Emeritus pens book about local vintage car museum

contact: Jeanne Baron
| WMU News


KALAMAZOO--Ducking into Western Michigan University's Waldo Library during a downpour 30 years ago led Dr. David O. Lyon to become addicted to the history of automobiles.

After retiring in 1998, the WMU professor emeritus of psychology turned that addiction into a second career as an automotive historian and writer.

"I was crossing Western's campus between meetings. It was raining very hard, and I stopped at Waldo Library to get out of the storm," Lyon recalls. "I found the archives in the basement of the building, looked up the Kalamazoo-built Michigan car and found an interesting story about Maurice and Clarence Blood, who helped start the Michigan Automobile Co. at the end of 1902. I was hooked ... The rest, as they say, is history."

Lyon's first book, "Kalamazoo Automobilist," was published in 2002 and recounts the history of Kalamazoo's automobile manufacturers. His second book, "The Gilmore Car Museum: Miles from the Ordinary," was published in 2010 and tells the story of a still growing local attraction that is one of the top five car museums in the country.

The Gilmore museum book is gaining attention these days due to completion late last year of a major expansion that puts the attraction on the verge of becoming the nation's premier automotive history destination. The project not only allows members of the public to visit year round for the first time, but also increased the vehicle collection to nearly 300 cars and more than doubled the size of on-site facilities.

Lyon explains that the Gilmore Car Museum began as a hobby collection of restored cars owned by Donald S. Gilmore, a former president of the Upjohn Co. He and his wife, Genevieve, opened the 30-vehicle collection to the public in 1966 on a 90-acre site in Hickory Corners, Mich.

Forty-five years later, the site sports a huge, new automotive heritage center plus more than a dozen historic structures, including Michigan barns, a train depot, a 1930s gas station and a functioning 1940s diner. It also serves as the home for the Classic Car Club of America Museum, Tucker Historical Collection and Library, Midwest Miniatures Museum and several other museums.

Lyon's 156-page coffee-table book traces the history of the Gilmore family from the late 19th century, explores the car museum complex's development, and describes the evolution of the museum collection and the architectural plan for its sprawling campus.

The volume uses more than 200 vintage images and modern color photographs to illustrate the automobile collection's organization into five themes that being with the Edwardian Era and end with the Ensuing Decades, which concentrates on the decade of the 1950s. The final section of the book illustrates the application of the museum curator's criteria for selecting automobiles and other artifacts for exhibit.

Lyon joined the WMU faculty in 1963 and retired in 1998 after serving the last 10 years as director of collective bargaining. He is a longtime volunteer at the Gilmore Car Museum and serves on its Advisory Committee.

He says he has always had an interest in antique cars and has always enjoyed history. In fact, Lyon earned a bachelor's degree in history from Hamilton College before earning a doctoral degree in psychology from Indiana University and making the latter field his professional focus.

But it took that downpour back in the 1980s to weave together his love of history and autos.

"According to Lou Holtz, former football coach at Notre Dame, you need something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to," Lyon says. "Pursuing a new 'career' in automotive history gave me two out of the three--something to do and to look forward to. My wife, Jane, is the third part of Lou's statement. She and I own a 1912 Buick that we tour in during the summer months. In a sense, we live, or is it re-live, the automotive history that I study and write about."