America’s long love affair with the automobile is the overriding theme of the National Automobile Museum in Reno.
The 105,000 square-foot museum, which has a sleek, streamlined exterior that echoes the design of a classic car, is a shrine to internal combustion engines and the magnificent metal chariots in which they are housed.
More than 200 cars are spotlighted in this showplace, which opened in 1989. Many of the cars are displayed in street scenes that re-create various historical eras in America.
For instance, in Gallery 1, a cluster of early 20th century vehicles are parked alongside a rock pathway, adjacent to a replica of an old blacksmith shop. Recreations of antique road and auto product signs hang on the walls.
Wandering this part of the museum, you can see dozens of cars from the 1890s to 1910s, including a 1911 Maxwell (significant because it was the first vehicle purchased by the late William F. Harrah, the casino magnate who started the car collection that is the heart of the museum) as well as the famous 1907 Thomas Flyer that participated in the New York to Paris road race that year (and was the inspiration for the movie, “The Great Race”).
Nearby is Gallery 1, a teens to 1930s setting, where cars from that era are parked on a brick-paved boulevard in front of the art deco facades of a period hotel, movie theater and photography shop.
Cars in this section include the unique 1938 Phantom Corsair, an experimental auto built by Rust Heinz, heir to the Heinz catsup fortune. Plans to mass-produce the sleek car, which featured a modern, aerodynamic design were scrapped when Heinz died in an auto accident.
The shiny black prototype, the only one in the world, could seat four adults in the front, two in the rear and had a dashboard with more gauges than a 747.
Another unusual vehicle is the innovative 1925 Julian — another one-of-a-kind vehicle — which has a rear, radial engine that resembles an airplane engine. Even more radical in design is the unusual, three-wheeled Airomobile, built in the 1940s, which looks like it actually could fly.
In Gallery 3, a 1930s to 1950s section, you encounter a replica of a typical tract home from that era with a garage where a teenager appears to be working on his car. Next door is an auto parts shop and an empty downtown store with signage indicating it has moved to the suburbs.
Celebrity cars in this part of the collection include James Dean’s 1949 Mercury, which he drove in the movie, “Rebel Without A Cause,” actor John Wayne’s sporty 1953 Corvette convertible (the first year the car was produced) and a 1973 Cadillac Custom El Dorado once owned by Elvis Presley.
The final section, Gallery 4, includes a more contemporary street scene with a faux-Macy’s department store, an office building, video arcade and a park. In this gallery, the museum features cars from the 1960s to the present, including classic Corvettes and Mustangs.
One of the best ways to tour the museum is via the audio tour (there are two: a one-hour presentation and a more comprehensive two-hour version), which is included in the price of admission.
The museum’s multimedia theater presentation is a good place to start a visit. Incorporating film, multiple screens, mannequins in period costume and moving autos (synchronized to wheel onto the stage), the presentation describes America’s fascination with all things automobile.
The museum also has a well-stocked gift store with just about any car-related item you might want to buy.
In addition to the permanent galleries, the museum has several small changing galleries that continually feature interesting and unique exhibits related to various historic car subjects.
The National Automobile Museum is located at the corner of Lake and Mill streets in downtown Reno. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 62 and older, $4 for children six to 18, and free for children f5 and younger.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information go to www.automuseum.org.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.