Come for the cars, stay for the music

Stahl’s Automotive Collection combines the Motor City's passion for cars and Motown's passion for music

In the mid-1990s, Ted Stahl’s business was growing and he needed more space for his new employees to park their cars. He approached a neighboring home owner about his property and they struck a deal: Stahl could buy the man’s old house, but he also had to buy the man’s 1930 Ford Model A roadster, and presumably promise to restore the car as well.

Stahl not only bought the property and the car, but he and his family restored the vehicle to the point that they entered it at Eyes on Design, the annual charity concours staged at the historic Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate on the shore of Lake St. Clair in suburban Detroit.

It was at that show that “the bug bit him,” said Terri Coppens, who for the past five years has been general manager of Stahl’s Automotive Collection, a quasi museum in Chesterfield, about 35 miles northeast of the Motor City.

Ted Stahl’s first collector car was this 1930 Ford Model A roadster, acquired when his business needed more room for parking and he bought an adjacent property

The ’30 Ford wears an “Uncle Augie” license plate in honor of its former owner who became an unofficial ‘uncle’ to the Stahl family

Stahl has always been a collector of vintage things, especially those mechanical. His grandfather, A.C. Stahl, created die-cast lettering and numbers in 1932 and GroupeSTAHL has contracts with the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball and major retail arts and crafts stores to supply the insignia you see on sports uniforms and apparel. 

If you’ve watched the NFL Draft on television and wondered how the right team jerseys with the newly drafted player’s name can be ready so quickly, it’s because a team from Stahl is backstage and produces them with seconds of a draft choice being made.

Detroit may be known as the Motor City, but also as Hockey Town, and the annual Veteran’s Day fundraising effort includes an exhibition game between the Detroit Red Wings alumni and Stahl’s own team.

Technically, the Stahl’s Automotive Collection isn’t an official museum since it (a) doesn’t charge an admission fee, though donations are welcome and (b) it is open to the public only from 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month, plus during Thursday evening cruise-in car shows during the summer and for Stahl’s annual Veteran’s Day gala. 

But while the facility may not be an official museum, its collection is certainly of world-class quality, and it includes more than Ted Stahl’s amazing car collection.

Coppens shared the story of how couples come to Stahl’s because the husband wants to see the cars and the wife arrives “kicking and screaming, they don’t want to be here, yet another car museum,” she said. 

But then they experience what else the museum has to offer and “they come back, with their friends but not their husbands.”

Largest of the mechanical music machines in the collection is this circa 1920 Gaudin 125-key dance organ, which towers over the 1911 Oldsmobile Autocrat ‘Yellow Peril’ racing car parked next to it

Another music machine in the collection is the 1922 Link Model AX orchestrion, which looks like a typical player piano until you open its stained-glass doors and discover it also includes a xylophone, mandolin, triangle, wood block, snare drum, tambourine and tom tom. Edwin Link founded the company. His son, Ed, applied the technology to produce early flight simulators and his company still produces simulators under the L3 Technologies banner

That’s because that, in addition to the automobiles, Ted Stahl has collected mechanical musical instruments, from player pianos to huge orchestrions that are large enough to require gymnasium-size wall space and generate sound that can fill an orchestra hall.

Just as Ted Stahl caught the car-collecting bug after taking his ’30 Ford to a concours, he became fascinated with the mechanical music machines after attending the Milhaus Collection auction in Florida in 2012, when the brothers Bob and Paul were selling the cars, music machines and other items they’d collected throughout their lives.

Stahl’s plays the instruments during its public hours and Coppens said women often return, sometimes bringing their knitting or such with them simply to enjoy the music.

Stahl’s Automotive Collection opened in 2006 in St. Clair Shores but outgrew that facility and moved to Chesterfield in 2011. But the building can hold only about half of Ted Stahl’s collection and he’s acquired neighboring land for potential expansion.

The current building is in a typical suburban industrial park and there’s only a small sign outside indicating you’ve arrived at Stahl’s, but entering the building is like opening a geode. The exterior may appear to be just another roundish rock, but the inside sparkles with crystals.

In the case of Stahl’s, those crystals are music machines and classic cars that are maintained in running order and are driven frequently. Stahl’s shows its cars at concours and shows and recently had six vehicles participating in The Great Race.

Automobiles and big music boxes aren’t the only mechanical items in the collection. This is Wendell, a mechanical elephant built in 1951 and later restored and, like the cars around it, still gets exercised from time to time

A friend, Jerry Drenzek, is a docent at the collection and has bugged me for several years to pay a visit. I finally listened, and am glad I did. I left wishing I’d paid attention to his suggestions much earlier, and am eager for an opportunity to return. I fully expect you’ll feel the same way after your visit to Stahl’s.

For more information, visit the Stahl’s website.

 

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  • R. Glenn Stevenson
    September 16, 2019, 4:02 PM

    Would love to have a copy of this Journal article regarding the Stahl’s! Being “electronically challenged” I do not know how to save or print out the well written article?

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