What is the collection’s history? How did this large of a collection come together?
Frank K. Spain (November 29, 1927 – April 25, 2006) was an electrical engineer and inventor who specialized in communication and broadcasting in the era when new innovations were needed to keep up with expanding public demand for television. He began buying classic and antique cars in the 1970’s. He had about 20 cars when he decided he needed some direction to the collection. At that time Bill Harrah, the casino owner, had over 1,400 cars in his historical collection, most which were sold upon his death. His collection started from the first vehicles and went forward.
Mr. Spain said, in an interview with the New York Times, “I wanted my collection to do the same thing, to show the various technical and design advances through the decades. The automobile is so essential to, and so involved with every family’s life.” By 2002 he had gathered 150 automobiles, almost 10 per decade beginning with an 1886 Benz and the museum became a reality.
We’ve heard claims that the Tupelo Automobile Museum is the largest car collection east of the Mississippi River – is that really true?
While some museums may have more vehicles (i.e. Ford Museum), we believe we have the largest variety of brands dating over almost 130 years of automotive history. Most of our visitors are surprised to see vehicles they have never heard of but are part of early American automotive manufacturing, such as REA, Queen, Glide, Firestone Columbus, Paterson, Haynes, Brush, Cartercar, Westcott, Wasp and many more.
The museum also features some Europeon automobiles such as Lagonda, Alvis, Hispano Suiza, Talbot Lago as well as the better known Mercedes, Jaguar, Bentley and others. Our 1948 Tucker consistently wins our annual survey as most popular. We also have some one-of-a-kind custom and celebrity vehicles.
You have a ton of cars on the showroom floor, but do you have any others that aren’t on display?
Currently we have approximately 125 cars on the floor which include some that have been donated to the museum over the years. We still have almost 30 vehicles that are in storage or in need of restoration but we bring some of them out for our special “Barnyard Finds” exhibit which will be displayed starting April 29th – May 23, 2015. Some visitors especially appreciate the unrestored condition of the vehicles in this special exhibit because they can see the original and authentic “bones”.
What is the most unique vehicle and what is the most rare vehicle in the collection?
“Rare” and “unique” are attributes that mean different things to different people so it is difficult to select just one or two vehicles.
Our rare 1915 Trumbull, originally called a cycle-car, was well-built in Bridgeport, CT. It featured a water cooled 4 cylinder engine at the affordable prices beginning at $425. An estimated 2,000 Trumbulls were manufactured from 1913 to 1915. About 1,500 units were exported to Europe and Australia. Many American automobile companies were closed during World War I. The Trumbull Motor Car Co. was closed when 20 Trumbull cycle-cars went down with the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915. Among the passengers on board the Lusitania was Isaac Trumbull. He was on his way to close a sale for 300 of his Trumbull light cars.
The museum’s 1929 Duesenberg Model J, featuring a straight-eight engine that is four feet long, would propel this car to well over 100 mph. It would do 80 mph in second gear. The chassis alone cost $8,500 in 1929 and then a variety of specialty automotive body builders (i.e. Brewster, LeBaron, etc.) would custom the body to meet the customer’s specific tastes. Duesenberg only lasted from 1929 to 1936 having produced 470 chassis and 480 engines. Today this car would sell for more than $1,000,000.
The Tupelo Automobile Museum has several unique custom vehicles including ones built by “Big Daddy Roth”, the king of the California custom car culture in the 1950’s and 1960’s and George Barrister, an American car designer and builder known for his hot rods and automotive art becoming a favorite of the Hollywood elite in the 1960’s.Another rare vehicle, 1 of only 2 surviving, is the 1921 Martin Wasp.
Its chassis held a 72 horsepower Wisconsin “T” head, 4 cylinder engine while the body came from various other component suppliers. The word “flamboyant” found all new meaning with the Wasp’s sharply pointed stylized fenders, fully nickeled German radiator, the bullet lights in the windshield and the unique “fins” and rotating hood ornament. There were only 14 made and actor Douglas Fairbanks purchased one for actress Mary Pickford.
Obviously, being in Tupelo you have to have some Elvis memorabilia. What kind of Elvis memorabilia does the museum have and why is it special?
Our most popular and most valuable car is our 1948 Tucker, which was promoted as the “most completely new car in 50 years” by the company founder, Preston Tucker. The futuristic car, styled by forward thinking Alex Tremulis. Engineered far ahead of Detroit standards of the time, it featured all independent suspension, a rear mounted water cooled adapted helicopter engine, an industry first. Horsepower was 166 and torque 372 pound/feet from 335 cubic inches. Its all alloy power plant weighed just 320 pounds. Other innovations included the central cyclop-eye third headlight that turned with the front wheels, doors cut into the roof to ease entry and exit and other safety features. Despite its 4200 pound weight, the Tucker could manage 0 to 60 mph in about 10 seconds with top speed at least 120 mph thanks to the beautifully aerodynamic styling. In 2012, a Tucker sold for $2.65 million at auction.
The king of rock n’ roll was well known for his love of cars and his generosity. He gifted many close friends with automobiles. The Tupelo Automobile Museum has the 1976 Lincoln Mark IV that Elvis purchased Kumpf Lincoln Mercury Dealership in Denver in January 1976.
Elvis often played shows in Denver, Colorado where he formed a close relationship with Jerry Kennedy, captain of the Denver Police Vice and Drug Control Bureau. Captain Kennedy was in charge of security for Elvis when he appeared in Denver so Elvis gave this car to him.
We also exhibit a complete set of all the original Elvis movie posters plus two television specials so that they actually spell “Elvis” across the wall behind the ’76 Lincoln. The display provides a unique photo opportunity for our visitors.The Tupelo Automobile Museum also owns a 1939 Plymouth, the same model driven by Elvis’ family when they moved from Tupelo to Memphis. This car is on loan and displayed at the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo, MS.
Is there a Holy Grail automobile that the museum has been trying to get for a long time but hasn’t landed yet?
The collection as gathered by Frank Spain has 150 vehicles. His intention was to exhibit approximately 10 iconic or unique vehicles per decade beginning with the 1886 Benz. The last vehicle he purchased, just before his death in 2006, was a 1933 Morgan 3-wheeler sports car. His list was much shorter than it was originally and one of the remaining vehicles was a late 1950’s Thunderbird. We have been fortunate to have a few loaned to the museum at various times for public exhibit.
The vision Mr. Spain had for his museum is almost complete. Over the now 12 years of operation, we have accepted donations of very few vehicles that we feel have enhanced our overall mission. Our most recent addition is a 1975 one-owner Gremlin which has been a popular addition, reminding visitors of those other memorable 1970’s economy cars such as the Ford Pinto and the AMC Pacer.