Cars, Cars, and oh yes, Family

Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World,” has a lot to explore. We spent some time with my sister Lori and husband Tom. A nice walk downtown showed where the river was supposed to be – it’s down pretty low now.

This interesting stained glass sculpture looked really nice with the sun shining through it.

We all enjoyed some time with an interesting and very complicated game. Wingspan is very beautifully put together, and requires some serious study to get a basic idea of how it works!

Our parents collected lots of artsy souvenirs on their travels. One of these treasures is a little seal, carved out of one slick piece of wood. Mom named her Lucille. Unless it turned out to be a male, then it would be Lou Seal. And my dad added: if she was a wanton seal, she would be Loose Seal. We are going to move Lucille to our daughter’s home in Spokane, so she got a ride in our car.

—————–SPOILER ALERT! ————————

The remainder of this blog is about visiting the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. If you aren’t the least bit interested in cars, skip to the end for a cool car story, or just read some other random blog. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Bill Harrah, creator of Harrah’s Club casino and hotel in Reno, loved collecting cars. Apparently he was pretty good at it, because his collection contained over 1,400 cars! He had a museum of sorts, displaying about 600 cars at a time, which took HOURS to peruse. Unfortunately, he died without leaving any provision for the care or preservation of any of those cars. The hotel chain that bought his resorts didn’t know what to do with the cars, so started auctioning them off. The city of Reno balked at that, saying the collection was a major Reno attraction. A deal was struck that if Reno would build a museum, they would donate 200 of the cars. So the Reno museum started with a nice collection of very beautiful cars. I would love to work there!

In the late 1890’s, Alexander Winton was building cars. J. W. Packard bought one of his early cars, and then complained about several points he thought should have been better engineered. Winton ignored him, and finally told him if he thought he could build a better car, he should go ahead and do it. So he did, and the Packard marque was born. One prototype was produced in 1899, then 49 cars in 1890. This is the only one known to exist today. It was indeed a better car than others at the time, and set a precedent for Packard excellence, maintained for many years.

Ransom Eli Olds had been tinkering with building cars for about 5 years when in 1901, his factory burned to the ground. One car was pushed to safety; this “Curved Dash” Oldsmobile. All the plans and tooling for other cars were destroyed, so he focused all his efforts and money on replicating and producing this car. Olds was one of the first to try mass advertising, and even hired songwriters to create a promotional song – “In My Merry Oldsmobile” was composed about this famous car.

Henry Ford was hired by some Michigan financial backers to build a new car in 1901. He designed it, then got in a dispute with the investers and left the company. They renamed the company “Cadillac,” and sold Ford’s car with a different engine. Ford created another new company, the “Ford Motor Company,” and produced this little number below. This 1903 Ford Model A was unique in that the rear seat passengers entered from the rear, and could sit facing forward or towards each other. The Ford and the Cadillac were almost identical, and both were called the Model A. Much later, Ford reused the Model A monicker on a far different car. I wonder what the bulge in the picnic basket was for… maybe to make it more aerodynamic?

The Adams-Farwell had an air-cooled engine with the crankshaft anchored to the frame, and the cylinders rotated around it. That way the engine served as its own flywheel, and also (supposedly) acted a bit like a gyroscope to keep the car level. It also had a steering wheel and pedals that could be moved from front to back, so you could drive from either position. Up front offered better visibility, the back seat offered better weather protection. You got to choose. This is the only one of 52 known to exist.

In 1908 Cadillac’s slogan became “The Standard of the World,” with some justification. Henry Leland had been “at the wheel” since Ford’s departure, and he felt interchangeable parts were the key to the future. In an era when cars were pretty much made by hand, all parts were machined and then hand fit to that particular car. Cadillac had three one-cylinder models disassembled, shipped to England with all the parts mixed together. Then they were reassembled, and run at top speed on a 500 mile course. This feat won them the Dewar trophy from the Royal Automobile Club, a very prestigious award. They won the Dewar again in 1912 for introducing the electric self-starter and electric lighting systems. This revolutionized driving, since women could now start and drive cars by themselves. The 1913 Cadillac below has these features.

Fredrick Henry Royce had a small electric crane manufacturing company in England in the late 1800’s. Similar to Packard’s story, Royce bought a 1904 Decauville car, and decided he could do better. He wanted a quiet, smooth running, high quality car. He built it… actually three of them. He met Charles Rolls, a flamboyant car dealer, who was impressed with his workmanship. Their partnership resulted in Rolls-Royce, a name known the world over for quality. The 1906 car was so quiet, it was dubbed the “Silver Ghost,” which started a sort of tradition of naming models for spirits… Phantom, Wraith, etc. The Silver Ghost was produced almost unchanged until 1925, and helped establish the Rolls-Royce as “The Best Car in the World.” The car below is one of the oldest in this country.

By 1913, there were two rival sports cars that all young men lusted after. The Stutz Bearcat and the Mercer Raceabout. Both were over $2,000, which was a good chunk of change in those days! Notice the single large headlight, side running lights, and nice round driver’s windshield on the Mercer below.

The Mercer had this tank with two caps… one side is for fuel, the other for oil. I was told the engine oiling system was pretty primitive, but the flow could be regulated as you drove. While racing, a mechanic rode along to keep the engine oiled, drawing from the large oil tank behind.

The Stutz Bearcat had a pretty similar physical layout, including the cool single round windshield. The first Stutz car was designed and built from the ground up in only 5 weeks, and entered in the Indianapolis 500 in 1911. It finished in 11th place, with no mechanical problems. Average speed over 67 mph. The company adopted the slogan, “The car that made good in a day.”

The 1938 Cadillac below sold for about $2,000, which shows how expensive the Bearcat and Raceabout were two decades earlier! This car was a styling sensation, with its wrap-around grille and swoopy fenders housing spare tires. It was the first American car to eliminate running boards.

A number of years ago we visited this museum, and my sister Lori and I took a similar picture in this Ford Model T (The only car here you can touch and live to tell about it.) This time I let her drive.

Henry Ford built a “Motorhome” on a Model T that he would take camping with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. This is a similar vehicle, done by the “Camping Car Company,” called the Lamsteed KampKar. They claimed the motorhome body could be mounted on a Model T chassis in two hours.

This bright red beauty is a 1926 Jordan “Playboy.” Jordan advertised heavily, and geared the ads to women, creating a movement where it was not only socially acceptable for women to drive, but quite chic.

This 1926 Chevrolet was called a “Depot Hack.” Not a derogatory term, that is short for “Hackney Carriage,” a vehicle to transport folks and their luggage from train stations. Essentially a taxi. I’d call this the original Chevy Suburban.

Rolls-Royce built cars in the United States from 1919 until the 1930’s. Like always, Roll-Royce built the chassis, and had custom coach builders create the beautiful bodies. This is one of the cars produced in Springfield, Massachusetts, furnished with an American body.

Since you could build your own body on a Rolls-Royce, you were free to get as creative (read expensive) as you liked. This 1921 Silver Ghost is built of full sheets of solid copper. Its original price was $16,000!

The 1932 Packard Ninth Series 902 Eight had a straight eight 110hp engine, a new synchromesh transmission and “Ride Control,” which let you adjust the shock absorbers while driving. Only 6,750 were made that year.

This 1919 Stearns 30-60 limousine was the ultimate in luxury, with passengers in a closed compartment boasting both flower vases and a speaking tube to give directions to the chauffeur. James Cameron wanted to use this exact car in the “Titanic” movie, but the museum was not willing to have it lowered into a ship’s hold for the filming. So molds were taken of all the body parts and a duplicate created, then used for the stars’ steamy scene deep in the Titanic’s hold.

The Metz company was formed in 1909, with the introduction of the “Metz Plan.” They were sold in pieces. You bought the starter kit, then every month you’d get the next phase of components, and you’d assemble them yourself, then wait for the next shipment. The thinking was many could afford to buy in stages like that, where they couldn’t buy the whole car. Beats car payments!

The Lincoln KA Murray was introduced as an “Economy model” Lincoln. During the depression this seemed a wise move on Lincoln’s part, as it outsold the more luxurious models. It was hardly spartan, however, with power brakes, a fancy free-wheeling transmission and thermostatically controlled radiator shutters.

This “1907” Maxwell was Bill Harrah’s first collectible car. He bought it around 1947, and restored it as best he knew. He entered it in a “Horseless Carriage Tour” and told the other collectors it was a 1907. They told him it was really a 1911, with the wrong radiator and grill. The “restorations” he’d done were all wrong – colors, materials, almost all the accessories – all wrong. Rather than discourage his collecting, he resolved never to do it improperly again. He eventually amassed the second largest automotive literature collection in the world (I believe the biggest is at The Henry Ford in Dearborn) and he was meticulous in his accuracy from then on.

Benjamin Briscoe spent some time with Jonathan Maxwell building the (You guessed it!) the Maxwell-Briscoe. He left for France in 1912, where he built the Ajax Cyclecar. The factory was bombed in WWI. He returned to the states, and in began making a car he said had been designed in France. He marketed it as “The First French Car at an American Price.” The car had a “Cyclops” single headlight, which was soon outlawed in many states. But the weirdest feature was the body – made of paper mache. Another quirk was the gas filler nozzle… right in the middle of the dashboard. Maybe that was so you didn’t spill gas on the paper mache body!

I asked about the spare on the side of this 1919 Cunningham. Could they use a three spoked wheel? It turns out you didn’t change the wheel – you just changed the rim, the outer part with the tire on it. The three spoked gadget just held the spare rim for you.

Franklins were air cooled cars, as many cars were in the early years. Eventually, their odd round grille was deemed unstylish, so they created a false radiator that was taller and looked like other cars. The round grill could still be seen in the bottom of the fake radiator, so it would have some Franklin heritage. The chief engineer was so disgusted with the new design that he quit immediately, but the look did help sales. You can see the functional circle under the license plate – the rest is fake.

The LaSalle was introduced by General Motors to be a stepping stone in the perceived gap between Buick and Cadillac. Ads called it “The first Cadillac Car in the Medium Priced Field.” Harley Earl was hired to design this single car, but he went on to be GM’s most famous stylist, giving us the ’57 Chevy, the first Corvette, and all those glorious tail fins of the era.

After WWI, the Maxwell and Chalmers companies merged. They asked Walter Chrysler, who had just retired as president of Buick, to run the company. In 1924 the name was changed to the Chrysler Corporation, and the first Chrysler, this Model B, was produced. This single car started their growth into one of the “Big Three,” the other two being GM and Ford.

In 1923 Chevrolet introduced an air-cooled engine at the New York Automobile Show. It had copper fins on the iron cylinders to dissipate heat. They made 759 of the engines, which were a dismal failure. Chevy recalled all the cars and replaced the engines with water cooled versions. This car, and one at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, are the only cars believed to have escaped that recall. The Chevy “Bowtie” emblem on the radiator is copper, and has the words “Copper” on the top, and “Cooled” on the bottom. This is the only time words other than the name “Chevrolet” have appeared on the Chevy emblem.

Julian Brown was a flamboyant millionaire, inventor, and nightclub owner. This car is one of the most unusual designs ever built in America. It never got out of the prototype stage, and this car is the only one produced. It has an air-cooled, twin-row, six cylinder engine in the rear of the car. The driver sits in the center, with passengers on either side, slightly behind. There are two jump seats right behind the dashboard, so those passengers would face backward towards the back seat folks. What looks like a radiator cap is really the fuel filler. Julian couldn’t get financial backing, and the car never saw production.

This magnificent 1927 Lincoln had coachwork to appeal to those who missed the old stagecoaches and other horse drawn carriages. This is what “Retro” looked like in the 20’s.

The 1934 Chrysler Airflow was designed in a wind tunnel. Conventional cars of the time were aerodynamic nightmares – Chrysler claimed they were more efficient driven backwards. This car had a unibody construction (The body itself forms the frame for the car instead of a body being bolted onto a separate frame,) and to prove the strength of the design they pushed it off a 110 foot cliff. It rolled and tumbled to the bottom, where the battered car was driven off under its own power. However, the “Sleek” styling of the new Airflows was a bit too much for the people of the time… they didn’t sell too well.

This has to be one of the oddest cars ever. The Phantom Corsair was designed in part by Rust Heinz (of Ketchup fame), and this was the only one built. Heinz died, ending hopes of production. The car was built on a Cord 810 chassis, and like the Cord, had front wheel drive and an electric shifting transmission. The front seat was four across, and the back seat held two facing rearward. There are no door handles – only buttons on the sides and on the instrument panel. This car was featured as the “Flying Wombat” in a 1938 movie, “The Young at Heart.”

As children, Fred and August Duesenberg moved from Germany to Iowa with their parents. By 1913 they were building cars, and in the 20’s produced some of the world’s most powerful engines and the chassis to match. Yet they were always in financial difficulty, so E. L. Cord bought them out, hoping to use them to produce the “Grandest Automobile in the World.” I think they succeeded. The late 20’s Duesenbergs are incredibly beautiful, very powerful, and insanely expensive. They cost something like 40 year’s wages for the typical American. The phrase “It’s a Duesy” referred to the over-the-top opulence of these cars.

I heard Jay Leno say the Duesenberg hood ornament looked like its purpose was to spear peasants who dared get in your way!

The 1936 Mercedes 500K is one of the most elegant, high performing cars of its era. Today this car is worth well over $1.5 million.

Another iconic Mercedes is this 300 SL. It was a great performer in races, and with its cool “Gull Wing” doors, was an expensive dream car for many. (Including my dad…)

The 1956 Lincoln Continental was styled to remind one of the pre-WWII Continentals. It was the most expensive car you could buy that year, and had every accessory imaginable as standard; the only option was air-conditioning. This particular car was bought new by Bill Harrah, and he had the engine replaced with a 400hp Chrysler Hemi.

The 1937 Airomobile was built by Franklin engineers after Franklin closed. An air-cooled three-wheeler, this prototype was driven 45,000 miles across the country to generate interest (and income) but it never happened. This is the only Airomobile built.

Chrysler designed the 1959 Scimitar to explore the use of aluminum in cars. The Scimitar Town Car Phaeton had roof panels that let you drive partly open, or with the roof completely retracted into the trunk area. This station wagon body shows pretty unusual styling and lots of aluminum. They were only produced for one year.

This is the 51st Corvette built. John Wayne saw it in a car show, and ordered it. When it arrived, he found he could literally not fit inside. He donated it to a friend, possibly as a joke, because his friend was that large too.

This car is either a 1923 or 1924. It was supposed to be a ’24, but the grille and lights are wrong for that year. It was commissioned for General Douglas MacArthur’s first wife. The open style was perfect for the Philippines, where MacArthur was stationed. Dodge vehicles were originally made by the Dodge brothers, but in 1920 both brothers died. (Possibly from the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic) At their death, their widows took over the management of the company till the bankers took over several years later. In 1928 they sold to Walter Chrysler, and Dodge became a division of Chrysler.

This magnificent Cadillac belonged to Al Jolson. Cadillac wanted to make a dazzling car, and this was pretty opulent for the depression era. Cadillac’s worst year was 1933, when they hoped to sell 400 of these V-16 creations. Only 126 were produced. This is number 56.

Never one to do anything in a small way, Bill Harrah had this Jeep Wagoneer customized to include a Ferrari V-12 engine. He claimed it was the fastest 4WD vehicle in the world, and drove it over the often snow-covered mountains to California frequently. It also sported a custom made radar detector.

This 1962 Lincoln Continental was assigned to John F. Kennedy. (No, it’s not THAT car) A very elegant car, it had rear “Suicide” doors that opened backward. Some say that’s so a doorman can open both doors simultaneously. My dad had one of these, and said it just make people crowd together getting in or out.

In 1961, Chrysler sent some Dodge chassis to the Ghia design center in Italy. Ghia would put custom bodies on them, and they would then be sold to rich folks. This is the first, and was bought by Frank Sinatra. Only 26 Ghias were built.

This 1941 Chrysler was one of only 6 built, and was originally owned by Lana Turner.

The 1912 Baker electric car was Thomas Edison’s first car. More expensive than steam or gasoline cars, they were very comfortable and easy to operate. They had only about a 50 mile range.

This 1914 Detroit Electric had optional long range batteries. That was an $880 option, at a time when a Ford Model T sold for $550! John D. Rockefeller, Jr. apparently could afford it, as he was the original owner of this car. Somewhat ironic, seeing as his father became the richest man in the world by developing Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller actually owned two of these cars.

A bit more modern electric is this 2008 Tesla Roadster. A potent performer, it served as a test bed for the Model S we see today.

This 1907 Thomas Flyer entered the New York to Paris race in 1908. The course was to run west from New York to the Pacific, then north to Alaska and over the ice-covered Aleutians to Russia, then across the continent to Paris. This car was taken from the showroom, and with only a couple of days of race preparations, it started the race. One of the modifications was adding long wooden planks as running boards, which could be detached and used as bridges to ford streams. When the car got to Alaska, they were notified that the race route had been changed, as the ice hopping seemed unreasonable. (Really??) So they returned to San Francisco, and took a boat across the Pacific, as per the new route. On the Japanese freighter, the leather fenders mysteriously disappeared. (But many sailors got new shoes.) When this was discovered, the ship’s sailmakers and carpenters made new fenders from the river-fording boards and canvas. When the car arrived in Paris, the police wouldn’t let it enter the city because one headlight was broken. They found a person on a bicycle who let them strap the cycle (and its headlight) onto the side of the car, and they entered Paris. They were actually second to arrive, but the race committee deducted the time they’d spent going up to Alaska, and that made them clear winners.

Hope you enjoyed this VERY LONG treatise. It was made possible by Cherryl driving all day today through some very narrow twisty roads. Say thanks to her!


  1. Loved all the cars. Wouldn’t you enjoy driving or even riding in them? I saw several that appealed to me! Thanks Sherryl for driving so Bruce could put this together.

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