Detroit bankruptcy could force sale of city’s historic car collection

Facing a debt estimated at $15 billion and with cash running short, the state-appointed emergency manager overseeing the city of Detroit's finances has repeatedly warned that a municipal bankruptcy remains a strong possibility. Last week, the city's arts patrons raised alarms over the prospect that creditors could force the city to sell art from the Detroit Institute of Arts — which sports several paintings from artists such as Van Gogh, Matisse and Warhol that could fetch more than $100 million at auction.

But the city also owns a less well-known treasure trove of historic and classic cars, donated over the decades by automakers and families of the U.S. auto industry's founders. While none of them approaches the value of a Rembrandt, they're the kind of vehicles that collectors rarely have a chance to bid on — and some, like the first true prototype of the Ford Mustang, could easily top seven figures if ever hauled to market.

As with the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Historical Museum is overseen by a nonprofit foundation that raises money to maintain the collection and draw visitors to its artifacts — but under a 1945 agreement, the historical pieces themselves belong to the city. The museum doesn't have the room to display more than a few cars at a time, so most of the 75 vehicles in its holdings are kept in a warehouse in inflated plastic bubbles to protect them from dust and decay.

None of them may hold more value than the 1963 Ford Mustang II, a concept car built by hand at Ford to prepare the public for the reveal of the production Mustang a year later. Powered by a customized 289 V-8 with Shelby heads, the Mustang II concept toured auto shows for a couple of years before being put into storage; Ford donated it to the museum in 1975, and it was restored to running order a few years ago. Given that a modern movie-prop Mustang brought $1 million at auction earlier this month, the ur-Mustang could command a value well above that.

Close by in the warehouse sits several other singular pieces of '60s-era muscle car history, including the 1963 Ford Cougar II show-car — essentially an early Shelby Cobra re-bodied by Ford, and briefly considered as a potential Corvette killer. The city also owns one of nine surviving Chrysler Turbine test cars, only two of which have ever moved into private hands. The first car ever to wear the Cadillac badge, a 1905 closed runabout that Cadillac and Lincoln founder Henry Leland used as his personal car for decades, belongs to the city, as does several other family-owned machines from estates such as the Dodge brothers.

The uproar over the DIA's art raised several questions, starting with whether a bankruptcy should strip Detroit of its cultural icons or even if the terms of the gifts by which the city acquired its masterpieces allowed it to ever sell them for cash. Those same questions apply to its automotive treasures, which arguably played a larger role in making the Motor City great. But those treasures also seem more vulnerable, given their lower value, the fact they're rarely displayed and the yawning needs of the city for cash to pay for basic services.

I asked both the emergency manager's office and the Detroit Historical Society to comment on the potential for a bankruptcy to force a sale of historic vehicles, and neither have responded yet. City officials have called bankruptcy a last resort, and even in a Chapter 9 filing creditors can't order a municipal government to sell assets. Yet there's a real potential that the Motor City will soon face a reckoning that demands it pay for its future with the jewels of the past.

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