Americans are passionate about their automobiles and for many their love affair may have more to do with stylish design, the exhilaration of speed, the latest technological features, and status than merely getting from point A to point B. For the car aficionado, a visit to one of America’s automobile museums in lieu of actual ownership can satisfy a motorized fantasy. What better place is there to plunge into the history and development of the automobile, as well as view up-close, some of the finest cars that have ever been made?
PETERSEN AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES
Reopened in 2015 after a complete renovation, the Peterson museum occupies an entire city block on Los Angeles’s Museum Row. Housed in a modern architectural masterpiece with stainless-steel ribbons covering a hot-rod red skin, the controversial museum is now the most technologically advanced gallery devoted to the automobile in America. The museum contains interactive exhibits, special effects, a partnership with the Cars movie series from Pixar, and a Hollywood-themed exhibit that features cinema cars like the Aston Martin DB10 featured in the James Bond movie Spectre, a 1989 Batmobile, and the 2004 Pontiac Aztek from the TV show Breaking Bad.
The new building includes an additional floor with 12,000 square feet of gallery space hosting 100 automobiles, 23 motorcycles, and four scooters. Silver-skinned American and European cars valued at $120 million are exhibited in the Bruce Meyer Family Precious Metal Gallery. The “Rolling Sculpture” collection features French Art Deco cars including a 1939 Delahaye 165 V-12 Cabriolet and the renowned 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, considered by many experts to be the world’s most valuable car.
Below street level, the “Vault,” open only for special viewing, holds approximately 150 vehicles from the more than 300 that make up the permanent Petersen collection.
The renovated auto museum uses a 21st-century approach to display automobile history. Museum curator Leslie Kendall stated, “For the last 20 years, people were getting their information looking at cars with placards in front of them…today, people learn by touching, by interacting electronically. We’re trying to keep up.”
The new museum has been designed to appeal to more than just automobile aficionados and provide an incentive for guests to visit frequently. It appeals to younger visitors with 10 Microsoft Xbox Forza driving simulators that permit racing against virtual professionals or one another.
While the old museum utilized only 10 TV monitors, the new structure is full of interactive display electronics, featuring 35 touchscreens, 25 LED monitors, and 47 Panasonic projectors. There are more than 29 three-dimensional exhibits of engines and scale models. Several enormous projection walls continuously show motoring and Automobile themes.
INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY HALL OF FAME MUSEUM
Motorsports enthusiasts will appreciate the collection of historic race cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum. Historical exhibitions, trophies, memorabilia, plaques, models, toys, paintings, and other racing paraphernalia are on display at the museum.
Located on the expansive Indianapolis Motor Speedway property, the museum displays timing and scoring equipment, vintage motorcycles, and even some cars made in Indiana. On-site, there is an old-style garage, a NASCAR exhibit, and more than 30 cars that have won the Indy 500, including the Marmon “Wasp,” which won the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911.
The collection also includes the Lotuses Jim Clark drove in the 1960s races, and all four cars AJ Foyt raced to Indy 500 victories. Cars from NASCAR, Formula One, and Midget classes are displayed along with motorcycle racers and dragsters. Visitors can climb behind the wheel of an authentic racecar to have their photo taken.
The Hall of Fame Museum was founded in 1956 and relocated to the Speedway grounds in 1976. Owned and operated by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
The museum collection also features passenger cars produced in Indianapolis and Europe but not part of the racing industry. Ferrari, Mercedes, Duesenburg, Marmon, and Stutz head the list of auto manufacturers represented at the museum.
The museum gallery area is small, allowing only 75 cars to be displayed at any given time. However, the basement contains more vehicles and can be viewed on an invitation-only basis.
NATIONAL CORVETTE MUSEUM, BOWLING GREEN, KENTUCKY
America’s sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette in production since 1953, has been assembled at the General Motors (GM) plant in Bowling Green Kentucky since 1981. The National Corvette Museum is located a few miles away from the GM plant. Opened in 1994, more than 80 Corvettes are on display. The museum showcases the only remaining 1953 Corvette, race cars, and significant milestone models celebrating the 500,000th, one millionth, and 1.5 millionth Corvette cars made. The collection also includes several unique concept vehicles that were never put into production.
An interactive pit crew exhibit gives participating visitors the feeling of being in the pits during a race. As a crew member, the visitor changes tires and fuels the car during a pit stop. For those who prefer engine mechanics, the “heart of the beasts” exhibit provides engine and powertrain views with up-close cutaways.
Assembly plant tours are open to the public. For those who want to purchase a new Corvette, Chevrolet allows buyers to take delivery of their new vehicles at the museum. A VIP tour of the plant and museum is included in the purchase price for the buyer and up to three guests.
Although the National Corvette Museum has the finest collection of Corvettes in the world, it gained a lot of media attention in 2014 when a huge sinkhole opened up in the middle of the museum’s floor and swallowed eight rare and one-of-a-kind Corvettes. The millionth Corvette made, and some of the other cars damaged in the collapse have since been restored.
NATIONAL AUTOMOBILE MUSEUM (THE HARRAH COLLECTION)
Located in downtown Reno, Nevada, The National Automobile Museum houses the collection of William Harrah, a well-known hotel and casino owner. His first purchase, a 1911 Maxwell, is just one of the exciting collection highlights. During his lifetime, Harrah not only amassed the largest automobile collection in the world that exceeded 1,400 vehicles but the collection reflects the historical significance each piece.
The museum has been the recipient of numerous awards including a place on Auto Week’s “Sixteen Best” automobile museums worldwide. In 2012, the museum made the list published by Auto Week magazine of America’s Five Greatest Automobile Museums.
When it opened in 1989, the National Automobile Museum set the standard for auto museums worldwide with its innovative design and extensive collection. Uniquely presented with themed street exhibits, the gallery comprises more than 200 antiques, vintages, classics and special interest cars. The display technique allows the visitor to comprehend the historical importance of each automobile. The cars along with important memorabilia make you feel like you are transported back to the early days of the automobile.
Two standouts in the collection are the 1892 Philion steam road carriage, one of the first automobiles built in America, and the only genuine Dymaxion car in the world. The museum includes many other rare and one-of-a-kind automobiles formerly owned by celebrities.
The “Cars of the Stars” segment takes the viewer to Hollywood’s past. Jack Benny’s 1923 Maxwell, the 1933 V16 Cadillac All-Weather Phaeton owned by Al Jolson, and Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ghia hardtop are visitor favorites. The collection features countless other priceless cars, including the 1907 Thomas Flyer, the car that won the 22,000-mile New York to Paris race around the world in 1908 and the 1949 Mercury James Dean drove in the film Rebel Without a Cause.
RICK TREWORGY’S MUSCLE CAR CITY, PUNTA GORDA, FLORIDA
Muscle Car City moved to a new facility in January 2018, but it has retained the same muscle car theme it as its previous location.
The museum was established by Rick Treworgy, who started his car collection in the early 1970s and continues to add cars to enhance the already vast assemblage of mostly GM autos. Camaros, El Caminos, Chevelles, Oldsmobile Cutlass 442s, Chevy Corvettes, Pontiac GTOs and other high-horsepower muscle cars constitute the more than 200 classic cars and hot rods dating from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Automotive memorabilia that includes vintage gas pumps, antique road signs and old-fashioned traffic signals are displayed along with an assortment of antique non-muscle cars from the 1920s. The museum recently added a new collection of Whizzer motorbikes. All the autos exhibited are in pristine running condition.
The Muscle Car City museum is immense and includes a 60’s style diner offering an all-American fare. The parking lot is a popular meeting place for car clubs. Muscle Car City also hosts Car Cruises and showings throughout the year. Cruise clubs from all across America come to show off their cars! A free car show is held on the 3rd Saturday of each month.
For muscle car enthusiasts who are restoring a vintage car or building a hot rod, the auto parts shop onsite offers parts from more than 450 automotive manufacturers.
Muscle Car City is a great place to walk down memory lane and remember all the cars that were so popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The chronological arrangement of the vehicles makes evident the changes that were introduced each consecutive year. The museum staff are great storytellers and make the experience even more rewarding than just viewing the extensive car collection.
THE HENRY FORD, DEARBORN, MICHIGAN
The original Wienermobile, a colossal hot-dog car built as an advertisement on wheels for Oscar Mayer, is just one of the many exceptional cars found at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Named in honor of Henry Ford, the man most credit with making the car available to the public, the huge indoor and outdoor museum complex has been named a National Historic Landmark. Some museum pieces date to the early days of the industrial revolution. The ten acres of grounds provide you with examples of some of the finest vehicles and associated machinery in America.
The museum is perhaps the top destination for discovering the history of cars and their influence on American culture. With more than 140 vehicles on display, collection highlights include Henry Ford’s Quadricycle (the first automobile he ever built), the 15 millionth Model T, and Mustang serial number 001 and its prototype. Rare items displayed include Abraham Lincoln’s chair from Ford’s Theater, the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy rode when he was assassinated, and the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop.
The “Driving America” exhibit is considered by many to be the world’s premier automotive exhibition. The display features the 1967 Mark IV race car, the first all-American automobile to win at Le Mans and an exquisite 1931 Bugatti Royale Type 41.
A gas station, highway billboards, neon signs, and other car-culture artifacts are presented. Henry Ford’s birthplace farmhouse and a replica of the factory where he built his first cars is next door at Greenfield Village. The “Made in America” display takes the viewer through the history of mechanical devices, their influence and revolutionary impact on the way Americans live. From the toaster to the steam locomotive, the visitor comes away with a real appreciation for the innovation that changed the world.
The museum offers a fun, hands-on activity with the “Build a Model T” program. Participants can grab a tool and help construct a real Model T. Completed by day’s end, the car is disassembled by morning, allowing visitors to start building it again.
Recently renovated with clever new electronic displays, the museum warrants a complete tour to enjoy all 20 specific theme areas.
THE ANTIQUE AUTOMOBILE CLUB OF AMERICA MUSEUM, HERSHEY, PA.
What makes the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum unique is the dynamic, interactive exhibits that focus on the illustrious and extensive history of the motor vehicle. More than 100 cars are on display, including everything from the horseless carriages of the 18th century to the muscle cars of the ‘70s and beyond. Extraordinary presentations include the world’s largest collection of Tucker automobiles and artifacts on permanent display and the Museum of Bus Transportation, a full floor of buses, motorcycles, motorbikes, and more.
Current rotating exhibits at this Smithsonian Institution-affiliated museum are entitled:
- Pioneers in African American Auto History
- Getting the Job Done – Vehicles that Earned Their Keep
- DeLorean Prototype & Production
- National Corvette Restorers Society Exhibit
New exhibits are offered frequently showcasing every aspect of the automobile culture including classic cruisers, vintage wheels, and displays that honor the iconic rides of the past.
Whether you have a fervent enthusiasm for the muscle cars of your youth, a fascination with the mechanical and artistic characteristics of antique autos or appreciate the historical development of the auto and its impact on America, a visit to one of the many Automobile museums across the U.S. will be an entertaining and rewarding experience. However, even for those who don’t share the passion for autos, a visit may be a surprising and worthwhile venture.