Eye Candy: Engines Exposed at The Henry Ford

Photos by Kevin A. Wilson

We see a lot of engines at car shows. More than we might like, really — the practice of parking the car and popping the hood is widespread but can ruin attendees’ view of a vehicle’s design and disrupt photo opportunities. A line of show cars yawning is not often a pretty picture.

Exhibitors may expect judges will be swayed by cleanliness and detailing, but we — and most show judges — would rather see the car closed first and have the owner open it up for inspection later (and then only if the under hood presentation is included in judging criteria).

At museums, though, the problem is usually the other way around — even the most intriguing powerplants remain hidden away and opportunities to see them are rare.

During the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, curators at The Henry Ford responded to the pleas of hardware-hungry car geeks by opening the hoods on some of their treasures, primarily for the benefit of industry and media insiders attending special events at the museum for the short run of the auto show. Afterward, the hoods slammed shut again… for five years.

But now they’ve done it again, this time making sure the public at large gets a chance to see these hidden gems by keeping the exhibit open for nine weeks, ending March 15.

Transportation curator Matt Anderson selected 40 vehicles from The Henry Ford’s outstanding Driving America display for the special exhibit dubbed “Engines Exposed.” Twice during this year’s Detroit show and once more (on Saturday, March 14 at 1 p.m.), Anderson shares a deeper look with a digitized presentation in the museum’s Douglas Drive-In Theatre.

Earlier this month, he walked us around the sho in early February, explaining that he’d chosen these particular cars because their powertrains were historically significant in one way or another.

And the museum’s collection includes some real landmarks and rarities — yes, there’s a small-block Chevy and a flathead Ford, but also a Bugatti Royale, a Tucker, a White steam car, a Chrysler Turbine, and several outstanding customs and race cars in the mix.

The Henry Ford takes a preservationist approach to the vehicles in its collection so few of the engine bays opened for public viewing are up to concours or even cruise-night standards of gleam and glitter. Instead, they look much as they would have in regular service — keep in mind, though, that regular service might mean running the Indy 500 or 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Also, due to the way the cars are displayed, not all the engine bays are easily seen by visitors — the museum has tried to address this by mounting mirrors under some hoods (including the 1965 Mustang and 1956 Chevy Bel Air), but not all the cars that could use a mirror had one when we visited (the Corvair and VW Beetle, for instance, are mounted on platforms too high for easy engine viewing).

Even after this special display ends, there are many opportunities to see engines at the museum — some cars, like the Ford 999 racer, never did hide their engines inside the bodywork. There are also stand-alone displays of an early Ford V-8, a Wankel rotary (disassembled), the single-cylinder gas engine Henry Ford first built at his kitchen sink, and more.

Plus, 18 digital kiosks in the Driving America display routinely include details about the powertrains in telling the stories of what sets these cars apart. Consider, for instance, the Woods Dual-Power Hybrid Coupe of 1916, which put both a gas engine and electric motor to work 80 years before the Toyota Prius (one of which is also included in Engines Exposed).

After March 15, we can’t say when The Henry Ford will repeat this opportunity — Anderson says it will definitely happen again and that some have suggested doing it every year during the auto show.

“I’m not so sure, though,” he told us. “Maybe it should be more of a special event, every couple or three years.”

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