While most four-wheel-drive enthusiasts would argue that the proper place for any such vehicle is a trail, a beach, or a mud bog, a group in Michigan believes that some four-wheel-drive rigs belong in a museum and have started the process of building a collection for display, a collection that will include a rare 1956 Chevrolet brush truck with a NAPCO conversion.
“Over the years, I’ve visited a few other museums, and saw that nobody was really telling the story of four-wheel-drive’s development, nobody really has an all-inclusive four-wheel-drive museum,” said Keith Kodet, a cofounder of the Museum of Off-Road Adventure. “So I sat down with a few other enthusiasts to discuss how to get a museum to feature that story, then a light bulb went off and suddenly we’re in the museum business.”
Incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit earlier this year, the museum has gotten off to a fast start, Kodet said. In quick succession, the museum filled its board of directors; had a small space in Clay Township, Michigan, donated to it for two years; and found a half-dozen vehicles to add to the museum’s collection.
“We want to focus on the technology and development of four-wheel drive and off-highway travel,” Kodet said. “So we want to include everything from the early experiments up through the World War II Jeeps, the conversion boom of the Fifties and Sixties, and then what I call the second boom of the Eighties and Nineties with the proliferation of SUVs.
Among the vehicles already in the collection is the brush truck, which Kodet picked up last month. According to Kodet, the Chevrolet is rare on a number of counts. To begin with, its open-cab design — sans roof and doors — was typically used for light-duty ice cream trucks; only two medium-duty trucks intended for fire departments are known to have been built. And of those two, just one sports a Northwest Auto Parts Company four-wheel-drive conversion, offered as a dealer-installed or NAPCO-installed package until GMC began to offer it from the factory in 1956 and Chevrolet a year later.
The Damascus Volunteer Fire Department in Maryland, which ordered the truck new, eventually sold it to a sand hauler, who then sold it back to the fire department, which in turn sold it to a Maryland-based collector. Kodet said he only happened upon a listing for the truck earlier this year by chance and, after a promise to preserve the truck and not to cut it up for parts, was able to buy it for the museum. While it hasn’t been started since 1990, Kodet said on the museum’s blog that, after his team’s evaluation of the brush truck, they’ve determined that it will make for an excellent restoration candidate.
Other vehicles in the collection range from a couple of Toyota Land Cruisers, a Jeep Wagoneer, one of the last Isuzus sold in the American market, and a prototype Dodge Adventurer SUV from the Eighties built to compete against Chevrolet’s Suburban “that really tells the story about how competitive and hard the SUV market was,” Kodet said.
He also said he has been in discussions with other museums around the country — including the Four Wheel Drive Foundation museum, dedicated to the vehicles of the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company — and has received vehicle loan promises from several of them.
In addition, to tell the story of the technology’s development, Kodet has started to conduct video interviews with four-wheel-drive pioneers. One of the first was with the son of Jesse Livingood, who converted Ford Model Ts to four-wheel drive in the Teens and Twenties. “We sat down with him in Pennsylvania for a video interview, then we got to tour the family shop and see all the artifacts he had saved,” Kodet said.
Kodet said he and other museum officials have developed a punch list not only of vehicles they’d like to add to the collection — among them a Livingood Model T, a World War II Jeep, a Coleman-converted vehicle, and a vehicle converted by Marmon-Herrington — but also of pioneers they’d like to interview. “We want to interview them before losing that living history,” he said.
Plans for the museum also call for eventual expansion. The current space — about 4,000 to 5,000 square feet in part of a surplus quonset hut — will hold an estimated 28 vehicles, but Kodet said museum officials have already started to look for larger spaces. “We’re not dedicated to staying in Clay Township,” he said.
Funding has so far come from sales of a limited number of inaugural lifetime memberships, and Kodet said the museum will have some fundraising events prior to the tentative December 1 opening date.
For more information about the museum, visit TheMORA.org.