Revving up: The transformative experience of the Gilmore Garage Works program

Imagine traveling 300 miles round-trip twice a week just to give your child a chance to participate in an after-school program. That's exactly what one dedicated family did for their son for the entire school year so he could participate in the Gilmore Car Museum’s Garage Works program. 

Recently, the museum in Hickory Corners received a letter from that child’s father. He didn’t want to talk about the miles driven but rather his son’s unique experience of touching a piece of American history, specifically the 1984 Reagan presidential prototype limousine. 

Their son worked on it while he was in the program and had the opportunity to drive it with his mentor around the museum campus. On that day, the student’s mother and grandmother were present, and they had never experienced a ride in a limousine, let alone a presidential one. When the student asked if they could give them a ride, the mentor happily agreed.

Their excitement soared as they climbed in and realized they were riding in the same limousine featured in Clint Eastwood's movie, “In the Line of Fire.” In the film, Eastwood's character can be seen breathlessly running beside the car the student had helped repair. 

The nostalgia was palpable for the parents — "In the Line of Fire" was the first movie they had ever watched together. To add another layer to this incredible experience, the student’s mentor was a seasoned professional with 40 years of service in the Secret Service. 

This story captures the intersection of education and history, which is the heart of the Gilmore museum's mission: telling the history of America through the automobile. 

Under the hood

Looking under the hood, Gilmore Garage Works is inspiring. It provides high school students and young adults with hands-on experience in automotive restoration and maintenance. 

“Our intent is not to turn out welders, painters or restoration professionals, but to introduce students to a unique environment and give them exposure to hands-on experiences that we hope will motivate them to pursue future education, training, and a career,” says Michael Spezia, executive director of the Gilmore Car Museum. 

Students in the Garage Works program don't just observe; they are active participants. They work on a variety of vintage vehicles, performing tasks such as tuning engines, checking oil levels, and ensuring tires are in good condition. Their responsibility extends to ensuring every aspect of the car is functional, down to the windshield wipers. This practical experience equips them with valuable skills and a strong sense of accountability.

Fred Colgren, the museum’s director of education, emphasizes the importance of the program's mentors. Students form meaningful relationships with their mentors, who are often retirees with decades of experience. These intergenerational friendships provide a unique learning environment where students feel part of a supportive community. This aspect of the program is crucial, especially for those who might not thrive in traditional academic settings.

Richard Franklin, superintendent of the Barry Intermediate School District, is a huge fan of the Garage Works program and would strongly encourage schools and homeschools to involve their students in it. 

“The best mentorship programs teach students a lot more [than technical skills]. Kids are successful if they have good mentors, a grown-up who takes a strong interest in them,” Franklin says, adding he wishes more Barry County students were aware of it. 

The program's reach extends to multiple counties. 

“If you draw a big circle around the Gilford Car Museum,” it includes Barry, Kalamazoo, Allegan, and beyond, Colgren explains. Students travel significant distances, sometimes staying with relatives to participate. Family engagement underscores the program's value and the opportunities it provides. 

Beyond automotive work, students also engage in other projects like metalworking. This year, students learned to create intricate lotus blossoms from metal, which involves patternmaking, cutting, shaping, and welding. These projects not only enhance their technical skills but also their creativity and precision.

Initially designed for at-risk youth, the program has evolved and grown since its inception in fall 2009. The museum now avoids the "at-risk" label, focusing on its positive and inclusive aspects. This shift in perspective has broadened its appeal and increased participation, reflecting the program's success and positive impact on the community.

The Garage Works program is more than just an educational initiative; it’s a life-changing experience for many young people, providing them with skills, mentorship, and opportunities that can shape their future careers and lives. 

Students and their families are invited to an open house in September to register for the program, which runs from September through May. In the 2023-24 school year, 18 students participated in the program, “which was a perfect number for us,” Colgren says. However, they are limited by space. 

“It's just tough when you have more than that. You need to have a good balance with mentors and your students,” Colgren says. 

Students are assigned to a team, and the projects the team is assigned will rotate. They have welding, motorcycle, and engine groups. Students may work in the wood shop on projects related to museum projects. A group works on at least one or two different cars at any given time. Sometimes, they have a group doing bodywork. 

Colgren admits it is relatively rare to find a program like the Gilmore Garage Works. Students interested in the program should call Fred Colgren at 269-671-5089 for more information about the open house and the application process. The only prerequisite is an interest in working with your hands in a shop environment. 

About the museum

Donald Gilmore started the Gilmore Car Museum after he retired as the chairman of Upjohn Pharmaceutical. His wife suggested he needed a hobby, leading him to start collecting antique cars. Gilmore's car collection began modestly but quickly grew. His first car was a 1913 Rolls Royce, which he bought after attending the Pebble Beach Concours D'Elegance, considered the world's most prestigious car show.

The story goes that after he purchased the Rolls Royce, his wife, Genevieve, decided to buy a car, too, and bought him the Pierce Arrow on display at the Gilmore Museum. They put an old military tent up and started restoring it in the yard. She soon decided she didn’t want the tent in her front yard. So, Donald Gilmore bought two farms, totaling over 500 acres, in Hickory Corners. Construction on the main museum building started in 1964 and was completed in 1965. Initially, it was built to hold 18 cars, but the collection expanded rapidly to 35 cars before the building was even finished.

The museum houses several specialized car clubs and collections, including the Classic Car Club of America and the Pierce-Arrow Museum. Donald Gilmore's friends, including Walt Disney, also contributed to the collection with unique items, such as a movie set from a Disney film called "The Gnome Mobile.”

The museum has grown to be one of the most visited car museums in the United States, second only to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles in terms of visitor numbers. It is North America’s largest auto museum and, according to a survey by Auto Trader, the best car museum in the world. The museum also hosts events and activities to engage the public and car enthusiasts, including rides in vintage cars and special exhibits.

Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time
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