DETROIT — As this debt-ridden city lurches toward a possible bankruptcy filing, residents and workers have been locked in a grim faceoff with creditors over how to preserve what remains of their services and benefits.
Contributing to the municipal anxiety is the possibility that officials could be forced to sell off some of the city’s cultural treasures, including masterpieces in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Belle Isle park in the Detroit River.
But there is another Detroit family jewel in question that is largely unknown outside the automobile world and to some people even more treasured — a collection of 62 lovingly maintained classic cars donated to the city since the 1950s by civic-minded families seeking to preserve the Motor in Motor City.
Most of the cars are stored under protective plastic bubbles in a World War II-era riverfront warehouse on the grounds of Fort Wayne, while others are on display at the Detroit Historical Museum or on loan to exhibits around the country.
Just as art patrons are resisting selling van Goghs and Matisses to satisfy Detroit’s debt, car lovers are pushing back at the possibility of losing what they regard as the city’s historic industrial heart and soul — including a Cadillac Osceola that dates to 1905, and a vintage Ford Mustang worth an estimated $2 million.
“The cars stand for us, the expression of the thousands of people working hard to produce the birthright of America,” said Jerry Herron, a Detroit historian and dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College at Wayne State University. “It would be a sad day for Detroit and for America.”
If Detroit winds up in bankruptcy court — and no one knows whether that will happen, or exactly what would follow — city assets of all sorts could be placed on the block to satisfy creditors, who will be looking to recoup some of their money lost on the city’s bonds and other long-term debt.
Earlier this month, the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, started negotiations with those creditors, asking them to accept pennies on the dollar for the $15 billion to $17 billion they are owed. Short of bankruptcy, he says, he has no plans to sell off assets.
Bob Sadler, director of sales and marketing for the Detroit Historical Society, which manages the prized auto collection, said museum officials had yet to meet with Orr and his staff.