While traveling recently, I happened to arrive in Reno, Nev., about the time my tummy said I needed lunch. Ignoring my GPS gal’s insistent “recalculating,” I turned off the interstate into the downtown area to explore. Seeing a sign for the National Automobile Museum, I decided museums trump food and I headed for 10 S. Lake Street.
To be honest, I have never truly understood the allure of Auto Shows, car races, engine sounds or why people “live” for their dream car. What makes a person get excited when the new models roll out each calendar year? I have over 100,000 plus miles on my Outlander and I’m happy its still going strong ... no romance, its just a car ... but when I toured this museum, I have to admit, I WAS impressed!
William F. Harrah (1911-1978) was a business man who started with just a modest Bingo parlor and built it into one of the largest gaming empires of its time, “Harrah’s.” From a young age, Bill had a passion for automobiles ... everything automobile related fascinated him. From concept to creation, mechanics to road races, signs and vintage fashion, legends and records, he gathered it all and it led him to become one of the top collectors in the world. His collection was opened to the public in 1962, its mission, to preserve and share the love of auto industry with everyone. When an unfortunate turn of events led to the disbursement of most of his collection, the public outcry was so intense, that with the help of the state of Nevada, the non-profit National Automobile Museum was created, housing over 200 of his cars and a large array of auto-related artifacts and memorabilia.
The museum starts with several different Galleries, one filled with all types of steam-powered and gasoline autos, including an 1892 Philion, the only one ever made. Here too, is a three-wheeled 1903 Duryea, which looked liked something out of the Munsters TV show. I saw dozens of vehicles that looked more like a buggy then any car, complete with fringed tops, leather seats and stunning lacquered bodies you could see your reflection in. Each car had an information card beside it, giving the visitor the history and a detailed description. One 1921 open-sided Ford family “kampkar” came complete with roll-down canvas sides, water bag and camping gear, that all folded up to fit inside while driving ... the original RV. Along with the cars, period clothing, hats and driving accessories are on display, lending a “feel” for the outfits people would wear while driving their automobiles.
A delightful part of the museum is walking the authentic re-created “Streets” that take you back in time, where scenes, sounds and period cars are parked along the sidewalks, Vintage gas pumps, repair shops, a hardware store and even a neon-lit movie theater populate the avenues. You can peek into Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado custom coupe, parked not far from John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Lincoln Continental convertible. Vehicles that have appeared in movies and television fill the museum, including a touring car used in the opening scenes of Titanic and the 1912 “Andy Griffith” Baker electric Model V Coupe. Cars owned and driven by such names as Jack Benny, Mary Pickford, James Dean, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne are here to see.
Another Gallery is filled with famous Race Cars, from dirt to NASCAR and Indy, all makes and models. A few motorcycles are sprinkled in, making it an interesting walk through racing history to delight any enthusiast.
But of all the exhibits, my favorite was seeing the story of the only American entry in the 1907 New York to Paris Automobile Race. On Wednesday, February 12, 1908, in New York’s Time Square, 250,000 people lined up to see the start of the world’s longest automobile race ever. Six cars would travel around the world, ending in Paris, France. America’s entry was the 1907 Thomas Flyer, driven by George Schuster, who worked for the Thomas company. On display is the actual car, which raced across the United States to California that winter, then traveled by ship across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. I was fascinated to read that to cross the 90-mile wide island of Japan, the team had to drive 350 miles because the car was too wide for most of the roads in Japan. Men on the car often took turns walking beside the wheels to guide the driver, in order not to slip off the roads into soggy rice fields or deep ditches. Some inclines were too steep to drive and the team hired local workers to pull the car up the mountains using a 40-foot long rope, then lowering the car down the mountainsides. From Japan, they took ship to Asia, traveling through Siberia, Manchuria, Russia and Germany, into Paris, France, winning the world race in 169 days. During the fierce competition, this Thomas Flyer traveled 13,341 miles on land and 8,600 miles over water.
It was reported that even though horses were expected to be replaced by the automobile, throughout the race, horses were used to pull the cars out of the snow and mud and if not for these horses, the race would not have been able to be completed. Its interesting to note that one of the most important reactions from that 1908 race, was the fact that the cars crossed the United States in wintertime, which had never been done before, changing the public’s opinion that cars could be used for year-round transportation.
Do visit William Harrah’s Auto museum when you are in Reno. Here you can look into the headlights of that famous Thomas Flyer race car, which, like aged eyes ... round, deep and knowing ... still shine brightly, celebrating the history of the automobile. ❖