Changes in how Americans view car culture are taking a toll, said Mr. Ernst, the Hemmings editor.
“The need to go to museums isn’t what it once was,” he said. “Rather than traveling cross-country to see a car, if you want information on that car, it’s instantly available. You can find out more information on the internet about a particular Hudson, for example, than you’d even be able to learn inside of a museum.”
In Shipshewana, a tourist town nestled in northern Indiana’s Amish country, the museum housing a $4 million collection of about 50 Hudsons was expected to be liquidated at auction this summer, said Bob Shanahan, the city manager. The museum was named for Eldon Hostetler, known as J.R., who donated his cars, land and an endowment to the city in 2005. But the endowment was hardly enough to cover costs, so taxpayers have been on the hook for the difference. Mr. Shanahan said the attraction had been expected to lose $1.2 million over the coming five years; ticket revenue last year came to a paltry $17,000 on attendance of fewer than 4,000 visitors.
“It wasn’t that there was a lack of people who come to the town; it just wasn’t the draw that I think people envisioned it being,” Mr. Shanahan said.
There have been success stories, however. Some museums have thrived by offering unusual experiences and a different mix of wares.
The Volo Auto Museum outside of Chicago shifted away from displaying production cars about a decade ago and focused on vehicles from movies and television, said Brian Grams, the museum’s director. The Petersen Automotive Museum, on Museum Mile in downtown Los Angeles, reopened in 2015 after a $125 million makeover as a sparkling, sleek venue with an exhibit dedicated to the Pixar “Cars” movies, Xbox racing simulators, a motor sports gallery and virtual tours for the iPhone or iPad. At the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Mich., visitors who book ahead can take lessons on driving a vintage Ford Model T, and the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia hosts twice-monthly “demonstration days.”