To some, a car is simply a means of transportation. To others, it’s a way of life.
And to others, it’s a vacation destination.
Automobile enthusiasts come in all shapes, sizes, colors and genders. That mild-mannered account executive in the next cubicle could be a secret horsepower junkie. That Sunday school teacher who drives a Ford Escort to church might have a souped-up ’66 Corvette in her garage.
Just about everybody likes a hot car. Just about everybody appreciates something smoking under the hood. There’s a little bit of the adventurous “American Graffiti” spirit in all of us.
Fortunately, dotted across the landscape of the U.S. are many institutions whose purpose is to celebrate the automobile and everything it stands for. Car museums are an ideal vehicle (ahem) for education and enjoyment for all things automotive. History and technology are available for chassis chasers to examine and marvel at, and in a variety of presentations.
Here are 10 car museums that all car nuts should visit at least once. These are not necessarily the biggest or the most famous; many of those places probably have already been visited by the casual fan who gets out to maybe one auto museum per lifetime.
These are 10 that a devoted car devotee should steer toward if he or she is ever in that particular part of the country. Some have different areas of emphasis. Some are large and raucous, while others are quaint and quiet. But they all have one thing in common: a love for cars:
: This is a rather low-key private collection nestled in a quiet patch of land off the freeway in Sylmar, Calif. It was the creation of J.B. Nethercutt, one of the co-founders of Merle Norman Cosmetics. So naturally, he has a taste for beauty. This collection is spread over 60,000 square feet and includes impeccably restored cars dating back to 1898 — including such cherry selections as a ’36 Duesenberg SJN and a ’32 Maybach — all of which are in fine running condition. This was conceived as a not-for-profit venture, and it continues in that spirit today, because there is no charge to the public. It’s not only a marvel for the auto enthusiast’s eyes, it’s also a terrific educational experience, including a library and a restoration shop. The Nethercutt offers personal tours, but it does require advanced reservations.
: There is a 1931 Pierce Arrow seven-passenger convertible, and a 1927 Franklin Airman that was once given to Charles Lindbergh. And that’s about it for the permanent collection. But what sets this charming and vibrant auto shrine apart — it is housed in an old bottling plant, the kind of re-use that makes architectural preservationists swoon — is its rotating series of exhibits. About every three months a new showcase exhibit takes over. A while back it was a spectacular private collection of Buggatis. Lately the theme has been “Barn Finds” — quite literally vintage cars that were abandoned in old barns. Ensconced in beautiful Saratoga Spa State Park, it sponsors lots of events, lectures and workshops as well. It’s a tranquil destination to enjoy both picnics and pistons.
: Sometimes a devoted gearhead simply needs to satisfy his need for speed, even if it means looking at parked hot rods and imagining them going really fast. This facility is sponsored by the National Hot Rod Association, presented by the Auto Club of Southern California, and overseen by NHRA founder Parks, who is 94 years young. Situated in a 28,500-square-foot building at the Los Angeles Fairplex in Pomona, it houses hot rods, street rods, muscle cars, customs, classics, racers and a variety of speed-related paraphernalia. The museum also sponsors educational seminars to discuss — what else? — speed, and how to achieve it through advanced automotive technology. If you have an interest in the history of people obsessed with putting their pedals to the metal, this is the place for you.
: Larz married Isabel Weld Perkins, a young debutante, in 1897. Soon after, they bought an 1899 Winton Runabout (they were both wealthy and could afford it). That began their obsession with the automobile. Their collection eventually numbered over 30 cars, and they formed the beginnings of the museum, which stands today in the Carriage House of what’s left of their old 64-acre estate in Brookline, Mass. It bills itself as “America’s oldest privately owned collection of automobiles.” The current exhibit celebrates the French motor car, but there are many other classic cars to gaze at. The museum also sponsors a lecture series, concerts, films, flea markets, auctions and other events. The story of Anderson and his wife and the evolution of the estate is almost as much fun to absorb as the cool cars.
: This is arguably the longest name of any car museum in the nation. But after you succeed in spitting out the words, the collection itself may leave you speechless. Located about an hour northeast of Tulsa, Okla., Starbird basically began in the 1950s as a body repair guy, but his love for his craft grew into an obsession, and he grew into a custom car legend. It’s difficult to put into words the cars that are on display here because they’re so unique. Suffice to say Starbird has taken many street rods, vans, pickups, sports cars and concept cars and turned them into works of art. Most auto museums emphasize style and technology over a period of years, but Starbird’s collection is unparalleled when it comes to showcasing great works of imagination in the automotive field. For a relatively small collection, it’s staggeringly slick.
: “Big Daddy” Garlits is one of the legendary names in drag racing. So naturally he has a drag racing museum. But he also has an interest in classic cars, so there are two museums on the premises in Ocala, Fla., one for each area of interest. The drag racing museum is probably the more popular attraction, as it houses lots of classic dragsters and features exhibits on the evolution of the modern drag racer; the collection includes the Swamp Rat series, the hand-fabricated race cars that are most associated with Garlits’ career. But over the years Garlits has received lots of other classic cars, too, which he has restored and put on display. One of the more recent featured autos is a 1956 Chrysler Imperial once owned by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The charge for an adult ticket is $15, but that gets you into both museums. There is also an International Drag Racing Hall of Fame here, for the speed freak with a sense of history.
: The title is fairly self explanatory. This has only been open since 2003, although the plans were put into operation about 10 years prior in order to complement an already well-respected library and research center. The AACA museum near Hershey, Pa., has a unique feel because the cars are placed in street and city scenes that help put them in context (the Golden Gate Bridge, turn-of-the-century New York City, etc). There is roughly an even mix of semi-permanent exhibits and temporary ones. Aside from a cornucopia of autos, the museum also boasts the largest display of buses under one roof in the U.S., for those public transportation buffs. Currently there is a Hollywood touch, as cars from both “Forrest Gump” and “The Good Shepherd” are being shown, as well as exhibits focused on pickup trucks through history and a tribute to the Buick. This is an eclectic and impressive facility that has something for everybody.
: Located in Reno, Nev., this venue houses over 200 cars from 1892 to the present, and most of them are from the collection of the museum’s inspiration, Bill Harrah, the late gaming pioneer. The current marquee exhibit is “Topless Convertibles of the 1950s,” which runs through October. But there are loads of other attractions, including experimental vehicles as well as one of the largest horseless carriage collections in the country. If the lifestyles of the famous turn you on, there is a dazzling gathering of autos once owned by celebrities, including Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ghia hardtop, Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado and James Dean’s 1949 Mercury. There are static exhibits that pertain to particular periods of history, as well as changing exhibits. And there is a research library here too, as well as facilities for parties and banquets, or for that carburetor-themed wedding.