The Lane Motor Museum is a Lunatic Automotive Fantasia

Gogomobils, George Irats, Goliaths, Grataloups, and Gregorys

byBrett Berk|
Culture photo

I love attractive, unreliable cars. This explains why I own a 1978 Porsche 928, a 1979 Fiat 124 Spider, a 1990 Range Rover, and a 1972 Saab 95. Owning them is not just a masochistic mania, it's a way of assisting in the survival of fabulous automotive outliers. If I love these vehicles, and flambé my hard-earned cheddar in their leaky carburetors, it is so they will survive for future generations to see, be terrified of, and (hopefully) learn to love. If I had a lot more money, an enormous decommissioned factory building, and more time untethered from my keyboard, I might become Jeff Lane. (I would certainly become divorced.)

Jeff is the founder, owner, and director of the Lane Motor Museum, a glorious shrine to the world’s most insane, unorthodox, and improbable vehicles. Jeff’s collection is so zany, his scope so broad, his passion so inexorable, that walking through the rows and rows of obscure Gogomobils, George Irats, Goliaths, Grataloups, and Gregorys—that's just going through the "Gs" at random—it sometimes feels as though you've entered not a museum, but an alternate dimension, one in which vehicles are not assembled in a factory but conjured from a madman's dream-induced hallucinations.

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“It would be much easier if I collected only yellow Ferraris from the 1960s. I would have a limit,” Jeff tells me during my recent visit to Nashville, where his hoard is quartered. “I have no limit.”

Jeff’s lack of boundaries is a blessing for all of us who love cars, not only because of his quixotic preservation of weirdness, but because—unlike just about every other car museum in the world—he lets people touch, drive, and enjoy his cars. “The cars should be driven,” he says. “That’s what they’re meant for, that’s why they were built.”

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Because of his recherché taste, this can create some issues for his team of mechanics. (When I ask one of them how many active projects he is working on, he says dryly, “About four or five...hundred.”) But it means that when he launches a new exhibit, like the one that just opened, Macchine Italiane, he invites people like me to slip into some of the thirty or so vehicles that will be displayed on the museum’s expansive, wood-block floor.

I start in the Lane's ample parking lot by clutching the terrifyingly tinny handlebars of the 1977 Piaggio Ape, a scooter wearing a scuba mask, a backpack, and an extra donut. Next I grab the diminutive, but improbably communicative, wheel of the zip-out landau-roofed 1958 Vespa 400, the moped manufacturer’s only foray into car building. Suitably warmed up, I clamber into the olive-drab, six-wheeled, four-wheel-drive 1974 Ferrarrio Lucertola 500, jam its four-speed stick into first, rev its tiny, 18 hp Fiat 500-based air-cooled engine, and drive it over a curb, into and out of a deep roadside gully, and finally up and onto the steep, ribbed-metal ramp of an enormous, amphibious, quad-engined Army LARC, which the museum uses each year to crush a car during its anniversary celebration. Jeff cheers and shoots video of me experimenting with driving one of his precious cars into another.

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These “vehicles" were incapable of highway speeds. Not the case with the various Fiat 500/600 variants I entered next—though perhaps it should have been. But then, I never would have had the surprise of reaching terminal velocity (93 km/h, or about 58 mph) in a turd-shaped 1963 Multipla proto-minivan with six fold-flat seats, an expansive greenhouse, and a “crumple zone” that consists of a spare tire mounted in the front passenger foot well. “I love the old Fiat 500-based cars,” Jeff says. “They’re so much fun in traffic. You can never get over the speed limit. You don’t even need a speedometer.”

The same could be said of the dangerously slow 1939 Fiat 508C, a lovely-to-behold, impossible-to-control prewar roadster that drove like a combination roto-tiller, wind tunnel, and coffin. Coffin-like in a different way was the mid-engined, V8, 2+2 1976 Lamborghini Urraco, a kind of discount Espada. As lacking in ergonomics and ventilation as it was abounding in thrusty Italian eight-cylinder thrum, it was caked in years of sweat-dried suede and promoted hip dysplasia with its offest pedals, whose relationship to the seat was like that of Nova Scotia to Eastern Standard Time: just off enough to always be weird. I kind of loved it, briefly.

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“It’s not about driving,” Jeff says of the Lambo. “Its about style and life. It’s about being seen.”

The 1977 Alfa Romeo Alfetta felt like a normal sport sedan in comparison. When a 1977 Alfetta feels normal, you know you’ve been driving a lot of weird cars. (The less said about the perilous rides in the leaky 1964 Amphicar and 1997 Hobbycar, the better.) Entirely abnormal, except for Forza and Gran Turismo addicts, was the 1990 Lancia Delta HF Integrale, a box-flared, turbocharged and intercooled rally homolgation special—and juicy forbidden fruit until the past year or two. It has an overboost function. I can attest to that. It is surgical and shockingly quick and stiff. It is not for the osteoporotic.

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But my favorite car was the 1962 Alfa Romeo 2600 Berlina, not only because it was the brand’s then-outrageously expensive flagship—a contemporary S-Class competitor—and its first application of a high-revving, torque-y straight-six double-overhead-cam engine; or because it was the first car I’ve ever driven with a “five on the tree” manual column shift transmission; or because of its vaguely Voison-meets-Jasper Johns interior fabric pattern. It was because, as I burned down a country road in a place no one knew me, heading nowhere, it made me feel like a wealthy Italian industrialist lying to his family and secretary about a work appointment and sneaking out for a secret roadside tryst. (Maybe I've watched too many Passolini movies.)

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Like all fantasies, these vehicular fantasies must (best) come to an end. My test cars, along with two-dozen others, are now detailed, rolled into place, and underpinned by multiple drip pans in the museum’s main exhibition hall. Gathered together at the event’s opening, under the natural light of the seemingly infinite rows of skylights, they look both special and accessible. Macchine Italiane is like the Bizarro-World version of the Bellissima Italian supercar show across town at the Frist Museum of Art; a philosophical counterpoint. In life, balance is necessary; you must see both. Luckily for those of us with big dreams and limited budgets, a ticket for either show garners half-off admission at the other.