The Ford Heritage Vault Takes You Deep into Automotive History

Photo credit: Ford
Photo credit: Ford
  • The Ford Heritage Vault makes some of the automaker's archival information available to the public.

  • The Vault spans from 1903 to 2003 and covers brochures, images, and other records.

  • The Ford Heritage Vault is available for free and will offer more content as the website continues to develop.

After over 100 years in business, you’d be right to assume Ford’s historical archive is dense. But the scope of what Ford had stored away in its Dearborn archives is largely unknown because the company hasn’t really leveraged its historical documents. Instead, the company has looked at just preserving its history and moving forward. Well, thanks to the hard work of a small army of Ford employees, retirees, and Wayne State University students: you can appreciate it, too.

Ford digitized over 5,000 documents spanning 100 years of its operation. Available on the searchable Ford Heritage Vault website, these documents range from car images to relatively obscure optional equipment brochures. Say, if you wanted to see the brochure for your rare accessory steering wheel, a few keystrokes into the search bar on the Ford Heritage Vault site will produce the entire brochure for your reading pleasure.

You might expect the folks at Ford to throw this behind some obscene subscription service, or lock documents behind a paywall—this work wasn’t free, after all. Well, there’s even better news: It might be hard to imagine, but all of these documents, and the website that hosts them, are available free of charge. That means you can thumb through (and download) a digital copy of your 1969 Ford Mustang 429 Boss’s original sales brochure.

Photo credit: Ford
Photo credit: Ford

But wait, there's more. Ford says it will continue to add to its database, which should be welcomed news for any Ford fan and preservationist. We’re confident Ford has more treasure to share from its archives.

The Heritage Vault project wasn't just about scanning documents and uploading them to a website. No, Ford says the goal was to make this system widely accessible: The documents were made compatible with screen readers and translators that help people with special needs to access the information. Ford also has included a button on its website to request more accessible documents for these reasons. “These assets were born analog, and we have worked hard to bring them to the digital world,” said Ciera Casteel, a processing archivist for the project. “But digitizing isn’t enough. It was important to us that the Heritage Vault is accessible for everyone to enjoy.”

If you’re curious about when Ford started its archive, that’s a story itself. According to Ford, the archives started ahead of the company’s prominent 50th anniversary in 1953. Kicking off in 1951 at the Ford Fair Lane estate (built by Henry and Clara Ford as their home in 1915), the archive moved to the long-lost Rotunda in 1957. After the Rotunda burned, the archival information bounced around until landing at its current resting spot at the Ford Engineering Laboratory in 2015. This facility holds over 2 million negatives, 16,000 cubic feet of paper documents and nearly 51,000 moving assets that span Ford’s global operations.

Those climate-controlled archives are off limits, but you can check out the Ford Heritage Vault right now online. The site is live and full of interesting historical documents. But be warned, you may need a fair amount of time: This can quickly take you into the Ford rabbit hole.

Do you think more automakers should follow Ford’s formula and make its digital archives open to the public? Let us know your thoughts below.