The National Auto Museum – The Harrah Collection in Reno, Nevada (review)

It is a mid-November day in Reno. You wake up, get dressed, and leave your tiny downtown apartment, walking toward Java Jungle, your favorite coffee shop. It is cloudy and cold outside, reminding you that you should have worn some gloves and your black knitted cap. You enter the coffee shop, get your Italian Roast with two Splenda packets along with some half and half, and walk to the door. Before leaving with your drink, you say hello to George and Dale, two of the regulars. You look out the window, realizing the threat of snow was not some empty bluff by Mother Nature. You leave, heading toward the Nation Automobile Museum. The falling snow pelts your face.

The view from Lake Street. This is a far cry from the concept art presented inside the museum.

As you walk down First Street, you notice so many businesses closed down and the weather reflects the feeling of the city, cold and barren. As the sound of car tires on the wet road pass you by, you wonder why Reno has an automobile museum. You have lived here for seven years and have never seen this museum. Is it important? Does it serve a purpose? Or is it just a way to cash in on Hot August Nights? You realize you know nothing about this place.

Approaching Lake Street, you see a building across the semi-frozen river, all but its edges obscured by the dense thicket of dead trees.  You cross the bridge and the writing on the building confirms that you have found the right place.

Ed Roth’s Rat Fink.

The building is washed in grays, blending in with the overcast and cold weather. It looks like an industrial building: utilitarian and functional. You feel that maybe you should have gone to another museum today. You expect to find a line inside for people applying for food stamps or a Social Security office. However, you press on, entering the museum lobby. There you are greeted by a friendly gray-haired lady. You buy your ticket for admission. Looking around the lobby, you see a 1981 De Lorean in American Express Gold. You immediately remember the film “Back to the Future,” where a teenager from 1985 travels back to 1955 in a De Lorean. Two of Ed Roth’s classic cars, from the Sixties, bookend the room. You remember a childhood toy with Roth’s classic character Rat Fink driving a crazy-looking car. These cars bring back memories of a childhood that included your older brother and his friends working on their cars in the garage while you played with toy cars. The smell of hamburgers cooking on the grill enters your mind. For a second you are there.

You start the tour, entering the turnstile and walking down a hallway covered with paintings by local artist Robert Cinkel. All of the paintings feature automobiles in unique settings. Many of the great places in the world are shown with people and their automobiles dominating the scenery.

Portrait of Bill Harrah. His gravestone reads “I did it right.”

You reach the first display. It tells you the history of William F. Harrah, founder of Harrah’s casinos.  Born in 1911, Bill Harrah grew up in southern California. His father owned Circle Game, a local game similar to bingo. Harrah drove his first car at age eight and got his first car, as a gift from his father, at age 16. His love of automobiles continued to grow as he aged.

In 1933, at 21 years old, Harrah bought his father’s gaming operation for $500 and soon bought two local competitors. In 1946, he started the Harrah’s casino in Reno, Nevada and soon expanded operations.

According to the museum, Harrah brought respectability to gaming by supporting government controls. In 1973, Harrah’s was the first gaming-only operation to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Harrah used his wealth to buy classic cars. He opened the Harrah’s Automobile Club in Sparks, Nevada in 1962.  The club started with 325 cars, but grew to a record-breaking 1,400 vehicles.

Harrah died in 1978 and Holiday Inn bought Harrah’s two years later. When the new owners announced that they were selling off the entire automobile collection, Nevadans and car enthusiasts protested. In response, Holiday Inn donated 175 cars to the Harrah’s Automotive Library. In 1989 the National Automobile Museum opened, allowing people from around the world to enjoy these classic automobiles.

As you leave the introduction area, you head toward the heart of the museum. The hallway opens up and you see a blacksmith shop in front of you. To your right, you see cars parked along wooden curbs. Along one wall are displays of women’s fashions from more than one hundred years ago and memorabilia from those times.

By the blacksmith shop, you see a 1913 K-R-I-T with a hand crank. Its design, while attractive, seems typical of what you expect to see from an early twentieth century car. However, you notice a small detail that grabs you attention. The K-R-I-T company logo demonstrates just how different symbols meant back then. The logo features a swastika. You know there was a time when this symbol simply represented life and good luck. Sports teams, churches, and the Boy Scouts of America all visibly used swastikas. It was only with the rise and fall of Hitler that it became synonymous with fascism. As you walk away, you see others approach the car, puzzled by the symbol.

The blacksmith’s shop is the entrance to the first gallery. As you approach the dark-stained wood building, you see a bright red gas pump for Royal Crown Oil. It looks out of place as it sits by the left side of the blacksmith’s entrance. On the right side of the building is a sign for the Pony Express. You imagine yourself in that time period. Inside the building you hear the clanging of a metal hammer beating a horseshoe, forcing it to bend to the will of the blacksmith upon an anvil. Horses neigh. You think about the horseless carriage and know it will soon threaten the very livelihood of the blacksmith.

The shop opens up to a large room with soft lighting. You see an 1892 Philion Road Carriage, the only one in existence. This coal-fueled machine featured a two-cylinder engine with 1 h.p. (horsepower). You are not even sure if it is a car. You look further down and see hundreds of cars from the turn of the century. Women’s fashions sit in glass cases while the music of Scott Joplin fills the gallery.

You see the 1903 Ford Model “A” car. You read that Ford was an innovator, not because of any invention, but his ability to make a car that was affordable. The car sold for $850. Most cars of the age sold for more than $1,500. The French Renault sold for $7,500. Until Ford, only the rich could afford cars and they wanted to keep it that way. As Ford refined his design into the Model “T” in 1909, many wealthy Americans viewed Ford’s cars as a threat to their way of life. In less than 20 years, Ford sold 15 million Model “T” cars, mobilizing America.

As you continue looking at cars, some elegant, others clumsy, you see a Franklin D to your left. To your right, there are mannequins of a man and a woman. The woman is wearing a beautiful red velvet dress that covers everything but her hands and face. The man wears a blue suit with driving goggles resting on his blue driving cap. He holds a pair of leather gloves in his hands. As “Sweet Georgia Brown” fills the air, you feel like you are in a different time. Ahead of you, the glowing red exit sign, industrial doors and writing that says the alarm will sound if the door is opened quickly brings you back to 2010. It is time to move on to another era.

As you re-enter the main hall, the wood sidewalk changes to brick and the cars become round and less boxy. The walls show the passage of history well into the modern age. Wars, gas shortages, Dillinger, ads for shaving cream, and auto races all demonstrate how the car soon became a part of the American culture, your culture. The automobile became tied into the American Dream.

1965 Ford Mustang Fastback.

An old Union 76 gas station features a gas pump charging 24 cents per gallon. You think your grandfather probably complained about that back in the day. The asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks introduce you to the years 1950-1975, an era of post-war optimism and a “renaissance of affluence” in America. Everyone wanted a car. An episode of “Dragnet” plays on a television display while you look at the street. A shoes store is closed with “Moved to the Mall” written on the window. On the corner, an auto parts store advertises that it specializes in speed products. You spot a 1965 Ford Mustang in bright red. It is one of your favorite cars. Next to it is the 1977 Jerrari, Jeep’s attempt to cross a Jeep Wrangler with a Ferrari.

You enjoy all of the displays, but some seem a bit unfinished, especially Gallery 4. Inside there are some racing cars, off-road vehicles, a jet car, clown cars, and the original Thomas Flyer. A light modern jazz fills the room with hints of flamenco. The music does not match the display.

Gallery 4 featured a collection of high-performance racing cars.

The entrance to Gallery 4, however, is an epiphany to you.  It is a suburban American house, much like the one you lived in when you were young. The single-floor house features a garage with a basketball hoop attached to the top. Bushes surround the house like a phalanx of Spartan warriors. There is a tall wood fence with a gate, keeping the backyard safe and private. Most Americans, you think, still desire this.

You finish your tour, thinking about America and the automobile. Since the Declaration of Independence, one of the American ideals has been the pursuit of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The car became a symbol of this freedom. Suddenly the poor could move to better employment with relative ease. Young men could customize their cars, making them an expression of their inner self. Suddenly teens were free to drive and create an entire youth culture that did not exist before. We compete to see if we can build a faster or prettier car. This is America.

You return to the lobby, take a quick look at the expensive gift shop and step back on the cold streets of Reno. You think that perhaps the reason Americans are so resistant to alternative fuels and transportation is because the roaring engine of a 300 h.p. muscle car shaking the earth is as part of America as baseball and apple pie. For a society that was resistant to accept the car, we now view it as a personal part of ourselves.

You enjoyed the museum, but thought it could have been better. Toward the end, it seemed to be less informative or entertaining. The employees were friendly and informative, but the gift shop was expensive. As you toward the Truckee River, you think the museum needs to make its outer appearance more appealing. The cars, full of color and detail, are not reflected in the outer design. Bill Harrah was an important part of Reno and he created a car culture in this city. Perhaps the city of Reno would benefit by focusing on this all year instead of a quick cash grab during Hot August Nights.

As you approach your apartment, you get your mail out of its box. There is the new issue of “Time.” You open it up to an ad for the new Chevrolet Cruze. The ad is nothing like the ads you saw in the museum. The old ads made the automobile a part of the American fabric. If you were a family man, an ad would show a couple with their kids, finding happiness in their new car. If you were a young single man, advertising would focus on the car’s power and speed, showing a young driver with a pretty girl next to him. The modern two-page ad simply shows the car and tells the reader that it is economical. You wonder if, with the rise of electric cars and hybrids, the American Dream is reaching some sort of finale.

The future Mrs. George presents a 1933 Deusenberg SJ speedster.


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This review was originally written for a humanities class November 2010. With Hot August Nights coming in a few days, I thought it was appropriate to post.

Copyright © 2010 Paul George. All photos taken by Paul George.


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