What Kind of Car Museum Would You Start with Unlimited Money?
You’ve got a blank check to preserve the legacy of the automobile. Where do you start?
In tiny Punta Gorda, Florida, just outside of Fort Myers, a 300-car collection of classics fills Rick Treworgy's Muscle Car City Museum. Neon fuel and tire signs line the walls and a brightly-lit floor is jam-packed with several decades’ worth of pristine vehicles. If you like to immerse yourself in vintage art on wheels, this is your happy place; it’s definitely one of mine.
In the world of smaller, local auto museums, it's not uncommon for these places to be the passion project of a single person rather than a collective effort. So, that's what I'm wondering today. Say you're handed a blank check with the mandate to build the car museum of your dreams. What's the plan? Do you build the world's largest private VW collection like VolkyLand? A class like Treworgy and his muscle cars? A time period like the Brass Era experts at Maine's Seal Cove Auto Museum?
While you're thinking, I've got a few other spots to recommend for a visit or virtual inspiration.
Toyota Land Cruiser Heritage Museum
Given its status as one of the true global vehicles and a generational workhorse, you'd think Toyota would honor it justly in its own official heritage museum in Japan. But Greg Miller, the former CEO of the Utah Jazz and a major Land Cruiser nerd, was shocked when he took a tour a number of years ago and found his favorite truck conspicuously absent from the displays. He responded like any rational (and rich) person would, by setting out to build his own museum for it.
The result is Utah's Land Cruiser Heritage Museum, the world's largest private collection of Toyota Land Cruisers tucked away in an unassuming Salt Lake City warehouse. The Drive was lucky enough to visit last fall and actually get behind the wheel of a few of them—a 1977 FJ40, a 1977 FJ55, a 1984 FJ60, a 1991 FJ80 and a 2004 UJZ100—as all 100+ trucks are kept in driving condition. If you're at all interested by this point, I can't recommend this place enough. Miller's got some truly obscure Land Cruisers in there, everything from Japanese fire truck conversions to oddball two-door specs from all over the globe.
My father got me started on Clive Cussler adventure novels when I was in college, and I was hooked in the swashbuckling save-the-world characters Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino. One of my dad’s favorite features was that in every one of Cussler’s books, the characters were driving some kind of obscure and fantastic vehicle in a chase with the bad guys. The first was a 1936 Maybach Zeppelin Town Car in The Mediterranean Caper and one I loved is the 1931 Marmon V16.
Cussler obviously loved cars, too, and what started as his private collection has become Colorado's Cussler Museum, typically open between May and October in Arvada, just outside of Denver. About 60 cars are on display at any given time, including stars like a 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, 1925 Isotta Fraschini, 1932 Stutz DV32 Town Car, and a 1936 Pierce Arrow V12 Berlin.
At some point Cussler’s publisher started adding photos of the author posing with one of the stars of his growing automobile collection, and I looked forward to seeing that as much as I enjoyed the storylines. Pure escapism. Cussler himself was quite a character in his early years; on the museum site, he tells the story about the black 1925 Auburn limousine he bought for $18.00 and drive it to football games, where he and his friends would show up dressed like 1940s-era gangsters and carrying beer and wine past the security guards in a violin case.
Cussler passed away earlier this year, but his automobile museum lives on, though it's currently closed due to the pandemic.
Mullin Automotive Museum
Peter Mullin is past chairman and current board member of the Petersen Automotive Museum and president of the American Bugatti Club. He’s well known as a supporter concours events around the world, including the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. There’s no question this American businessman knows his cars, and he channeled that passion into founding the Mullin Automotive Museum in 2010.
The museum is focused around a large collection of his vintage Bugattis, many of which fully restored and ready to be driven, if you could be so lucky. It has been closed for several months but just reopened on Friday to the public, so if you’re in the Los Angeles area, you’ll want to add this to your list of must-see scenic stops.
The building itself is gorgeous, with nearly 47,000 square feet of exhibit space. My personal favorite in the Mullin is the “Lady of the Lake”, a 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster that lived on the bottom of Lake Maggiore. The lake straddles the line between Switzerland and Italy in the Alps, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Formerly owned by Grand Prix driver René Dreyfus, it was left behind at the Swiss border and disposed of in the lake in 1934. In 2009, a local diving group raised the Bugatti and it was later purchased by Mullin at the Bonhams auction at Paris’ Retromobile.
An 1800s-era Million-Guiet Phaeton carriage and elegant 1922 Hispano-Suiza Type H6B "Skiff Torpedo" sit nearby, but the unrestored Lady of the Lake sits by herself in a special section of the museum in a dimly-lit area designed to evoke a murky lake bottom. Eerie, but very cool.
Ready to dream? Tell us about your fantasy museum.