National Automobile Museum – Reno, Nevada

Although we tend to prefer being outdoors than in busy cities, we fancied something a bit different after our sunny walks, hot deserts and dusty craters of Death Valley, so we headed to visit the National Automobile Museum [The Harrah Collection] in Reno, Nevada.

This museum houses over 200 cars from the late 19th century and throughout the 20th, mostly up to around the 1980s, including racing cars and horseless carriages.

There is a lot of interesting historical information alongside each exhibit detailing the specification for each car, the make, model, a little about the companies/people who built them and restored them.

There are cars that belonged to prominent figures such as Elvis Presley’s Cadillac Eldorado Custom Coupe [that he gave to his martial arts instructor] and JFK’s Lincoln Continental 86 Convertible. Cardboard cutouts of the prominent figures involved stand beside the appropriate car.

There are also cars that have appeared in films, such as the 1912 Rambler 73-4CC Cross Country that showed up at Southampton dock in the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic”.

The museum has made the effort to add in other historical information and items that may appeal to people who want to learn about things other than just the cars. These items help to put the vehicles in context. One area explains that blacksmiths branched out to become auto-mechanics. There are dresses and hats worn by the ladies of the different periods, hatpins, vintage tools and fuel pumps. Paintings, photographs, early automobile advertising signs and other memorabilia are featured as well as street settings.

Women who had been involved with automobiles have been given their own information boards interspersed among the exhibits. We read about entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, who was one of the first self-made female millionaires, the 1950s Damsels of Design [the first women employed by General Motors in the automobile design field in Detroit] and dragster racer in a pink jumpsuit, Shirley Muldowney.

We watched a film about Henry Ford that talked about his decision to use conveyor belt production lines rather than people running around fetching individual parts, how he added features to the cars that made them more convenient to start and use, and also how the Model T Ford was built for men to be able to use tools and conduct minor repairs and maintenance at home.

Every hour, in the theatre, there is a film about William Harrah who amassed a collection of around 1400 restored cars. He was a reformed drinker and gambler who made money out of hotels and casinos. This film also shows the development of the motor car throughout the 1900s and how it eventually became mainstream after a period of being only for the wealthy. It was amusing for us to see that all car journeys were an “off-roading” experience in the early days. The film showed the first car owners careering about the countryside with their picnics. Nowadays, everywhere we go, people admire our truck saying “that’ll go anywhere you wanna go” and ask us if we have been “off-roading”. On this film the cars just set off with their new owners regardless of bumpy, undulating, wild terrain and people and cars just “go anywhere” anyway, without our 4WD capability, snorkels or high clearance!

An interesting exhibit from the 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race was the winning car – the 1907 Thomas Flyer. William Harrah persuaded George Schuster who was over 90 years old, to come to Reno and identify this car as the one he drove in the race. Schuster came to see it being dismantled [for restoration] and subsequently verified it by identifying the repairs he had made during the race.

You can read more about this story and the car’s history here:

This exhibition also shows interesting information about the collaboration between cars, movies and the outdoors through the rise and decline of the drive-in movie theatre. This was a popular entertainment option after the second world war, boosted by improved technology and the late 1940s/1950s baby boom. Although there have been some revivals of drive-in movies, the activity declined in popularity, attributed to factors such as cars becoming smaller and less comfortable, the passage of The Uniform Time Act of 1966, higher land values and the video rental market.

We spent around 4 hours in the museum as there is a lot to see and a lot of information to read, if you are interested in taking advantage of it.

There is one car that you can sit in and take the inevitable photograph. The museum even provides a small selection of period clothing and hats for you to don in order to make yourself look more authentic in the Model T Ford available for this purpose.

Sarah donned a cloak and hat for her turn, Jon worried more about his self image and stayed in his usual 2017 costume. A chap who was passing quickly took the opportunity to ask Sarah to take his phone and photograph him waving from the car. He was from the Napa Valley, told us we “must go there and try the wine” and that it was his birthday today. He immediately sent the photograph to the person he had been talking to while all this took place – and who was still on the line while Sarah took the picture!

Jon particularly liked the off-road cars and buggies. They reminded him of his remote-controlled model cars he used to have as a child – but in full size.

Sarah enjoyed the varied, background information that is provided about the cars and the times they are from. She gets a bit bored with car specifications and endless talk of chassis numbers, engine sizes and the constant fascination people have with top speeds and miles to the gallon, however there was a range of other facts to read alongside this. She also liked the huge variety of cars to see, in many shapes, sizes and colours.

This museum is very well thought through, extremely good value [you can go in and out all day on 12$ per person] and there is a wide variety of media and exhibits to keep people interested. If you are in/around Reno, we highly recommend a visit.

The museum is open Mon. – Sat. from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Sun. from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  
Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $6 for children 6 to 18 years.  Children age 5 and younger are free. 
Call (775) 333-9300 for more information.
There is an audio-tour that you can use as you walk around, a daily guided tour run by a volunteer, plus smart phone option.