Welcome to Stahl’s Crazy World of Cars

There is nothing subtle about the Stahl Museum. Located in an industrial park in Chesterfield, Michigan, it is a voluminous, warehouse-type space jammed packed not only with vehicles, but also period organs, juke boxes, gas station paraphernalia, neon signs, and automotive artifacts stuffed every available nook and cranny. Automotive advertisements hang from the rafters, and organ music blares from any one of the ornate instruments situated along the perimeter. As a personal collection of Ted Stahl, the museum reflects the interests and particular proclivities of its owner. As noted on the museum website, Stahl’s mission for the collection is ‘to build an appreciation for history;’ that of his wife Mary is ‘to see the smiles on the faces of our visitors.’

The museum is only open to the public Tuesday afternoons and the first Saturday of each month. Not surprisingly, it was quite crowded when I visited on a pleasant day in early April. Parents maneuvered small children through aisles of tightly packed cars while grey-haired guides answered questions and offered historical background. Younger volunteers cheerly took organ tune requests from the public. The atmosphere in Stahl’s can only be described as carnival like, a ‘fun house’ of a museum as it were. More than a mere collection of cars, Stahl’s refers to itself as ‘An American Auto Experience.’

That being said, Stahl’s car collection is quite impressive. It leans toward the vintage and brass eras, which no doubt reflects the owner’s predilection to bright, shiny, and over-the-top objects. Many of the cars display signage from past Concours shows, which, to the auto aficionado, serves as an indication of automotive importance and value. Stahl’s prides itself on its accumulation of ‘some of the world’s most rare and distinctive cars’ and ‘treasures from the past you won’t find anywhere else.’ The gigantic and fantastic music machines that boisterously fill the halls; the ornamented and embellished brass cars that reflect images of all who pass; the flashing roadside signage that cover the walls and hang from the ceiling; the outrageous movie cars in period displays; and the 50s automobiles parked around a drive in diner all contribute to a unique and often overwhelming experience.

While Mary Stahl’s name appears next to her husband’s on a number of automotive displays as an owner, women’s representation in the museum is minimal and somewhat predictable. Women’s preference for electric cars; Amelia Earhart’s promotion of the 1936 Terraplane; Bertha Benz’s famous road trip; and the custom built automobile of the wealthy Madame Lucienne Benitez-Rexach of France are the only mentions of female automotive involvement. Female imagery is limited to a ‘Rosie the Riveter‘ poster on the gas station wall [next to the rest room] and a couple of female mannequins in the diner display. As Stahl’s is, in fact, the vision of one male individual with very specific and unique automotive and mechanical interests, it is not surprising that representation of women as automotive drivers, users, and influencers are absent in other than the most unsurprising and unimaginative ways.

Auto enthusiasts looking for a fun and unique afternoon will surely enjoy time spent at Stahl’s. As the museum mission is ‘to educate, motivate, and inspire young people with a passion and appreciation for vintage vehicles,’ the staff at Stahl’s endeavors to make the experience memorable and fun for all family members. But if you decide to make a visit, just make sure to bring a set of earplugs with you.

Women at the Automotive Hall of Fame

My first visit to the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan was about 15 years ago. I remember being rather unimpressed; if, at that time, I had to describe what ATF was or what it was about, I would have remarked that it was an automotive institution devoted to the accomplishments of old white men. The current AHF website notes that the museum, established in 1939, was originally called the ‘Automobile Old Timers,’ which suggests my initial impression was not all that far off. The automotive industry is a historically masculine enterprise; it is not surprising that a museum focused on early industry leaders and innovators would reflect a single-minded and determined male perspective.

Bertha Benz

Due to the inherent nature of a ‘hall of fame,’ the AHF is not a typical car museum; it is not focused on automobiles but rather significant individuals in automotive history. As the promotional material explains, ‘The mission of the AHF is to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of individuals in the international motor vehicle history through awards and educational programs […]’ The AHF is a small museum occupying just one floor; a path winds its way through the exhibits that serves as a chronology of the industry’s important contributors, ending in the center hall which honors the AHF recipients. 

Lyn St. James

Much has changed since my initial AHF experience. While there can be no argument that the early auto industry was dominated by white men, much effort has been made to include women and people of color influential in automotive manufacturing, sport, and culture. Attention is given to the early female hall inductees, including Alice Ramsey, Denise McCluggage, Shirley Muldowney, Bertha Benz, and Janet Guthrie. A prominent exhibit featuring 2022 inductee Lyn St James includes one of her race cars; it is accompanied by a running video in which celebrated women such as Billie Jean King and First Lady Jill Biden praise St James not only for her many motorsports accomplishments but also for her continued work on behalf of women.

‘Nitro Nelli’ Goins

In honor of Black History Month, the AHF developed an extensive exhibit centered on the automotive achievements of African Americans. Of the 19 individuals singled out, six are women. In the AHF entry hall, the funny car of ‘Nitro Nelli’ Goins – an individual who opened doors for black women in motorsports – is on display. The focus on Goins and St James serve, perhaps, as an introduction to the AHF women in motorsports exhibit planned for late 2023. 

The transformation of the Automotive Hall of Fame from an institution focused on the accomplishments of a select group of homogeneous individuals to that which celebrates the hidden diversity within industry contributors is quite remarkable. It suggests that while the masculine origins of automobile history and culture are universally accepted and acknowledged, the automotive contributions of those who fall outside the mainstream are also worthy of recognition and respect.