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Americana on Exhibit at Car Museums

Is there anything more American than the automobile?

After all, American ingenuity helped produce some of the world’s best cars, and the long, wide-open roads of the United States were made for road trips in our favorite vehicles. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that the country is lined with museums dedicated to our ongoing infatuation with the auto, many of which offer special experiences for groups.

From the Lane Motor Museum, home to head-scratching eccentricities, to the National Automobile Museum and its celeb-owned masterpieces — plus the Henry Ford, the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum and the forthcoming Savoy Automobile Museum — these are some of the nation’s finest institutions dedicated to the car.

The Henry Ford

Dearborn, Michigan

According to Cynthia Jones, general manager of innovation experiences at the Henry Ford, groups should prepare to be wowed by the institution and all it offers.

“We’re a destination where you can see trucks being built at the Ford Rouge Factory Tour,” she said. “You can see the earliest origins of automobiles and how they were being developed in our living-history outdoor museum, and you can see one of the best vehicle collections ever brought together in the indoor museum. And I think, compared to almost any other museum, that makes us just incredibly unique.”

The Henry Ford, which is located alongside the Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn, Michigan, plant, has about 120 vehicles on display. They range from the quadricycle, the first auto Henry Ford ever built, to Model Ts and a stunning custom 1949 purple Mercury convertible. But just because Ford’s name is on the museum doesn’t mean that other companies aren’t featured. Cars from General Motors, Mercedes Benz and other manufacturers also make appearances.

This spring, the Henry Ford will open the 22,000-square-foot permanent exhibit “Driven To Win: Racing in America,” a must-see for groups that love race cars.

“We have street racing vehicles, land speed racing vehicles, Indy cars — just a huge array of American race vehicles,” Jones said. “It’s really going to be spectacular.”

Savoy Automobile Museum

Cartersville, Georgia

When the Savoy Automobile Museum opens its doors this fall, car aficionados will discover a stunning campus ranging across 35 acres. Built specifically to house the attraction, the museum will include a massive 70,000-square-foot main museum with four large galleries. Three will be devoted to temporary exhibits, ensuring there will always be something new on at the Savoy. The final gallery will be filled with a rotating selection of autos from the institution’s permanent collection, which include beauties like a 1932 Buick that won the prestigious Concours d’Elegance award, a 1940s Packard “woody wagon” and midcentury Corvettes.

Sound eclectic? That’s part of the museum’s plan, said Savoy Automobile Museum director of development Tom Shinall.

“Our mission is to showcase the automotive industry as a whole, not any one type of vehicle,” he said. “So whether its early gas-era cars or steam-era cars, all the way up to muscle cars and the has-beens of the ’80s and the current exotics and everything in between — we want to exhibit them all, because every car tells a story.”

The Savoy Automobile Museum is planning to offer a variety of special experiences for groups and will have the event space and ability to cater lunch or dinner.

Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum 


Founded by physician Fred Simeone, who donated his jaw-dropping collection of racing sports cars, the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia offers some 75 vehicles on display for groups to ogle. They include everything from Bugattis to Aston Martins, but according to Simeone, there’s more to the museum than simply showing off a collection of what he terms “Mona Lisas.”

“The theme of the museum is the spirit of competition,” Simeone said. “We want young people to know that they need a sense of competition, a sense of doing better, a sense of progression.”

To that end, the Simeone is arranged in racing dioramas that show that the more advanced cars were the ones able to compete most effectively. The vehicles are also presented chronologically, beginning with the oldest, a Renault owned by William K. Vanderbilt that raced in France in 1907. There are groupings as well by legendary races like the French Le Mans and Italy’s Mille Miglia, leading up to the “winner’s circle.”

Inside the circle sits a racing sports car that groups — which may opt for a docent-led tour with advance notice — might well consider the finest they’ve ever seen.

“It’s the Alfa Romeo 1938,” Simeone said. “It’s the car I wouldn’t change one molecule on. It has everything: Technically, it was 10 years ahead of its time. Performance-wise, it won the Mille Miglia race. It’s gorgeous.”

National Automobile Museum

Reno, Nevada

Perhaps more than any other institution on this list, the National Automobile Museum is a great stop for groups with stars in their eyes. Founded in 1989 from some of the most memorable cars in casino magnate Bill Harrah’s collection, the attraction features a wealth of vehicles once owned by celebrities. They include Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ghia, a 1953 Corvette that belonged to John Wayne and Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado. Movie buffs in the group will especially get a kick out of the 1949 Mercury driven by James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

But the attraction’s rarest car, said interim executive director Buddy Frank, is the 1907 Thomas Flyer. “It’s on the National Historic Vehicle Register,” Frank said.

“What makes it unique is it won the around-the-world race in 1908. It was NYC to Paris, but west across the U.S., then via a boat to Japan, another boat to China and Russia and then on into Paris. There were no roads in 1908, so it was phenomenal.”

For groups that would like to spend the morning browsing the more than 200 automobiles and then have lunch, the museum offers an event space with catering. Guided tours are also available.

Lane Motor Museum

Nashville, Tennessee

The Lane Motor Museum, which showcases 150 of collector Jeff Lane’s menagerie of oddball autos and motorcycles, is a great museum for groups who enjoy the offbeat.

“We pride ourselves on finding vehicles that are extremely unique,” said Robert Jones, curator of collections. “We have a lot of prototypes or one-offs — ideas that people had and tried out but [that] never took ground. Most of these tend to have technical advances.”

That includes the Czech-manufactured Tatras. The Lane has a wide-ranging array of the strange autos seldom seen elsewhere in the United States — including the 1938 T-97, which sports a center fin in back and a bonnet that resembles a Volkswagen Beetle. Other eye-catching curios include the 1947 Davis “Baby,” a three-wheeled car that could reach speeds of 100 mph. And then there are the propeller-driven vehicles that date from the early 1900s to the 1970s.

Among the loopiest of these is the 1932 Helicron.

“It was found in a barn in France,” Jones said. “We were able to get it and restore it to its full glory, and we drive it around. That’s one of my favorites.”

Curator-led group tours are available at the Lane Motor Museum with advance reservations. Weekend tours feature special visits to the vault, where the 500 vehicles not on exhibit are stored.