New York City never gained traction as a car-manufacturing town, although a few early vehicles were made there, such as the Crane-Simplex, which counted John D. Rockefeller among its well-heeled buyers.

Still, the Big Apple has a rich and ripe automotive heritage. That ranges from Madison Ave. car advertising, to Park Ave. luxury dealerships designed by great architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, to the Long Island Motor Parkway, one of the first roads built for autos.

Accordingly, the Greater New York Auto Dealers Assn. is underwriting an upcoming exhibition called “Cars, Culture and the City” that is being organized by the Museum of the City of New York.

Running March 25-Aug. 17, it helps mark the association’s centennial this year.

“When we think of American car culture, we immediately think of Detroit or Los Angeles,” says Susan Hensaw Jones, the director of the museum.

“This exhibition will change that perception by highlighting the pivotal role New York City has played in the ongoing relationship between America and the automobile,” she says.

It’s sometimes a love-hate relationship, the latter stoked by traffic jams, parking shortages and the tense interplay of drivers and pedestrians. Curators say they will focus on both the “reality and romance” of the car culture.

The exhibition will include:

  • Futurist drawings from yesteryear, many with a sci-fi flair while depicting multi-lane, multi-level roadways slicing through town. That horrific vision never materialized, but the city has struggled to accommodate cars since their arrival.
  • A salesman’s toy model of a ’32 Graham-Paige Blue Streak, used to promote paint and finish options in the days before computer car configurators that show virtual images of accessorized vehicles.
  • Rarely shown former General Motors Corp. promotional films for its 1950s Motoramas at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. GM unveiled the Chevrolet Corvette as a concept car there.
  • Women’s fashions for open-air motoring, including a cap with built-in goggles. City department stores sold such apparel. A 1908 newspaper supplement featured women decked out that way posing at, of all places, Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Dr.
  • A drawing and a model of the mid-1960s New York Safety Sedan, featuring a periscope for enhanced viewing. Then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller commissioned the prototype project. It ran aground early on.
  • Examples of New York’s brash auto advisories, such as the now widely popular “Don’t Even Think About Parking Here” sign.

“So many aspects of the industry got a footing in New York,” says Mark Schienberg, president of the 100-year-old dealer association, which traces its roots to a Brooklyn dealer group that staged the nation’s first auto show in 1900.

Back then, New Yorkers, mostly the rich, owned half of the 8,000 cars in the country. But after initially playing a lead role in the car scene, New York now has the lowest per-capita car ownership for major U.S. cities.

The exhibit includes vintage photos of bygone dealerships, including stores on the city’s first “auto row.” It ran along a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) stretch of Broadway.

Some dealerships were elaborate facilities with showy showrooms. A journalist in 1923 likened them to baronial halls, replete with Oriental rugs and marble floors, where “America’s most shining triumphs are displayed.”

The museum show also covers the city’s brief auto-making efforts of the early 1900s. Piano maker William Steinway tried his hand at building cars. The Simplex Automobile Co. on East 83rd St. proclaimed in ads that its products were “made in New York.”

The early weeks of the exhibition will coincide with April’s New York International Auto Show. Planned are tie-ins between the show and the exhibit. Also in the works are educational programs, including ones for children and students studying advertising.

A dubious automotive distinction for New York is that the nation’s first pedestrian traffic fatality occurred there, on Fifth Ave. near Central Park. “But we’re not promoting that in the exhibit,” Schienberg says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com