, with paint peeling off concrete pillars, ceiling joists and brick walls. Guided tours also take in the third-floor Experimental Room where the Model T was developed.
However, Detroit’s main motoring attraction is The Henry Ford in Dearborn. Named after Ford’s founder, it comprises several experiences across 200 acres that need at least half a day to fully appreciate.
The Ford Rouge Factory Tour visits Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant in the River Rouge factory (once the world’s biggest), where its 10-acre sedum-covered roof is North America’s largest ‘living roof’. There, you look down from an observation deck onto the production line for Ford’s F-150 truck before visiting the Legacy Gallery to see some of the company’s most famous products. These include the Ford Mustang, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.
THE HENRY FORD. Next stop was the nearby Greenfield Village and adjacent Henry Ford Museum. First up was a ride past the Greenfield Village’s 90 historic buildings in a fleet of vintage Model Ts. I was in a 1914 model, leading the pack. All went well until it spluttered to a halt, requiring assistance from a quaint breakdown truck and a vehicle switch to complete the tour.
The Henry Ford Museum features many iconic cars as well as a display of presidential limousines, which includes the limo in which John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
Other galleries celebrate American innovators, aviation pioneers and their aircraft. Exhibits also chart America’s liberty struggles, including the bus that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on for a white passenger in 1955, sparking the US civil rights movement.
GOOD-VALUE GOLF. For golfers, Michigan has more than 600 public golf courses, with the highest concentration of them in the Detroit area and the state’s southeastern corner. They are playable from spring right through until late autumn.
Golf in Detroit is good value, thanks to the tough times that Motor City has endured which have kept green fees low. You can play many good courses for around $50 or less, while the most expensive ones won’t break the bank; a round on the top-rated 27-hole Shepherd’s Hollow Golf Club, between Detroit and Flint, maxes out at just $85 on summer weekends, including golf buggy.
Among the offerings are several layouts by the legendary Donald Ross, two of them at the private Detroit Golf Club. TPC of Michigan, a challenging Jack Nicklaus course in Dearborn, is also private but can be played if you stay at the Dearborn Hyatt Regency or MGM Grand Detroit.
Other top-notch facilities around Detroit include the Fox Hills Golf & Banquet Centre’s 63 holes in Plymouth, Robert Trent Jones Jr’s The Orchards (20 miles north in Washington) and the Arnold Palmer-designed Coyote Preserve Golf Club in Fenton, with its tough par-5, par-3, par-5 finish, known as the Coyote Trap.
FROM ITALY TO BAVARIA. Before leaving Detroit, we enjoyed northern Italian cuisine at the Andiemo Detroit Riverfront restaurant, in the GM Renaissance Centre Wintergarden, with a unique view across the Detroit River to the Canadian city of Windsor – Detroit being the only American city where you look due south to Canada.
At Flint, we stopped off at the Durant-Dupont Carriage Company office, the birthplace of General Motors, before going on to the Flint Cultural Centre campus. Visit the Buick Automotive Gallery, which contains classic and concept Buicks and Chevrolets; hands-on science and technology exhibits in the Alfred P Sloan Museum; and various art exhibitions in the Flint Institute of Arts.
German-flavoured Frankenmuth could have been lifted straight from Bavaria and plonked in the heart of Michigan. Besides its atmospheric Bavarian Inn Lodge bridge, horse-drawn carriage rides and glockenspiel, there are also quirky shops such as the Cheese Haus and Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland – the world’s largest Christmas store with more than 50,000 festive items for sale, all year round.
Zenders, where we had our farewell dinner, is in the record books as America’s largest family restaurant; seating 1,500 diners in nine German-themed dining rooms and serving one million guests every year.
From the motor museums to Motown, and not forgetting a little bit of Christmas, my Michigan tour was a real journey of discovery.
A self-confessed middle-aged alpha male, our reporter Angus Davies may well have found the perfect car for those who want the usual sports car associated with a mid-life crisis, but still have practical considerations to make. He waxes lyrical about life behind the wheel of this remarkable car as he drives to Close House Hotel and Golf in Heddon-on-the-Wall.
Good to know
GETTING THERE/GETTING AROUND
Direct daily flights from London Heathrow to Detroit are operated by Delta Air Lines (www.delta.com), with Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) starting daily flights on 1 June. Flights to Chicago from the UK are operated by Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines (www.aa.com) and United Airlines (www.united.com). Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) flies via Dublin, where passengers pre-clear US immigration and customs. Rental cars from all the major companies are available at arriving airports.
WHERE TO STAY
Westin Book Cadillac, Detroit www.bookcadillacwestin.com
MotorCity Casino Hotel, Detroit www.motorcitycasino.com
Bavarian Inn Lodge, Frankenmuth www.bavarianinn.com
WHERE TO VISIT
Gilmore Car Museum, Kalamazoo www.gilmorecarmuseum.org
Air Zoo, Portage, Kalamazoo www.airzoo.org
The Henry Ford, Dearborn www.thehenryford.org
Ford Piquette Plant, Detroit www.tplex.org
Motown Museum, Detroit www.motownmuseum.org
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit www.dia.org
Flint Cultural Centre, Flint www.flintculturalcenter.com
Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, Frankenmuth www.bronners.com
Travel Michigan www.michigan.org
Detroit Metro CVB www.visitdetroit.com
Flint and Genesee CVB www.flintandgenesee.org
Frankenmuth CVB www.frankenmuth.org