California Automobile Museum – Sacramento, CA (USA)

The first time I ever came to California – more years ago than I now prefer to remember, and long before I knew that I would be coming several times a year – I stumbled across a fantastic collection of US Fords, in a museum called the Towe Museum, in the State Capital city, Sacramento. It turned out that these were a part of a huge collection of every model year of Ford that had been amassed by one man, Edward Towe, who initially had his collection in Deer Park, Montana, but had decided to bring 100 of them to the location of the Californian Auto Club’s base, and along with a sizeable donation from the Ford Motor Company, this had allowed the museum to be opened. When I was doing my research for this trip, I came across the fact that the museum has been renamed the Californian Auto Museum, but that it is still in the same premises, just off the junction of the I-5 and I-80 Business Loop freeways. When I got to the museum, I asked what the story was, and it turned out to be rather sad.

It seems that the IRS (that’s the US Tax Authority) had decided that Mr Towe owed them rather a lot of money, and the only way to pay for it was to sell his entire collection of cars. The Museum, was able to persuade the IRS to do so in Sacramento, so some of the very comprehensive collection of cars remained at least in the area. Mr Towe himself, now a frail old man in his 90s, it is understood is living in Arizona. However, the Californian Auto Club did have access to plenty of other historic vehicles, so the happy part to this story is that they decided to rename the museum, and to populate it with a lot of cars which had previously been kept wherever the owner had space, and could now make them visible to the paying public. I am delighted to say that the museum itself has been transformed, and what I remembered as a rather dingy dark place is now a large building with all manner of displays, including some of those early Fords, but also home to various “visiting” cars and temporary displays. There are half a dozen or so guides, or “Docents” as they call them, and I spent a good while talking to each of then during the 4.5 hours I was there! No, I never intended or expected to spend that long, but that is what happens when you get talking!

So, to the cars:

“Blacksmith’s Shop” is a diaroma just past the entrance desk, and includes this 1908 REO Runabout.

This very late model 1927 Ford Model T Coupe was in the shop area. One of the last cars produced, as the Model T gave way to the Model A later that year, it came in the most popular colour of the year. After 1925, Henry relented and started finishing his cars in colours other than black.

“Dream of Luxury”

1933 Lincoln KB V12: this was the very first car I came, to, and mighty impressive it is, too. It turned out that when new, it was acquired by AP Giannini, the man who founded the (once) mighty Bank of America. Only 52 of these $45000 luxury vehicles were sold that year, as this was the depths of the Great Depression. Giannini used it as he toured around California in a high profile campaign called “Back to Good Times” to try to persuade people to think positively and to show how the fledgling Bank could meet their needs. After he died, in 1949, it was purchased from his estate and stored and not discovered until 43 years, in an old barn in Artesia, CA. A customer notified the Bank that the car was for sale and after they duly confirmed that it was indeed Giannini’s former car, the Bank purchased it back in 1995 for $30,000. The car was in surprisingly good condition, though there were challenges and in the end restoration cost $100,000 later. Who knows what it is worth now, but it could easily be 10 times that sum.

More was to come, though. After I had nearly finished my tour of the museum, one of the guides suggested I might want to come back to this car, as they were going to start it up. I got talking to a gentleman who used to work for B of A, and who is now the official guardian of this car. He told me that he takes it out when he can, which is not that often these days, but today was going to be one of them. After a few preliminary checks, he got the immense V12 to fire up with no real difficulty, but then had to wait while the leather gaskets around the fuel pump got moist, as they tend to leak petrol until this point. Then the fun began, as two long wooden ramps were put in front of the plinth, and the challenging job of getting the car off began. That proved to be the easy part, as it then had to be slotted through some very tight gaps to get it out of the museum. It took about 6 people guiding, and one man getting a real work out from the weight of the steering, but eventually, it found the fresh air.

Whilst this Lincoln is definitely one of the stars of the museum, there is plenty of other interest and here are some (not all) of the cars also on display.

1933 Chrysler CD Roadster

1934 Auburn Phaeton

1929 Hudson Super Six

1925 Cadillac V-63 Coupe

Rolls Royce

1937 Chrysler Imperial Business Coupe

1936 Packard Eight Sedan Model 1400

1934 Pierce Arrow De Luxe Eight

1928 Cunningham Brougham Sedan: Cunningham was a builder of some very expensive coach built vehicles, and never built more than a handful of cars. There are 3 on show in the museum, which is as many as you are ever likely to see in one place

1923 Studebaker EL

1937 Cunningham Town Car, based on a Ford V8: although no-one knows for sure, the view is that in the Depression of the 1930s, being seen in an outrageously expensive car was not a good idea, so for at least one wealthy owner who wanted a chauffeur driven limo, he had one based on the front end of a Ford.

1940 Lincoln Town Car: this was the property of Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, who had the car until 1948. It was gradually updated with elements from each successive new model year so is now something of an oddity.

1940 Lincoln Zephyr

1942 Lincoln Zephyr

1947 Lincoln Continental Convertible

“Dream of Speed”

A small section containing a veritable pot-pourri of racing vehicles:

1946 Kurtis Midget racer: this thing had a Ford V8 engine in it! Midget racing was very popular til the late 1950s

1932 Ford Hardtop – raced by AJ Foyte

A pair of Shelby Cobras. The grey car is a 427, dating from 1966 and the red one, a 289 from 1965

1929 American Race Car – based on a Ford, and updated as new components became available

1960 Indianapolis Type Champ car

2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR

1932 Muller Ascot Race Car

1909 Ford Model T Racer

1951 Jaguar XK120

“Dream of Mobility”

This area of the museum is where the earliest cars can be found:

1904 Ford Model B

1904 Ford Model C

1906 Ford Model K

1908 Ford Model T

1921 Ford Model T Snowmobile

1882 Horse-driven tram

1912 Metz Roadster

1909 Wolfe Model D Touring

“Independence Dream”

1916 Buick D34 Roadster

1914 Ford Model T Coupelot

1912 Cadillac Model 30 Torpedo

1907 Ford Model K

1923 Buick Series 23-36

1925 Franklin Sedan Model 10K

1926 Cunningham Ambulance

1927 Chevrolet Capital Truck

1927 Nash Rumble Seat Coupe

1928 Ford Model A Coupe

1931 Ford Model A Victoria

1928 Willys Knight

“Dream of Modernity”

1935 Ford V8

1933 Ford Popular – this is a UK car, and apparently was the inspiration for the US Fords which followed, in suitably scaled up fashion

1928 Ford Model A

1936 Chrysler Airflow Coupe

1935 Chrysler Airflow

1936 Graham Supercharged Sedan

1935 Ford Roadster

1940 Ford Cabover TowTruck

1935 Ford Pickup

1931 Ford Model A de Luxe Roadster

1938 Buick Special 4 dr

1947 Ford Sportsman Convertible

“Post War Era”

A splendid collection of 1950s Americana

1953 Studebaker Champion

1953 Kaizer Manhattan

1954 Cadillac Coupe de Ville

1955 Oldsmobile 88 Holiday

1960 Ford Thunderbird Convertible

1961 Chrysler Newport Station Wagon

One of my absolute favourites from the whole museum, a 1950 Dodge Coronet “Woodie”, the last year that Dodge offered a wood-panelled estate car.

“Muscle Cars”

A couple of early Corvettes

An early Ford Mustang

1969 Boss Mustang 302

1965 Ford Falcon Convertible

1962 Ford Thunderbird

1966 Ford Thunderbird

Another of my favourites, the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible

1973 Ferrari 246 GTS

Not quite sure what this Morris Minor was doing in this section! The Minor sold quite successfully in the US in the 1950s, competing against the Beetle and Renault Dauphine, but was withdrawn from the market in 1962. lts staged a brief re-appearance in 1967, but tougher emissions rules in 1968 brought sales to an end. This is a 1967 car.

There was also a recreation of a Texaco filling station, complete with VW Beetle tanking up.

“Going Green”

A temporary exhibition had a number of innovative concepts on show:

Mercedes Fuel Cell Car

A 1981 venture based on a VW Kit Car, approximately 500 of these vehicles were sold.

A 1916 Detroit Electric

I was delighted to find an EV1 on show. Having seen a documentary which told the story of this innovative car and how GM had recalled them all (bar 12), and crushed them, despite massive protests from the owners, it was good to see one for real (there is also one at the Petersen, but this one is far better displayed!)

“Cars for Sale”

At any one time, there will be a number of cars on show which are actually for sale. Some have, or will, appear on eBay.

1953 Chevrolet 210

1941 Cadillac Coupe

Chrysler PT Cruiser – perhaps not quite a classic yet, but in years to come, it may well be regarded as such

Lincoln Town Car from the late 1970s

Mercedes 250 CE

Lamborghini Countach LP5000s


An absolute must for anyone in the area, the museum is open 7 days a week, and open til 9m on a Thursday. More details can be found at:

2009-07-05 16:07:04

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