If you’re reading this site, you’ve probably heard of the GM Heritage Center. You’ve also probably never been there. I have, and it was like dying and going to automotive heaven.
I was going to try and write this whole trip up as one post, but the more I looked at the photographs, the more I realized: that just wasn’t going to happen. This was – without a doubt – the most amazing automotive experience of my entire life. The things I saw in this building, tucked away in Sterling Heights, Michigan, I will never ever forget for as long as I live. Thanks to a gentleman from my car club who used to be an employee of GM, a small tour group was organized that consisted of him, his wife, a friend of his who had some pretty cool cars of his own (we’ll get to that later…), two friends of ours, and of course, yours truly.
Everyone knows that GM is the world’s largest automaker. Their history spans over 100 years of innovation, forward thinking, racing excellence, and safety. Did you know that GM was the first car company to embrace and actively develop automobile styling? Way back in 1926, when most cars on the road were little more than buggies with engines, GM hired the auto industry’s first ever full time in-house design team.
GM was also responsible for many other automotive innovations that we may take for granted these days. For instance, way back in 1912 (that’s when the Titanic sank, for those of you keeping score at home), a man named Charles “Boss” Kettering invented the first electric starter. Prior to Kettering, there were hand cranks on cars to start them. Kettering was so brilliant that he established the GM Research Lab, which was also the first in-house R&D center in the industry. While the media may try and downplay American involvement in the auto industry these days, without GM, the automobile as we know it might not have ever come to fruition.
Anyway, aside from all of that, GM has this building. They call it the Heritage Center. In it, they house a rotating collection of some of their most famous, influential, and significant vehicles. Many #001 cars end up here, or some that are the last off of a particular car or production plant line. It’s also not open to the public. They will organize tours, but only for large groups or businesses. It’s a hidden gem in an unassuming building not very close to much of anything. It’s literally off the map.
Thanks to a friend of mine, I was given the opportunity to tour the facility while I was visiting the area for the Detroit Auto Show. As many of you know, GM is my favorite automotive manufacturer. Sure, I like most all cars and trucks in some way or another, but all of the vehicles that pull at my heartstrings the most are General Motors products. In other words, getting the opportunity to tour the GM Heritage Center was like stepping on hallowed ground, like a pilgrimage to Mecca, like ascending the stairs to the gates of automotive heaven itself.
When I say that the Heritage Center is a hidden gem, I mean it. As soon as I opened the door, I was greeted by the sight of this:
I drooled. When Cadillac unveiled that car at Pebble Beach a couple of years ago, I thought it looked good. In person? It’s MAGNIFICENT. It’s so large and imposing, exactly what a Cadillac should be. Bold. Brash. American. I knew I was in for a treat.
After a brief introduction, the double doors were opened, and what I saw was nothing short of sensory overload. You can’t help but just stand there, mouth agape. Literally every poster car I had as a child was right here in this room at arm’s reach. I didn’t know where to look. Left, right, up, down, every direction held some other amazing piece of automotive history. Right from the get go, though, the Heritage Center had a special surprise for me:
Yes, that really is the very first Buick Regal GNX. The GNX, powered by a tweaked version of Buick’s turbo 3.8 liter V6, was built in very limited numbers (547, to be exact) by ASC/McLaren for General Motors, and was the fastest vehicle sold by GM in 1987 – even faster than the Corvette. These turbo Buicks hold a special place in my family. My father bought one new in 1987 after losing a race in his only-30-day-old 1987 Monte Carlo SS to a Dodge Omni GLHS (which is something else entirely that we’ll cover in another post… stay tuned). He traded the Monte for the Regal, and the rest was history. He met my mother because of that car, that’s how cool those were even when new. Unfortunately, my father passed away after losing his battle with inflammatory breast cancer in March 2013, so seeing the GNX right as I opened the door was something special.
The very last 1996 Impala SS was there as well. The sedan counterpart to my wagon that I hold so dear, the Impala SS was the last of GM’s B-body body-on-frame full size sedans. With a Corvette-derived LT1 V8, four wheel disc brakes, leather seats based on a Buick design, and seating for five adults, the 1996 Impala SS was quintessential 4-door muscle car of the 1990s.
There were also many of GM’s experimental vehicles placed on display. Of note was the Electrovair.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. A Corvair that runs on electricity. Granted, at the time the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, so the entire trunk (frunk?) was filled with large batteries, but the important part here was the fact that GM was experimenting with alternative energy many decades before you could even spell “Prius.” They also had a Corvair van that was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Remember all the buzz and positive press BMW was getting for “pioneering” hydrogen power? Yeah, they weren’t the first.
The Heritage Center was much more than just cars, trucks, and experiments, though. In another corner of the massive facility, there was an incredibly impressive display of engines that GM had built over the years. From the Lotus-designed Mercury Marine-built 32 valve dual overhead cam LT5 used in the Corvette ZR1, all the way up to a model of the 1000 horsepower naturally aspirated 16 cylinder engine used in this, the Cadillac Sixteen concept, which pays homage to the 16 cylinder Cadillacs of the 1930s.
One of the most interesting engines on display in this section, though, was this:
In case you’re confused, that’s a twin-turbocharged 455 cubic inch Oldsmobile big block. Just let that sink in for a moment. As if the torque from a naturally aspirated 455 weren’t ridiculous enough for nearly ANY application, the gearheads at GM took it a step further and added a pair of snails. In fact, GM and Oldsmobile were the first company to have a turbocharged passenger car – way back in 1962. The second turbocharged passenger car? That was GM too: the Corvair Monza Spyder (later renamed Corsa).
Aside from the Sixteen mentioned earlier, there were many other concept cars on display, some new, some old – and in fact, the very first one ever.
The Buick Y-Job was the first concept car ever. That’s right. GM invented the concept car. Harley J. Earl, the man behind timeless designs such as the first Corvettes, actually drove this car around the streets of Detroit. He stopped everywhere with it, asked people’s opinions, and used it as a way to gauge interest in vehicle styling cues that would eventually show up in later GM vehicles. It was technologically advanced, too. The Y-Job has a system where if it rains, the car can sense it and automatically raise the convertible top.
Did I mention that this thing was built in 1938? Yeah, that’s kind of important.
Here’s a short video of some of the iconic Cadillac concept cars that were on display. Among them, the Cien, which was built to commemorate Cadillac’s 100th anniversary, the Evoq, which would eventually morph into the Y-body Corvette platform-mate Cadillac XLR, and the Converj, which became the Voltec-platformed Cadillac ELR, which I wrote about here.
That’s all for this portion of the GM Heritage Center. Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll see many more historic vehicles from General Motors’ colorful and historic past, present, and future.