The first thing I should tell you is that I am not a car buff. In fact, I’m notorious for telling people “I don’t have a mechanical bone in my body” (I was fortunate enough to marry a girl who could not only perform most basic car repairs and tune-ups, she even replaced and installed a new sump-pump in our home out in the country north of Burlington, Ontario – but that’s another story for another time). That said, I do love looking at old cars (as does Mary – she’s a Windsor area girl, how could she not love cars?), and even more than that, I love the history of the automobile industry.
With the above in mind, you’ll understand why we were more than interested in visiting the National Auto Museum in Reno – billed as “One of America’s Five Greatest Automobile Museums”, and home to the world famous collection of vehicles assembled by Bill Harrah, founder of Harrah’s Hotels and Casinos.
The museum is located on the banks of the Truckee River which runs through the heart of Reno, and it opened in November of 1989. On the street outside the museum, the city has resurrected the original “Reno Arch” that was built in 1926 and was the centrepiece attraction of downtown Reno until 1963 when it was replaced by a newer, more modern sign. The old one laid in storage for 32 years before starting a new life beside the museum in 1995.
The museum is packed with antique, vintage, classic and special interest vehicles boasting several “one-of-a-kinds” in it’s collection, and because of the way it is laid out, it is like driving through the 20th century in 3 hours. It features street scenes, old gas station pumps, a replica of a 1950’s garage, plus the museum is littered with old signs and automotive ads. There are even old 1950’s TV sets broadcasting early TV shows that were sponsored by Texaco.
The first thing you see when you enter the museum is a 24-karat gold-plated, 1981 De Lorean, one of two that was built as part of a promotional campaign for American Express Gold Card Holders. The cost of the car at that time was $85,000 (U.S.), and insurance ran at $12,000 a year! One ding in the door cost $24,000 to repair. Ouch!
One of the museum’s showpieces is a 1907 Flyer, referred to as one of the most historically significant American-built automobiles and widely credited with stimulating the building of roads across the United States. The car was one of 6 vehicles built specifically for “The Great New York to Paris Auto Race of 1908”, and was the lone U.S. entry. The drivers cranked their engines as 250,000 spectators jammed Times Square on February 12th, 1908 to witness the start of the race in slushy snow. A 22,000 mile odyssey ensued around the world. The race crossed from New York to San Francisco in winter (the first time that had ever been done), traversed the island of Japan (the first automobiles ever seen there), and trekked across Siberia, Manchuria, Russia, Germany and finally, France. The Flyer was the winning entry when after 169 days, it arrived in Paris, having travelled across three continents in snowstorms, sandstorms, torrential rains, freezing cold, and blistering heat.
The next vehicle that caught our attention was this 1912 Model T Kampcar, engineered by Samuel Lambert (of Warner-Lambert and Listerine Antiseptic fame). It could carry 6 adults, and sleep four! It boasted a folding table, a two-burner stove, an eight gallon water supply, and ample room to store blankets, clothing and food in several lockers. It was the first RV, 50 years before it’s time.
Mary is known for her love of sports-cars, so it was no surprise that she really liked this yellow 1913 Mercer Series J Raceabout. It was designed for and marketed specifically to amateur sportsmen of the day, and it is said, that many a wealthy young “thrill-seeker”, having purchased one of these beauties, drove them straight to the track from the showroom, where they set competition records again and again.
I was particularly intrigued by this car – the 1934 Dymaxion 2 designed by Buckminster Fuller. This three-wheeled vehicle has been billed as one of the most progressive cars to be built in the early 1930’s, and it featured a Ford V8 engine to drive the two front wheels. What made it unique was that the single rear wheel was meant to steer the vehicle like the rudder of a ship. The car had no rear windows, but it did come equipped with a periscope! The Dymaxion achieved a top speed of 120 mph and three were built. The one in this museum is the only one that survived.
To call this next car “unusual” is an understatement as when we first saw it from behind, we said it looked like it had a propeller for a rear-end. This 1937 three -wheeled Airomobile Experimental Sedan was driven 45,000 miles throughout the United States in a promotional effort to raise production capital. While the car proved to be a technical success by reaching speeds in excess of 80 mph and getting more than 40 miles per gallon of fuel, the car did not capture the public’s or investor’s imaginations, and financial backing was not forthcoming. This is one of the museum’s one-of-a-kind showpiece items.
Here is another one-of-a-kind vehicle with a neat back story and a vehicle that would later inspire one of the most iconic cars ever created. This 1938 Phantom Corsair Coupe was designed by Rust Heinz of the H.J. Heinz (ketchup) family. This is the only one that was built as he died shortly after it was completed, and as a result it never went into mass production. The alloy steel and aluminum body has no running boards, fenders, or door handles (the doors open with buttons on the outside and from the instrument panel, on the inside). The car was padded with cork and rubber for safety, sound-proofing and insulation. It was featured as the “Flying Wombat” in the 1938 Douglas Fairbanks Jr. movie, “The Young in Heart”, and it served as the inspiration for the original Batmobile that first started appearing in comics in the early 1940’s.
One of the most famous and sought-after movie cars (by collectors) in the history of motion pictures, is this 1949 Mercury six-passenger coupe that was driven by James Dean in the 1955 movie, “Rebel Without A Cause”, driving Mercury sales through the roof during the mid-50’s and making it “the car” that every young male wanted to own and drive. My dad had two Mercury’s of this type during that time although I somehow doubt that he was influenced by James Dean, although I guess I’ll never know for sure.
We were joined on the tour by two of the automotive custodians who cared for the cars, and in fact had even built some of the customized vehicles in the Harrah collection. One of their favorite stories was the one associated with this 1953 Corvette, from the first year this American classic went into production. This particular car was the 51st Corvette ever built, and it was purchased by John Wayne. Unfortunately he never got to drive it as when it was delivered he found he couldn’t get his 6 foot 4 inch frame behind the wheel, and Wayne was forced to sell it. It is worth noting that the 1953 Corvette represented the first time reinforced fibreglass was ever used in the making of a production car.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, men (and women) began to actively and aggressively test the boundaries of speed and this 1960 Flying Caduceus Experimental Streamliner is a classic example of the types of vehicles that were being engineered. The world’s first jet-propulsion land speed-car had a Corvair B-36 bomber GE turbojet engine in it and it achieved a top speed of 359.7 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1963. I remember watching cars like this try to break the land speed record on Wide World of Sports when I was a kid.
While not a one-of-a -kind vehicle, this 1961 Ghia Hardtop was one of only 26 built, and it was built especially for Frank Sinatra. The car is a combination of a Ghia design (an Italian car-maker) engineered onto a modified Dodge chasis.
Is this a car or a boat? This monstrous custom-built 1973 Cadillac Eldorado Custom Coupe was a birthday gift to Elvis Presley from his father Vernon. The “King” drove it for about 5 months before gifting it to his karate instructor, who was in the process of instructing Elvis up to a 7th degree black belt.
Back to Wide World of Sports again and I vividly remember these next two vehicles making frequent appearances in the mid-1970’s. The first one, is a 1974 Rear Engine Dragster that was driven by Don “Big Daddy” Garlits during the 1974 American Hot Rod Association season. Garlits won 5 meets in this car and achieved a top speed of 274.25 mph with an elapsed time of 5.78 seconds from a standing start. I can’t even imagine what that must have felt like from inside the cockpit. Then there’s this 1975, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme’s Funny Car, and I actually met Prudhomme and got his autograph at the CNE one year. I even had the Hot Wheels version of this car, along with his arch rival’s Plymouth Duster that was nicknamed “the Mongoose”. Prudhomme drove this car in the 1975 and 1976 Winston World Finals running a quarter mile in less than 6.3 seconds. For those who geek out on this stuff, this Chevrolet Monza had 539.1 cubic inch engine.
The last car I want to share a picture of with you is this 1977 Jerrari Custom Wagoneer. Yes it is a custom built Ferrari-Jeep hybrid that was commissioned by Bill Harrah, who wanted to create a 4W drive sports car. It featured a V12 engine and could travel at speeds in excess of 140 mph. They had to stretch the frame and create an oversized front hood to accommodate the engine.
There were more than 200 vehicles in this museum and we ended up spending over 3 hours looking at these pieces of history, and listening to the stories told to us by our personal guides. This was an unexpected and unplanned part of our trip, but it turned out to be one of our favorite stops during our first week on the road.