I don’t know much about cars. But do I enjoy looking at vintage automobiles and learning about their history and design. I marvel at the meticulous work that went into restoring them to pristine condition. And let’s face it: Cars from middle decades of the 20th century are way more stylish and interesting to look at than most cars on the road today.
So, when I had part of a day to kill before heading home from California recently, I decided to spend it at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento.
The warehouse-like building was undergoing a roof replacement, so part of the museum was closed to visitors, exhibits were in disarray, and cars had been moved around to accommodate the ongoing work. Still, about two-thirds of the museum’s collection of some 150 vehicles was on display. Each was beautifully restored, and a docent told me that most are in drivable condition.
If you love old cars or simply love looking at them, the California Automobile Museum is for you. The roof work should be done this year, so the museum soon will be back to normal, with even more to see.
The museum has a wealth of early automobiles.
Powered by steam pressure from a boiler under its hood, this 1914 Stanley Steam Car was fast and quiet. But it took a while for the boiler to heat up, and the car required considerable skill to operate.
Once the museum’s roof replacement project is finished, I hope there will be more dioramas on view like this delightful Yosemite Valley scene.
The view from the backseat of a yellow 1913 Ford Model T touring car, one of a couple of vehicles you can climb aboard. Beginning in 1914, Ford began offering the Model T only in black, because it was less expensive and dried faster than other colors, thus speeding up assembly.
A row of beautiful cars from the Roaring ’20s. Love those running boards!
At Phil’s Garage, volunteer mechanics work to keep museum vehicles in operating condition.
The paint jobs alone are stunning: here a 1936 Graham 110 Supercharged Sedan (left) and a 1937 Chrysler Imperial Business Coupe.
Automotive designs reached new heights of elegance in the 1930s. In the foreground is a 1937 Cadillac Series 60 Sedan. Next to it is a 1936 Ford Roadster.
The 1938 Chrysler Imperial Airflow Sedan (left) was an early attempt to improve automobile aerodynamics. The 1950 Ford Station Wagon was one of the last “Woodie” models designed with real maple and mahogany panels.
This 1940 Lincoln Zephyr Sedan exemplifies the Art Deco style streamlining that had become popular.
This striking green 1949 Chrysler DeSoto Carryall Sedan introduced a feature now common in cars today: a fold-down rear seat that allowed you to load long objects into the trunk.
My brother still remembers our parents’ first car: a Kaiser Henry J (named after the car company’s co-founder Henry J. Kaiser). I asked a museum docent if he knew about that model, and he pointed me to this 1953 Kaiser Manhattan, the top-of-line version of our old family car.
This 1953 Bel Air was Chevrolet’s luxury liner. Featured in a national ad campaign around this time, popular singer Dinah Shore was encouraging Americans to “See the USA in your Chevrolet!”
This study in white includes a 1955 Ford Thunderbird convertible. Ford’s answer to Chevy’s Corvette sports car, the Thunderbird proved very popular. It was sporty and stylish but also practical and comfortable.
Inspired by Americans’ fascination with jets and rockets, tail fins began appearing on automobiles in the 1950s. They reached the zenith of their extravagance at the end of the decade, as exemplified by this pink 1959 Cadillac.
Relatively small and fuel efficient, the 1960 Nash Metropolitan was an exception to the post-war trend in America toward large and powerful cars. I had hoped they might have on display a Nash Rambler station wagon, our first family car that I remember, but I didn’t see one.
Two classics from the 1960s: a 1965 Ford Mustang and a 1968 Chevrolet Corvette. The latter was repainted in its original “Corvette bronze” color but is otherwise in its original condition.
Two Volkswagen “Bugs” from 1949 and 1961. Not much different.
The museum displays several racecars. This 1960 Indianapolis-Type “Champ Car” is built for dirt track racing. It is similar to the sprint cars I used to watch racing at our local county fair.
This one-of-a-kind, aeronautically inspired 1971 Star Streak was designed and built by a retired Air Force officer. It includes all the amenities you’d expect in a motorhome, along with one you wouldn’t: bullet-proof glass!
This innovative 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 has a brushed stainless-steel exterior and gull-wing doors that open upward. DeLorean sales never took off, and production ceased after only two years. But the car gained lasting fame when the 1985 movie “Back to the Future” featured a DeLorean modified for use as a time machine.
Now this is a museum shop! If you want to drive home in a beautifully restored vintage car, here’s your chance!
David Romanowski, 2017
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