Photos by Larry Edsall
The building is your typical suburban light industrial-park structure, a big, nondescript, uninviting and uninspiring box. If you can find it in the first place, there’s almost nothing that would cause you to take a second glance.
Drive past with any speed and you won’t even notice the small sign tucked up close to the building. And even when you see the sign, what catches your eye is the four-number address: 6400.
But look closely and you may notice there’s a word just below those numbers. The word is Heritage, though it’s written in a stylish font in which the H looks more like a J so you can be forgiven if you read it as Jeritage.
Actually, it looks like this: J-Ieritage.
But look closely and you’ll notice that just below Jeritage is another word, Center, and there’s a small blue box just to the left of the strangely written capital H.
The blue box contains two letters, G and M, indicating that this building is, indeed, the GM Heritage Center, the all-but-secret 80,000-square-feet of space where General Motors hides its history.
That history comprises some 1,500 linear feet of documents, photographs, etc., and some 500 vehicles, perhaps 150 of them arrayed at any given time within the big main exhibition hall, where you also find a few displays of artifacts and, up on the walls, several neon dealership signs.
Usually, the cars are parked by brands and in chronological-ordered rows, a row of GMC trucks over here, Pontiacs placed over there, Cadillacs back there, etc. On our last visit, there also was a special row of station wagons and another of experimental electric vehicles.
The center of the big room usually is set up for meetings or meals. Technically, the facility is open only for special events — GM functions, car club visits, etc. However, Heritage Center manager Greg Wallace said that if there’s no such event taking place, he’ll usually let people in to visit during normal business hours, which in the case of the GM Heritage Center are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
As Wallace put it, he’s not going to turn away a family that has come on vacation from Australia, or, for that matter, from Amarillo or Atlanta.
Besides, he added, nearly every day people come to the Heritage Center and share artifacts or documents the staff has never seen before.
Typical of Detroit’s automakers, GM was never diligent about documenting its history, perhaps with the exceptions of sales records and engineering patents.
For example, the Heritage Center has complete vehicle-building records, dating to 1903, only for the Cadillac division, in large part, Wallace said, because they’d been stuck into various small rooms and crannies in the old Clark Street assembly plant and Cadillac headquarters building instead of being thrown away and were discovered as Cadillac was moving out of that building in the late 1980s.