Babson Magazine

Summer 2014

Rolling On

Bill Chapin’s passion for cars is rooted not only in what the cars look like or how they perform, he’s also inspired by the history and people behind the cars. Chapin ’72, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich., says, “The stories that make up the hall of fame are powerful and relevant; the cars are illustrations.”

1964 VW Beetle

Photo: Marvin Shaouni
1964 VW Beetle

The hall of fame was established 75 years ago when 90 to 95 percent of the global car business was linked to the Detroit area. The current facility was built in 1997 to showcase the collected stories of the people behind the business. “Cars aren’t the focal point,” says Chapin, “which is why there are only five on permanent display and one on loan. I think cars are the payoff. The hall of fame ties people to the cars.”

Chapin’s favorite story is about Heinrich Nordhoff, a German industrial engineer renowned for his success with Volkswagen. Nordhoff, who was inducted into the hall of fame in 1985, assumed leadership of the bombed-out Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, shortly after World War II. “Nordhoff literally moved into the facility and lived there, even though it had no roof. He re-created and rebuilt the factory and began to do the same to the car, improving and increasing production,” says Chapin. “When Nordhoff began to export cars to the U.S., he sold two in the first year. But he believed export was the way to go. He had vision and passion.”

The shiny green 1964 Beetle on display barely begins to tell the story. The car sits against a backdrop of pictures of the Wolfsburg factory, technical drawings, and related displays. Says Chapin, “The key is taking the history and putting it in the context of today. The story is relevant because not only is VW still in Wolfsburg and still building cars, but the company has plans to become the No. 1 car manufacturer in the world by 2018.”

Visitors also will find one of Thomas Edison’s first electric cars, circa 1900; the inventor was inducted in 1969. For a variety of reasons, Edison’s car failed, but the idea is going strong. Chapin explains, “Edison was the consummate inventor. His car is a great reminder that today isn’t the first time the automotive industry has developed electric cars. What’s old is new again.”