An evening at the National Automobile Museum

IMG_3082I am willing to bet that you’ve never been to a company party as awesome as this one. My fiancée’s company was celebrating an excellent year, and luckily, I was also invited to tag along. Her co-workers were quite pleasant and easy to get along with, the food and drinks were par excellence, and it was at the freakin’ National Automobile Museum here in Reno, just off the Truckee River. For those of you unaware, the museum is the accumulated collection of the Harrah family, and includes some exquisite automobiles from the early 1900s through the 1960s, as well as a handful of significant racing and road cars from later periods.

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Our friends over at AutoWeek named this “one of America’s five greatest automobile museums”, and it is easy to see why. From the period “street scenes delineating the different era rooms, through the other interesting displays (period garments, a pedal car exhibit, and some interactive educational paraphernalia), the museum provides easy entertainment for hours. Add in the fact that they also have a gold-plated DeLorean DMC12, a Phantom Corsair, and even Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit on display, and there is literally something for everyone. 

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While my enjoyment of cars is nearly always focused on those creations dubbed “post-war”, usually starting as late as the Muscle Car era, I still have some appreciation for the craftsmanship, ingenuity, and creativity that ran rampant from 1900 through the forties. It was an age of experimentation, and each new car was far more technologically advanced than the one that came before it. Engines became vastly more efficient, suspensions were developed enough, even, to be deemed “sporty”, and even something as simple as the pneumatic tire absolutely revolutionized the industry. Following all of that history through the path of the museum is certainly worth the entry. IMG_3085

My favorite cars on display:

IMG_3083#7 – Mercer Raceabout

This car, in its time, was absolutely insane. 55 horsepower from 293 cubic inches propelled the car at quite respectable speeds. It was generally considered to be one of the first cars to be built for the express purpose of “sport”. In 1914, a Raceabout won the “Corona Road Race” 300 mile event, breaking the world record for speed with an average of 86.5 miles per hour.

IMG_3091#6 – Bill Harrah’s Jerrari II

The second Jerrari built, this one a 1977 Wagoneer, without that floppy Ferrari nose graft that the earlier one had. The grand-daddy of the Cherokee SRT-8.

The legend goes that a helicopter salesman had come to Reno with the intention of selling a chopper to Mr. Harrah. The pilot told Harrah that the helicopter would facilitate easier transport between his Reno home, and his South Lake Tahoe home. “Let’s make a deal,” Harrah is supposedly said, “you fly your helicopter and I’ll drive my old Jeep. If you get to Tahoe before I do, I’ll buy your helicopter.” Unbeknownst to the helicopter man, the Jerrari was reported to top out around 140mph.

IMG_3105#5 – 1955 Ferrari 625 Grand Prix 

This Grand Prix car began life in 1952, and the chassis was continually updated through the end of 1955. As it sits now, it houses a 152 Cubic Inch DOHC four cylinder engine which produces 250 horsepower, impressive numbers, even by the standards of not that long ago. By 1955, though, Mercedes was kicking Ferrari up and down the world, winning 5 of 7 rounds (Indianapolis was still considered a World Championship event at this time). This particular chassis did come in 2nd position at the Argentine Grand Prix in 1955, however. Early open-wheel racers have always gripped my attention, and this one was phenomenal to see in the metal.

IMG_3093#4 – 1988 TWR Jaguar XJR-9 IMSA

Winning on debut at the 1988 Daytona 24 hour, the XJR-9 was a 7.0 Liter V12 (XJS derived) monster of a car. This car is an exact replica (on loan from Castrol) of the #60 car that won at Daytona with Raul Boesel, Jan Lammers, Martin Brundle, and John Nielsen doing driving duties. While it isn’t the exact chassis that won, it is certainly fun to look at the aerodynamics of cars designed in the late 1980s and compare them to more modern fodder. 

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#3 – Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing 1975 Chevrolet VPJ-ORC-001 “Class 8” Pick Up

Anyone familiar with Parnelli’s work would instantly know that he was often a bit unorthodox. This truck was one of the most innovative “Class 8” off road racers, and absolutely blew the competition away in 1975. Built to run the 1975 season with Walker Evans, the truck was so fast in Class 8, that SCORE later relocated the truck to the unlimited “Class 2” for two seat prototype race vehicles.

Built with support from the Chevrolet Special Vehicles Division, the truck features a heavily modified small-block Chevrolet V8, a B&M build THM 400 automatic transmission, and aircraft materials for lightweight body construction. While it looks like your standard Step-Side Chevy, it certainly packs a punch. It won its class in the Parker 400, the Baja 500, the Mint 400, and the Baja 1000 between 1975 and 1976. Even after it was moved to Class 2 competition, the Chevy won the 1976 SCORE championship in that class, besting the tube-framed buggies.

This truck was part of the “Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame”, which is a permanent display inside the museum.

IMG_3095#2 – 1977 Porsche 935 “Spirit of Nevada” 

Chassis number 930 770 0905 began life as one of the iconic Jagermeister 935s, competing in international Group 5 across Europe in 1977 for Jagermeister Max-Moritz-Team Racing, winning first time out at Zolder in Belgium, and again at the Norisring in Germany at the hands of Manfred Schurti. For 1978, it was purchased by Electrodyne for competition in the IMSA GTX category stateside with MOMO sponsorship, driven by the man himself, Mr. Gianpiero Moretti. For 1979, the car competed at Le Mans, fielded by Jean-Pierre Jarier, but suffered an engine failure. Purchasing the car shortly thereafter, Reno resident Randolph Townsend brought the car back to the US, where he finished out the 1979 season, and then further through the entirety of the 1980 season. Under Townsend’s ownership, the car was officially entered under the banner of the famous Porsche shop, Andial, who also prepared the car.  

IMG_3097#1 – 1972 McLaren M20 Can-Am

Throughout the 1971 Can-Am season, McLaren was in the cat-bird seat, winning 8 of 10 races on the season. Their dominance with the M8F was so all encompassing, that Peter Revson scored 142 points, Dennis Hulme scored 132 points, and their next nearest competitor, Jackie Stewart, scored only 76 points. In 1972, however, Porsche asserted their dominance in the SCCA Canadian-American Challenge class with the all-conquering 917 turbo cars, and knocked McLaren down a peg or two.

The new-for-1972 M20 racer was supposed to be head and shoulders above the outgoing M8F, and in the early part of the season, Hulme managed to win twice while Porsche faltered. Follmer, stepping in for an injured Mark Donohue, ran away with the rest of the season, scoring 130 points to Hulme’s 65. Where McLaren had taken a giant step forward, Porsche had, unfortunately, taken 3 steps forward, and the M20 was not radical enough, or powerful enough, to even come close.

Making use of a 750 horsepower 509 cubic-inch Chevrolet big-block, the 1972 Gulf McLarens were quick, but fragile, and several Chevy engines lunched themselves, leading to a poor 1972 season. Teddy Meyer, team boss, decided to pick up his toys and go home after failing to secure the championship for the first time since 1966. McLaren decided to focus on Formula 1 and USAC, leaving Can Am in their rear view, and never coming back. They sold all three M20s to different teams, and didn’t look back.

This car, this exact car, is partially to blame for the demise of Can-Am. Without McLaren in 1973, Penske and Porsche had no competition to even worry about, and walked away with the championship, before leaving themselves at the end of the season. The SCCA disbanded the class shortly thereafter.

All images ©2014 Hooniverse/Bradley C. Brownell, All Rights Reserved.

Bradley C. Brownell is an Editor with Hooniverse.com, but he also contributes to his own site “BavarianDrive“. Head over there for more of his work.

 

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