When do museums cease to be relevant?
That’s the big question for Tim Dye, curator and founder of the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum in Pontiac.
Last year, the museum that honors the history of General Motor’s Pontiac automobile brand -- discontinued in 2009 -- brought 20,000 visitors to downtown Pontiac. In the fourth year since its founding, Dye said the vast majority of visitors were from other parts of the country and even Europe.
“There’s a curiosity about the brand because of its association with Route 66,” Dye said. “A lot of visitors come here because of Pontiac’s location on Route 66.”
Dye realizes that at some point the memory of Route 66 and the Pontiac brand will have become virtually unknown to a generation that has lived on Interstate 55 and driven mostly Fords and Chevrolets.
But today, there are still plenty of baby boomers around who remember the golden road and the “wide-tracking Pontiac.”
“What we’re trying to do is keep the brand relevant,” Dye said.
Two prototype 1985 Grand Prix automobiles were brought in for exhibition at the museum, an example of Dye reaching out to young people today. One of the cars is from the Richard Petty Museum in Randleman, N.C.
Petty’s involvement with the brand came about when he was a consultant to GM on the design of the car. NASCAR required around 1,000 cars to be built for the public before the body style could be put on the put on the track, Dye said.
Dye’s ability to bring rare automobiles to Pontiac could be a case study for anyone wanting to open a public museum.
“I only own about 20 Pontiacs,” Dye said. “But I’ve got access to hundreds of collectible cars across the country.”
Dye’s interest in the brand started when he was 16 and purchased a 1968 Pontiac GTO through his father. The GTO was a classic '60s muscle car. At auction, reconditioned vehicles typically sell for more than $100,000.
“There are a lot of collectors that have dozens, if not hundreds, of cars in their collections,” he said. “What they don’t have is what I have.”
Dye’s Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum is the only museum of its kind in the world. What makes it unique is not the cars. It’s what happened after Dye bought that first GTO.
“I was at my uncle’s house and noticed that he had a bottle of GTO cologne on his dresser,” Dye said.
“He gave me the cologne, figuring it was fitting for my new car.”
And that’s the secret of building a car museum, he said.
“We have stuff no one else has,” Dye said.
Dye’s museum is filled with Pontiac memorabilia that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. He has every hood ornament ever put on a Pontiac automobile on display in a huge class case. He has repair manuals for many of the models through the ages in his large library that is open to the public. He has rare dealer incentive materials.
One item, stretched across the hood of a 1965 GTO valued at $95,000, is plain strange: a stuffed artificial tiger rug.
“There was this dealer promotion in 1965 that was designed to draw attention to the engine of the car,” he said. “Dealers were given the rug to sell the cars.”
The GeeTO Tiger engine is long forgotten, but the fact that Dye has such novel memorabilia has made him sought out in the Pontiac community.
“We have people wanting to donate highly valuable automobiles to the museum today,” he said. “They’ve figured out that we’re serious about what we’re doing here.”