1913 Mercer Raceabout. Click image to enlarge
Story and photos by Peter Bleakney
Reno, Nevada – While Reno is best known for its gambling and bowling, any car nut visiting this town will think he or she has hit triple 7s. Thanks to gaming pioneer Bill Harrah, this “Biggest Little City in the World” is also home to the National Automobile Museum, an exceptional collection of vintage, classic and historical vehicles.
William F. Harrah is considered one of the greatest automobile collectors of our time. When he passed away in 1978, he had amassed over 1400 vehicles. They were kept in three warehouses in Sparks, Nevada, and each car was restored to historical perfection by a full time staff of over 60 researchers, mechanics and fabricators. His cars were first viewed by the public in 1962.
Strangely, he left no instructions in his will as to the disposition of his cars, so when The Holiday Inn Corporation bought Harrah’s hotels and casinos in 1980, they also acquired his amazing collection and vast research library. They donated the library and 175 cars to the William F. Harrah Foundation – the rest were auctioned off.
The 1907 Thomas Flyer that won a New York-to-Paris Round the World Race. Click image to enlarge
The National Automobile Museum opened in 1989, and shows this spectacular assemblage in four galleries, each connected by a realistic “period” street scene. There are now 235 cars on display.
The first gallery has about 50 cars dating from the late 1800s to the mid teens. One of the most interesting cars in this gallery is the 1907 Thomas Flyer that won the 1908 New York to Paris “Round the World Race”, restored to the condition it was in when it crossed the finish line. The race was sponsored by the New York Times. No one really believed any of the contestants could actually finish. (See Bill Vance’s Motoring Memories article about the Thomas Flyer.)
The four-cylinder Thomas Flyers were built in Buffalo, and held a reputation for reliability. Six days before the race, this car (the only American entry) was plucked from the showroom – the only modifications being the addition of some fuel tanks and spare tires.
George Schuster, an employee of Thomas Flyer, was picked to drive the car. This Flyer and five other vehicles embarked on a journey that would take them across North America to San Francisco in winter (frozen rivers were much easier to cross), and then up the coast to Alaska. Since the ice in the Bering Straight proved too thin to cross, the contestants returned to Frisco. From there they traveled by ship to Japan, which they traversed (the first cars ever to be seen there), then slogged through Siberia, Manchuria, Germany and on to Paris. An amazing feat considering most of these countries didn’t have roads at the time.
1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Click image to enlarge
After 170 days and 12,427 miles (22,000 including sea voyages), Schuster arrived in Paris, only to be refused entry by the gendarmes because a local law required a vehicle to have two working headlights: one of his had been smashed on the journey. Legend has it he saw a boy on a bicycle with a lamp, so he placed both boy and bike on the fender of the Thomas Flyer and triumphantly crossed the finish line. There has not been another attempt on the Round the World Race, so this car still holds the record. Mr. Schuster died just a few years ago at the age of 99.
Gallery Two picks up at 1914. The centre-piece of this gallery is the six-cylinder 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Up until 1939, all Rolls Royces were bodied by independent coach-builders. Depending on the purchaser’s budget and desires, just about anything was possible. This car was bodied by Brockman Coach builders, and features a four-seat boat tail body fabricated from full sheets of glistening copper. Accessories are nickel and German silver, with African makash ebony wood trim. Priced at $16,000 when new, this luminous marvel is truly a sight to behold.
1936 Cord 810 Westchester sedan. Click image to enlarge
Other standouts here include a ’34 Chrysler Airflow 5 passenger Coupe and a ’36 Cord 810 “Coffin-nosed” Westchester Sedan. This was the first car to have retractable headlights – an aerodynamic advantage Cord had engineered to create a true 100-mph vehicle.
Gallery Three carries the visitors from 1932 to 1954 with pristine examples from such hallowed marques as Duesenberg, Auburn, Bugatti, Packard, Cord, Hispano-Siuza, Tucker, Jaguar and Lincoln. The most valuable car in the collection is a silver 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Roadster. Powered by a supercharged straight-eight, its value lies somewhere north of five million dollars.
This one was purchased by Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes author) for his son, and survived WWII because it was in England. There are only five of these extant, the last of which was found in 1988. Known as the “butcher’s car”, it was discovered in a shed in rural Britain after a local meat cutter passed away. The body was rusted, the wheels were gone, the interior had been eaten by rodents and half the engine was missing. It was auctioned at Christie’s for US $1.75 million. Okay, everyone check your barns.
Lana Turner’s 1941 Chrysler Newport Dual Cowl Phaetown, one of just six ever made. Click image to enlarge
And what museum of this caliber would be complete without a few celebrity cars? Sammy Davis’ ’35 Duesenberg SSJ Roadster graces one of the street scenes. Jack Benny’s 1923 Maxwell is on display as well as Lana Turner’s 1941 Chrysler Newport Dual Cowl Phaeton (one of only six made), plus the very same ’49 Mercury Coupe that James Dean drove in the movie “A Rebel Without a Cause”. There is also a ’73 Cadillac that belonged to Elvis and John Wayne’s ’53 Corvette.
One of the weirdest vehicles here is the 1934 Dymaxion. Resembling a giant teardrop with windows, this Ford V8-powered, three-wheeled, eight-passenger streamliner was Buckminster Fuller’s vision of the future. There were no rear windows – just a periscope. Three Dymaxions were built before financial problems and bad press from a crash sunk the project. Harrah found this one, the only remaining Dymaxion, being used as a chicken coop.
There is quite an eclectic group of racing vehicles in Gallery Four, including a 1955 Kurtis Indy Roadster, a ’65 Lotus Ford driven by Dan Gurney, the world’s first jet car and Don Garlits’ ’74 top fuel dragster.
Admission to this house of wonders is $9.00 US, and you’re welcome any day but Christmas and Thanksgiving.
The National Automobile Museum
10 Lake Street South
Reno, Nevada 89501