A decade ago, he started a museum for Pontiac vehicles in Pontiac, Illinois.
In the middle of nowhere, opening that small museum in a small town — on historic Route 66 — brought visitors from around the world. The admission is free, but many of those visitors still leave real money behind while ogling GM’s dead brand.
Now the Pontiacpreneur wants to expand in a new museum, in the other Pontiac. Tim Dye says the Pontiac Transportation Museum he’s creating inside a former elementary school, just west of downtown Pontiac, Michigan, can do even better than his original spot. Dye said he will shoot for 50,000 visitors a year, giving a boost to the hopeful city that once built GM’s storied brand.
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“We’ve got 55 cars here already,” he says, sounding as amazed as his visitors, during a tour of the dimly lit, unheated school whose interior walls have been blasted away. A dozen of those cars are his.
Pontiac cars may be extinct, but they still abound, as do their fans and collectors. None is more enthused than Dye, so taken with plans for the museum that he and his wife bought a house nearby. For three years they’ve split their time between the house in Michigan and the one in Pontiac, Illinois, where Dye uses a museum office to edit and design the monthly bible of vintage Pontiac owners — “Smoke Signals.” Circulation: 10,000.
Dye and his wife, Penny Dye, also have a house in Oklahoma where he keeps thousands of items of Pontiac literature and lore: showroom brochures, ad posters, model cars, ashtrays, matchbooks and much more.
“I only own 20 cars, but I have the largest Pontiac library in the world,” he says.
“When GM announced they were discontinuing the Pontiac, I looked at my wife and said, ‘I guess it’s up to us.’ We had to preserve this.” He also collects materials about a certain Native American.
“I probably have the largest collection of things about Chief Pontiac. I’m writing a book about his legacy,” he says. A legendary Ottawa chief, Pontiac and his followers once occupied what later became Oakland County. According to online histories, Pontiac led attacks in 1763 against British soldiers at Fort Detroit, triggering a widespread uprising among other tribes before the chief made peace with the British, then was assassinated by a rival tribesman.
Dye is aware that the Pontiac car name could be deemed offensive by some, as witnessed recently with the debate over the Jeep Cherokee nameplate. He says he “had some dinners” with representatives of the Ottawa tribe, and that “by the time we open up the museum, we hope to have their blessing.” Northern Michigan is home to several bands of federally recognized Ottawa, also known as Odawa, according to the state of Michigan website.
“Luckily, Pontiac Motor Division was very respectful of how they referred to Chief Pontiac,” Dye says.
Though Dye isn’t a wealthy car collector, he said he knows many. Dye worked most of his life in a printing plant, earning a middle-class living that ranks him with average car collectors, those who restore cars mainly with their own skill and elbow grease.
“My secret is, I always gave my wife my regular pay and used my overtime money on cars. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been all about Pontiacs,” he says.
Not so simple is Dye’s new money challenge. The future museum does own its building, thanks to retired real estate broker Mark Thomas, also a car buff, who donated the school and adjoining grounds, as well as providing some rare old vehicles from Thomas’ own collection. Dye says he assigned the fledgling museum to the same 501(c)3 nonprofit entity that holds the Pontiac museum in Illinois. But he needs at least $1 million to “get the doors open”; that is, to rehab the school building inside and create a museum-worthy facade outside. He foresees nothing fancy.
“We envision cement floors and a real basic interior. The cars and the displays are the things we’re concentrating on,” he says.
The pandemic stunted his fundraising, as it has for many other nonprofits across the nation. In mid-January, however, the effort took on fresh urgency after organizers of Detroit’s big annual auto show announced they’d scaled down the event, renamed it Motor Bella and moved it to Pontiac’s M1 Concourse in September. That had Dye and his supporters vowing that, no matter what shape their building is in, the museum will hold tours for auto show patrons and journalists to coincide with the event.
“Motor Bella can really put us on the map,” Dye says. To recruit fresh support, Dye led a tour last week of civic and political leaders, letting the USA TODAY Network’s Detroit Free Press tag along. Here’s how it sounded, edited for clarity and space.
First, museum board member and key fundraiser, Terry Connolly, a retired GM engineering executive, gathered guests for a quick lecture and slide show. Why call it a “transportation museum?” Because Pontiac the city is about much more than Pontiac the car, although that’s quite a tale by itself — one that includes the launch of the first muscle car.
The city began as a leader at building horse-drawn carriages in the 1800s — and the museum has several to display. Then came horseless carriages and rapid growth.
Connolly: “Pontiac’s early prosperity owed as much to trucks as to cars. Truck manufacturing got rolling as early as 1904, adding electric trucks in 1912.”
Yet, building cars was also a key part of those early years. Then came motor bikes and motorcycles, farm tractors, countless trucks for both world wars, the amphibious “Ducks” for World War II, and buses as well as motor homes. Wrapped through it all were Pontiacs, starting with the 12-horsepower Pontiac Runabout in 1908 and ending in 2010, when GM assembled the very last one — a white G6 sedan, according to news stories at the time.
Connolly flashed slides that told how Pontiac, long the staid family car in GM’s lineup, gained machismo in 1955. That’s when Pontiac retooled its look and advertising to become “a young man’s car,” he said.
Sales swelled, and so did the factory that sat north of downtown Pontiac. Within a decade, it filled a full square mile, ready to launch the first muscle car when a handsome engineer turned boss named John DeLorean stuffed a hot V-8 engine into the little 1964 Pontiac Tempest. The big power plant and other tweaks transformed the modest Tempest into the Pontiac GTO, which soon inspired rock songs, cruising on Woodward Avenue and fleets of muscular clones, including Pontiac’s own Firebird.
Next came some trivia. The plastic bumpers on early GTOs were head turners that “basically ended chrome bumpers in the entire industry.” Then came a wrap-up.
Connolly: “Two key things we’ll do at this museum is preserve and communicate history. But we also want to help revive the city of Pontiac.” A slide says, Revving the economic engine of Pontiac.
Connolly: “Obviously, we require a capital infusion to open the doors.”
Then the Rev. Doug Jones, pastor of Pontiac’s big Welcome Missionary Baptist Church, stepped forward. Jones is no car collector, although in 1997 he pushed the city to formally join the Woodward Dream Cruise. He later became volunteer president of the Dream Cruise operating board. With eyes twinkling, Jones tried to warm up the audience, rapidly chilling in the unheated old school.
Jones: “You’ve enjoyed our coffee, you’ve enjoyed our muffins, now we need some money.” After laughter, he turns serious: “I think if there are any public funding opportunities, that would be very valuable.”
Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter: “We’ve very bullish on Pontiac. This is an amazing visit, I have to say. … I think I will go back and share this with my economic development people. They know how we can help.”
Jones: “If we can get this going, it will work wonders for Pontiac.”
Dye: “In Illinois, the city owns the museum building and provides it free to us. But Pontiac, Illinois, had no history with the car. Here in Michigan, this is where it all began, not just the Pontiac car but the entire transportation industry. …”
Mike McGuinness, executive director of the Oakland History Center and president of the Pontiac School Board, referring to Dye: “This is arguably the most renowned expert on this car, and he’s nationally known. By making the museum not just about Pontiac cars but also all kinds of transport; this is about military history, women’s history, African American history — the whole context. … Even Colleen Peters, Sen. (Gary) Peters’ wife, her grandfather came here from Mexico to find work.” (One in five Pontiac residents is of Hispanic heritage, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.)
Dye leads the tour group through the museum, and through Pontiac’s history of putting Americans on wheels. The 20-minute stroll covers nearly two centuries, from horse-drawn buggies to a Fiero rally car to some of the last Pontiacs built.
Jones: “I hope everybody appreciates the tour. But the other thing I’m looking for is for you to tell everybody about it and help us get it up and running,”
Dye: “Um hmm.”
Jones: “We’re not getting the word out like I want. … This is a high point for Oakland County, Dave.” County Executive Coulter nods.
Jones: “It’s a tourist attraction. In Illinois, what have we got, 18,000 people coming to that museum?”
Dye: “Yeah. And the thing about a museum, it kind of does more for everything around it than it does for itself. The restaurants, the hotels, and the gas and all the shopping that brings — often the museum is the key. What they did in Illinois is, all the downtown businesses wanted the same thing, more foot traffic. They found there, the museum brought the foot traffic.”
Connolly: “That’s 18,000 visitors every year. And I think you’d say it’s on the order of 90% from basically outside the area code. A lot of those are foreign visitors.”
Dye: “Like I said before, this is almost like a storage facility at the moment. There’s no displays yet. But we’ve already got the Fiero Club coming here for their national convention (in 2023), which is a great economic boost.
“And then the Pontiac-Oakland Club International, which is the biggest club, is wanting to come, and the GTO Association of America. And that’s all because of this museum, which ain’t even open yet. The anticipation of it is bringing these groups here.”
To learn more or to donate, go to www.PontiacTransportationMuseum.org.