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The 5 Most Interesting Car Museums in America

Image courtesy of Klaus Nahr on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

America’s car museums allow you to view a wide variety of vehicles that span numerous decades. Cars from all over the world are on display and showcase the evolution of engineering, design, and automotive culture. They provide a visual understanding of how the past has influenced the production of modern automobiles. Visiting these five “temples to transportation” will help you rediscover why you fell in love with cars in the first place.

1. Petersen Automotive Museum

The new Petersen
The new Petersen. Image courtesy of The Petersen Museum © All rights reserved

Located in Los Angeles, California, the Petersen Automotive Museum opened its doors on June 11, 1994. It is a key anchor of the “Miracle Mile” and is located at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. This is the third most traveled intersection in the city. If you get the chance to drop by, you will have the opportunity to witness some of the most incredible vehicles from around the world and great stories from the history of the automotive industry.

Image courtesy of Klaus Nahr on Flickr.
Image courtesy of Klaus Nahr on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Do you get tired of seeing the same old things every time you visit a museum? You will not have that problem here. To keep things fresh, only 150 cars are on display at one time. Since things keep getting rotated, you will probably discover something new with every trip. Each vehicle is displayed in context so that it has real meaning and provides you with a true appreciation of the car. The vault where all the vehicles are kept was open to public for a brief period during the holiday season of 2012, when visitors got a chance to view all the cars the museum has.

The most unique features at the Petersen Automotive Museum are the Streetscape diorama and the rotating exhibit spaces. You will be fascinated by the Streetscape’s realistic setup that literally walks you through the evolution of Los Angeles and automobiles from the early 20th century to today. The rotating spaces feature classics, race cars, and concept vehicles.

Image courtesy of Klaus Nahr on Flickr.
Image courtesy of Klaus Nahr on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Have you ever wanted to see some cars made famous on the big screen? The Batmobile, a supercar from the “Batman” series, can be viewed here. It was the actual car driven by Michael Keaton in the 1989 hit “Batman” and “Batman Returns” from 1992.

The museum is currently closed for renovations and is scheduled to reopen during December 2015.

2. National Corvette Museum

Image courtesy of daveynin on Flickr.
Image courtesy of daveynin on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Bowling Green, Kentucky is home to the National Corvette Museum, which is located down the road from GM’s production plant. Since 1994, Corvette lovers have enjoyed taking factory tours and museum visits. When you arrive, you are greeted by various memorabilia, the Corvette Cafe and vintage and new Corvettes. There are over 80 examples of Corvette perfection, including the last surviving 1983 model, milestone cars, and one-of-a-kind concepts that never reached the production line.

Have you ever wanted to know what it would be like to be part of a pit crew for a Corvette racer? Thanks to an exhilarating exhibit, you can become a crew member and change tires and fuel up the car during a stop. Should you prefer the mechanics under the hood, you will revel in the “heart of the beasts” with up-close glimpses of the cutaways of engines and powertrains.

The National Corvette Museum also had a temporary attraction not so long ago, when a sinkhole opened in 2014 and swallowed eight Corvettes. The Museum was contemplating on whether to keep the sinkhole as an ongoing attraction. They finally decided against it, explaining that the expenses would run too high.

Are you in the market for a new Corvette? If so, this is the mother ship to buyers who choose to pick up their new babies after they roll off the assembly line.

3. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum

Image courtesy of Paul J Everett on Flickr.
Image courtesy of Paul J Everett on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Independently owned and operated by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation, this Hall of Fame Museum dates back to 1956. It was relocated to the Speedway grounds in 1976, and became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. This space is small, so there are only 75 cars on display at any given time. However, if you are among of the lucky ones, you might get a chance to view the other vehicles stored in the basement, but this is on an invite-only basis.

The collection displayed in the Hall of Fame Museum includes over 30 Indianapolis 500 winning cars (including the Marmon “Wasp”, which won the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911), other Indy vehicles, and cars from NASCAR, Formula One, and Midget classes. Motorcycle racers and dragsters are represented as well.

Image courtesy of Leandro Neumann Ciuffo on Flickr.
Image courtesy of Leandro Neumann Ciuffo on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

History and memorabilia are a big part of the museum. Trophies, plaques, models, toys, paintings, and other racing paraphernalia join the cars as well. To impress your friends, you can climb behind the wheel of an authentic race car for a picture.

Besides the racing industry, passenger cars produced in Indianapolis and Europe are represented in full force. Duesenburg, Stutz, Marmon, Ferrari and Mercedes are just a few brands included in this museum.

4. National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection)

Image courtesy of brewbooks on Flickr.
Image courtesy of brewbooks on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

The National Automobile Museum is housed in Reno, Nevada and showcases the collection of William Harrah, the famous hotel and casino entrepreneur. Harrah’s first acquisition, a 1911 Maxwell, is among the exciting highlights. You will experience over 200 antiques, vintages, classics and special interest cars on themed “street” displays. This allows you to get a true sense of important eras in history. Cars and significant artifacts are combined for a realistic feel that transports you back to the heart of the era each automobile was popular in.

Image courtesy of brewbooks on Flickr.
Image courtesy of brewbooks on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

One of the oldest attractions is a 1892 Philion stream road carriage. This vehicle is one of the oldest American-built automobiles in existence. The “Cars of the Stars” section will make you feel like you are in Hollywood. Nowhere else will you be able to view Al Jolson’s 1933 V16 Cadillac All-Weather Phaeton, Jack Benny’s 1923 Maxwell, Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ghia hardtop, and the 1949 Mercury driven by James Dean in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause”.

Image courtesy of brewbooks on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image courtesy of brewbooks on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

The National Automobile Museum is quite rich in history. Few other places contain items like the 1907 Thomas Flyer, which won that year’s “Around the World” race. Also, you can enjoy a throwback to the 1950s with various convertibles from the decade rotating on display.

5. Henry Ford Museum

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.
Photo by Santeri shwalamazula on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Named after Henry Ford, a true pioneer of the automobile industry, the Henry Ford Museum can be found in Dearborn, Michigan. It is a large indoor and outdoor complex and a National Historic Landmark in the Metro Detroit suburb that includes preserved items dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Over 10 acres are dedicated to showcasing the finest cars, machinery, and Americana exhibits.

Image courtesy of Tom Hughes on Flickr.
Image courtesy of Tom Hughes on Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Imagine seeing rare items like John F. Kennedy’s presidential limousine, Abraham Lincoln’s chair from Ford’s Theater, the bus Rosa Parks stood her ground, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and the original Oscar Mayer Wienermobile under one roof.

The “Made in America” display explores the legacy of mechanical devices that revolutionized the way we live. From the toaster to the locomotive, you will renew your appreciation for innovation that changed the world.

Image courtesy of Barbara Eckstein on Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Image courtesy of Barbara Eckstein on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Highway billboards, neon signs, and other artifacts that relate to car culture are here as well. “Driving America” is considered the premier automotive exhibition in the world. View the 1967 Mark IV race car, the first all-American automobile to win at Le Mans or revel in the beauty of the 1931 Bugatti Royale Type 41. Take your time and enjoy all the 20 focal areas that cover everything from hot rods to road trips.

Honorable Mention: Jay Leno’s Garage

Image courtesy of dodge challenger1 on Flickr.
Image courtesy of dodge challenger1 on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Although he is most famous for his sense of humor, Jay Leno is also an avid car enthusiast. His Burbank, California garage museum is not open to the public, but it houses approximately 256 amazing vehicles. His “Jay Leno’s Garage” website contains photos and video clips of his collection.

He provides details about his automobiles and motorcycles and explains what types of vehicles interest him the most. Leno has a regular column in “Popular mechanics” magazine, which showcases his hobby and offers advice on a variety of car topics, including car restoration.

Image courtesy of U.S. Army Materiel Command on Flickr.
Image courtesy of U.S. Army Materiel Command on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The best part of Leno’s collection is that every car is licensed and legal to drive. It is not uncommon to see the comedian out and about in his 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II with its 1,000 horsepower Merlin C12 engine or another one of his rare rides. Some of the vehicles that bring him the most pride include his 1939 Lagorda V12, two Stanley Steamers, and a souped-up Renault LeCar with a Ford Taurus SHO motor and nitrous setup. Leno sums up his collection in an excellent manner. He explains the cars are a sense of history. “I believe we don’t really own these cars. We just keep them for the next owners.”

In Conclusion

These museums offer a great opportunity to revisit the history of automotive design and innovation. You can step back in time and walk through important eras that have had such a great influence on today’s culture.

Have you ever had a chance to visit any of these museums?

If you have visited any of these museums, you have had the opportunity to view some of the most impressive vehicles that are rarely seen on today’s roads. What part of the museums did you particularly enjoy? Was it the nostalgic settings and memorabilia or getting an up-close look at some of the most extravagant vehicles in the world?

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