By: Peter Ellegard
Little more than three years ago the wheels came off America’s motor city.
The once-mighty industrial powerhouse, and original home of the Motown (motor town) record company, Detroit declared itself bankrupt in July 2013 – the largest city to do so in US history.
After such a monumental financial breakdown, the end of the road loomed large.
Its “Big Three” auto makers – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles subsidiary FCA US) – had slashed production, closed plants and laid off staff in recent times as Asian competition hit sales.
However, reports of the death of the city that began auto manufacturing in 1899 and gave the world the Model T Ford, Mustang and many other have, to paraphrase Mark Twain, been greatly exaggerated.
Less than 18 months later, in December 2014, The D exited bankruptcy after restructuring its finances. Philanthropic support meant it was able to avoid selling off the family silver, the Detroit Institute of Arts’ treasured art collection.
Check under its hood and the engine is still ticking over. The road to recovery will be long and arduous but Detroit’s resilience is confounding critics. And it makes a fascinating place to visit as part of a Michigan tour, particularly for anyone interested in America’s automobile history, its music heritage, the arts…and golf.
Before reaching Motown my tour took me to Kalamazoo, made famous by a Glenn Miller song and once home to the world’s largest taxi cab manufacturer, Checker Motors. The last Checker cab to roll off the assembly line in 1982 is one of the prize exhibits in the Gilmore Car Museum (www.gilmorecarmuseum.org), one of America’s top five auto museums, its collection displayed in vintage barns.
Just outside Kalamazoo in Portage is the Air Zoo (www.airzoo.org), a homage to aviation guaranteed to delight young and old. Its star exhibit is the fastest and highest-flying aircraft ever built – the awe-inspiring SR-71B Blackbird, capable of reaching Mach 3.5 and flying at 85,000 feet.
A city with a split personality, areas of urban decay and run-down buildings underline its financial plight. Yet its center has glorious architecture, with historic art deco and post-modern neogothic skyscrapers, among them over-the-the-top interior of the Guardian Building and the ornate exterior of the Fisher Building, juxtaposed with gleaming new glass and steel towers that soar above its revitalized riverfront.
Huge sports stadiums have augmented Detroit’s downtown in recent years. NFL team Detroit Lions have been touching down at Ford Field, an indoor multi-purpose venue incorporating the 1920s Hudson Warehouse on one side, since 2002. Comerica Park was built two years earlier as the home of MLB team Detroit Tigers but there are plans for the Tigers to move into a new riverfront stadium in 2020.
Detroit is also famous for hits of a different sort. Located in an unassuming two-story white house fronted by a trim lawn, with blue doors and window frames and a sign reading Hitsville USA, what is now the Motown Museum (www.motownmuseum.org) was the epicenter of America’s soul music scene from when impresario Berry Gordy founded it in 1959 until he relocated it to Los Angeles in 1972.
Many famous careers were launched in this small building, although Motown eventually occupied another seven neighboring houses. The list of artists with the Motown and Tamla record labels reads like a Who’s Who of Sixties and Seventies pop giants: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas and many more.
Converted into a museum in 1985 with everything left as it was in its heyday, a guided tour covers its history and displays of memorabilia, culminating in its legendary Studio A, where you can sing along to familiar Motown songs.
The city is still a music hub today. It hosts the world’s largest free jazz festival – the Detroit Jazz Festival – each July as well as the three-day Movement Electronic Music Festival each May.
But no visit to Detroit is complete without exploring its motoring history. The red-brick Ford Piquette Plant (www.tplex.org) building was the Ford Motor Company’s first factory. The legendary Model T was designed and built here, before Ford moved to larger premises in 1910 and another famous motoring name, Studebaker, took it over. Take a tour and see pristine Model Ts and other cars made there a century ago, displayed on the original wooden factory floor with paint peeling off concrete pillars, ceiling joists and brick walls.
Detroit’s main motoring attraction, however, is The Henry Ford (www.thehenryford.org), 13 miles from downtown in Dearborn. Named after Ford’s founder, it comprises several experiences spread across 200 acres.
The Ford Rouge Factory Tour visits Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant in the River Rouge factory, once the world’s largest. There, you look down from an observation deck onto the production line for Ford’s F-150 truck before visiting the Legacy Gallery to see some of the company’s most famous products, including the Ford Mustang.
The Henry Ford’ Greenfield Village comprises 90 historic buildings that you can tour past in vintage vehicles, while the Henry Ford Museum features a series of galleries, among them the presidential limousine in which John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
Before leaving Detroit, I dined on northern Italian cuisine at the Andiemo Detroit Riverfront restaurant (www.andiamoitalia.com/detroit-riverfront), in the GM Renaissance Centre Wintergarden, with a unique view across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario. Detroit being the only American city where you look due south to Canada.
Flint is one hour north-west of Detroit. There, the Durant-Dupont Carriage Company office was the birthplace of General Motors. The Flint Cultural Center campus is nearby; its buildings include the Buick Automotive Gallery (www.flintcultural.org/buickgallery.htm), which contains a collection of classic and concept Buicks and Chevrolets.
Head north about 30 minutes to the German-flavored Frankenmuth (www.frankenmuth.org), feels like stepping into Bavaria, but in the heart of Michigan. Besides its atmospheric Bavarian Inn Lodge, the town features a wooden covered bridge, horse-drawn carriage rides, glockenspiel, quirky shops such as the Cheese Haus (www.frankenmuthcheesehaus.com) and Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland (www.bronners.com), the world’s largest Christmas store and open all year round, and Zehnders (www.zehnders.com) – America’s largest family restaurant, seating 1,500 diners in nine German-themed dining rooms and serving one million guests every year.
To work off that food, Frankenmuth has several excellent golf courses on its doorstep. Scottish-style The Fortress (www.zehnders.com/fortress-golf-course-frankenmuth) is within walking distance of the town center while the upscale Timbers Golf Club (http://timbersgolfclub.com) resort course and scenic Green Acres Golf Course (http://greenacresgc.net) are both just minutes from downtown.
Michigan has more than 600 public golf courses, playable from spring until late fall. Many are in the Detroit area and south-eastern Michigan.
Golf in Detroit is good value, thanks to the tough times that Motor City has endured which have kept green fees low. You can play many good courses for around $50 or less, while the most expensive ones won’t break the bank; a round on the top-rated 27-hole Shepherd’s Hollow Golf Club (www.shepherdshollow.com), between Detroit and Flint, maxes out at just $85 on summer weekends, including golf cart.
Among the Detroit area’s offerings are several layouts by the legendary Donald Ross, two of them at the private Detroit Golf Club. TPC Michigan (www.clubcorp.com/Clubs/TPC-Michigan), a challenging Jack Nicklaus course in Dearborn, is also private but can be played if you stay at the Dearborn Hyatt Regency or MGM Grand Detroit.
Other top-notch facilities around Detroit include the Fox Hills Golf & Banquet Center’s 63 holes in Plymouth (www.foxhills.com), Robert Trent Jones Jr’s The Orchards (www.orchards.com) 20 miles north in Washington and Arnold Palmer-designed Coyote Preserve Golf Club (www.coyotepreserve.com) in Fenton, south of Flint, with its tough par-5, par-3, par-5 finish known as the Coyote Trap.
Play south-west Michigan’s courses and you won’t be singing the Motown Blues…