Every other week, it seems, another car museum somewhere closes, downsizes, merges, or faces some sort of existential financial trouble. Tim Dye sees this happening and has decided that the best way to provide for the long-term future of the eight-year-old Pontiac-Oakland Museum that he oversees in Pontiac, Illinois, with his wife, Penny, is to open a second, larger museum in Pontiac, Michigan.
“How many times do you hear about some rich guy who opens a museum then passes away, his family has an auction, and it’s all gone?” Tim Dye asked. “So we’re looking to provide some level of sustainability for the museum down the road after Penny and I are gone.”
While Dye, the editor of the Pontiac-Oakland Club International’s Smoke Signals magazine, said he did approach city officials in Pontiac, Michigan, about locating his museum there, he didn’t realize at the time that the city was still smarting from the recession and under emergency management and thus in no position to entertain a museum. Instead, after coming across the Route 66 town in Illinois also named after the Odawa chief and enjoying a warm reception to his idea for a museum, he moved his entire collection of Pontiac vehicles and automobilia from Oklahoma to Illinois in 2011.
Since then, the Pontiac-Oakland Museum has done well, attracting roughly 18,000 visitors a year. Donations and contributions have steadily come in – almost 30 cars total since opening, Dye said. According to the museum’s IRS filings, it hasn’t lost money over the last four years.
But it hasn’t generated all that much, either. In 2017, its net income totaled less than $2,000. The Dyes remain the museum’s only employees, and Tim Dye said it’s tough to entice many more donors, volunteers, or visitors in a small town of just 12,000 people.
“The city’s good to work with, and they’re happy to have us,” he said. The prospect of a Pontiac museum in Pontiac, Michigan, however, still enticed him. Michigan’s Oakland County alone has 1.2-million people, many of them former Pontiac employees who’d be more inclined to support a Pontiac museum in their own backyard than one 350 miles away. “It’s a whole different dynamic up there. They’ve got volunteers lined up to help us.”
And donors. One anonymous donor has already gifted the Pontiac-Oakland Museum a 45-year-old facility just a couple blocks off Woodward Avenue in Pontiac, Michigan, that spans 50,000 square feet, five times the size of the space in Illinois. A former elementary school that closed in 2010, the Michigan facility features an open floor plan perfect for displaying cars and a near-ideal location for a car museum in the Detroit area.
“During the Woodward Dream Cruise, we could get as many visitors in one week as we get in the whole year here in Illinois,” Tim Dye said. Based on attendance figures for other museums in the area, he expects the Michigan Pontiac museum — which he’s calling the Pontiac Transportation Museum and which will include all Pontiac-built vehicles in its scope — to draw 70,000 to 80,000 visitors per year.
Locating the museum in Michigan has also “brought out a lot of stuff from the woodwork, just from me going up there,” Tim Dye said. In addition to the vehicles, they also have perhaps the largest collection of reference materials related to Pontiac, including original renderings, memos, and other paperwork from Pontiac designers, engineers, and executives, many of which inform articles Tim writes for Smoke Signals.
Just as important, Tim Dye said that owning its own building will allow the museum to be “more the captain of our own ship.” The city of Pontiac, Illinois, provides the facility there — a facility the museum has already outgrown — and he wonders whether future city administrations will be as accommodating as the ones he’s dealt with to date.
That said, Tim Dye said that the Pontiac-Oakland Museum won’t be leaving Pontiac, Illinois, (the museum’s 501(c)(3) has already filed the legal paperwork to operate museums in both Illinois and Michigan) and that landing in Illinois has allowed him and Penny to learn the ropes of managing a museum. “We’ll hit the ground running in Michigan,” he said.
Exactly when that will happen, though, he’s not yet sure. While he’s already placed some vehicles in the Michigan facility (and will soon place a restored 23-foot-tall Chief Pontiac from a former Pontiac dealership in North Carolina on Woodward to point the way to the museum) and planned out the first phase of renovation on it, development of the Pontiac Transportation Museum will depend on how soon he can raise the necessary funds.
“Phase I needs about $950,000 to open, and we’re on the lower half of that,” Tim Dye said. “I would like to say that we’ll start construction before the year is out, then six months later we can open, but that’s a tentative schedule.”
Phases II and III will then follow, but he said he hasn’t nailed down what exactly they will entail or solicited estimates for their cost.
“We’re trying to do everything here by the book,” Tim Dye said. “We just want to preserve that history, and we feel that it’s best to do that up (in Michigan). After all, I want there to be a museum to which I can leave my stuff when I die.”
For more information on the Pontiac Transportation Museum, visit PontiacTransportationMuseum.org.