Explore the immaculate collection of 250 cars at the National Automobile Museum, including one-of-a-kind vehicles and celebrity cars

Dale JohnsonOne of the best car museums in the world is the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

“The basis of this museum is to educate the public about the history of the automobile and its impact on American society,” explains Norm Miller, who has been a volunteer guide and docent at the museum for about 20 years.

Many of the 250 cars on display are one-of-kind, historically significant, or rare. The cars are immaculate, the lighting is perfect, and the display panels that tell their stories are interesting and concise. This museum sets the standards very high for what a museum should be like.

Most of the vehicles – about 175 – came from the collection of Bill Harrah, and the rest have been donated. Harrah made his fortune in hotels and casinos; his passion was classic cars. He began collecting in the late 1940s, and his first car, a 1911 Maxwell, is on display. Harrah soon had hundreds of cars – and he was adamant that they had to be restored to their original condition.

National Automobile Museum reno

The National Automobile Museum has about 250 cars on display.

National Automobile Museum reno

This 1892 Philion steam car is one of the oldest cars at the museum.

National Automobile Museum reno

This 1934 Dymaxion is the only one remaining of the three built by Buckminster Fuller.

National Automobile Museum reno

This 1938 Phantom Cruiser sat four people in the very wide front seat.

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“As his collection grew, he opened his own restoration shop and hired people from around the world to come and restore cars for him,” explains Miller.

By the time he passed away in 1978, Harrah had 1,400 classic cars – the largest and most historically significant collection in the world. About 950 were on display in the Reno area at various garages and warehouses.

After he died, the Holiday Inn Corporation bought his assets: the hotels, casinos and the antique car collection.

“But Holiday Inn soon decided they did not want to be in the antique car business, so they started auctioning off the cars,” says Miller.

Some locals in Reno were heartbroken to see the massive car collection being broken up and scattered. A non-profit foundation was established, and the founders convinced Holiday Inn to donate 175 cars from the Harrah collection as a basis for the museum, which opened its doors in 1989.

The first car in the display area is an 1892 Philion steam car, which was shown at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was later used in movies, including the 1951 movie Excuse My Dust with Red Skelton.

There’s a 1938 Phantom Corsair, designed by Russ Heinz of the Heinz food empire. He attended Yale University and was interested in designing and building speedboats. He then tried his hand at creating a unique vehicle based on a Cord 810.

“He widened the frame so it could hold four people across the front seat, including one (to) the left of the driver. The cars were going to sell for around $14,000,” says Miller.

The car was in the movie The Young in Heart with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and then put on display at the 1939 New York Auto Show. While it was on display, Heinz was killed in a car crash at the age of 26.

The 1934 Dymaxion was designed by Buckminster Fuller. Three were built and displayed at the 1934 World’s Fair. They were unlike anything else on the road. They were streamlined, powered by a rear-mounted Ford V-8 engine, and steering was done by the single wheel at the back. The first one was destroyed in a fire in 1939. The third one went almost 300,000 miles and was scrapped in 1950. The Dymaxion on display, the second one made, is the only surviving example. It was found in 1968 by three engineering students near Mesa, Arizona, where it was filthy and being used by the owner’s dog. There were gunshot holes in the windows. They bought the car for $3,000 and then sold it to Bill Harrah, who restored it.

There are also some Canadian-made cars, including a 1966 Studebaker Wagonaire Station Wagon made in Hamilton, Ontario, and a 1924 Brooks Steamer, made in Stratford, Ontario.

There are also plenty of cars that were driven by stars, including Lana Turner’s 1941 Chrysler Newport Dual Cowl Phaeton, John Wayne’s 1953 Corvette, and Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado,

There are rare cars, like a 1925 McFarlan, often called the “American Rolls-Royce,” and a little-known General Motors product, the Sheridan, produced in 1920 and 1921.

Reno is a 700-km drive north of Las Vegas – but for car buffs, the drive to the National Automobile Museum is well worth it.

Dale Johnson is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who has worked in TV, radio, print and online. While the manufacturer provided Dale with a vehicle to test drive, the content of this review was not reviewed or accepted by the manufacturer.

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