A classic returns to the fold

Depression-era auto once owned by Harrah is the centerpiece of a new exhibit

PHOTO/BUDDY FRANK: The rare 1934 Phaeton glides like a Zeppelin into the National Automobile Museum in Reno Aug. 31.

One of the rarest luxury automobiles in the world has rejoined what was the Harrah’s auto collection, just in time for the 109th birthday of Nevada’s most famous classic car collector on Sept. 2.

“The car, a 1934 LeBaron-bodied, dual-cowl Packard Sport Phaeton, was one of Bill Harrah’s favorites and appeared in many national parades such as the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade,” said Buddy Frank, interim executive director of the National Automobile Museum in Reno. “To celebrate Mr. Harrah’s birthday, we’re opening a new exhibit featuring the priceless Packard, Bill’s one-of-a-kind 1977 ‘Jerrari,’ along with some of his memorabilia, a review of his life, his casinos and his car collection.”

The Packard, once a part of Harrah’s original 1,450-car collection, is on loan for 90 days from the Robert & Anne Lee Car Collection. When it was new, in the fifth year of the Great Depression, the auto’s list price was $7,820, more than enough for the purchase of a fine home at the time. The Packard illustrates a transition period in automotive design. By the mid-1930s, the four-square cars of the 1920s were starting to give way to more streamlined auto bodies that would eventually dominate the American market.

The 1934 Phaeton cruises in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena in this undated photo.

It’s a physical snapshot back to a time when Americans’ personal transportation began to look less like carriages and more like moving works of art deco. The Phaeton had a lot of power for 1934. Nestled under the hood is a V-12 engine with 445.5 cubic inches of displacement, generating 160 horsepower.  Harrah purchased the car in 1964 and its restoration wrapped up at his Sparks shops in 1975. 

Casinos were a business; cars were a passion

The National Automobile Museum, at 10 South Lake St. in Reno, is one of the few museums remaining open during the pandemic. The new Harrah’s exhibit starts Sept. 2, and the museum’s doors are open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $12, adults; $10, seniors; $6, children age 6 to 18. Members and children 5 and younger are admitted free.

“Social distancing isn’t just required; it’s impossible to avoid,” said Frank, who noted that the museum’s four exhibit halls, spread out over the building’s 85,000 square feet, leave plenty of room for personal space. It also gives visitors the ability to take pictures without other folks wandering in the background.

The Harrah exhibit also features two other cars that loom large in the casino magnate’s history of car-collecting. A red “1907” Maxwell auto is the car that sent Harrah on what would become his life’s passion. He bought the classic vehicle in 1947 or so, and had it restored without knowing much about the intricacies of car collecting. “He hopped it up like he did all his cars,” Frank said. “A better carburetor, a magneto, whatever he could to give it more speed. He painted it bright red, reupholstered the old leather seats with vinyl and added new rubber to the running boards.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Buddy Frank with the “1907” Maxwell, the car that started a collection.

“In 1948, (Harrah) entered the car in a Horseless Carriage Tour in Southern California. He told everyone it was a 1907 Maxwell, but it was a 1911 Maxwell with the wrong radiator and head lamps. The 1911 model was always painted blue, never red. Everything about it was wrong, and the car buffs were happy to point that out. He was embarrassed and Bill Harrah did not like to ever be embarrassed. But he hired an expert and never made those kinds of mistakes again. It was the beginning of the car collection that people say eventually became even more important to him than his casinos.” 

— Buddy Frank, interim director of the National Automobile Museum.

Every vehicle has a story and a place in history

Across the room from the Maxwell is the “Jerrari,” an uneasy marriage between a Jeep Wagoneer and a Ferrari. Harrah had to travel between his casinos in Reno and Lake Tahoe in winter. He needed four-wheel drive, Frank said, but loved fast cars. So he installed a Ferrari 5-speed transmission into the 4X4 Jeep and dropped a Ferrari V-12 power plant into the Wagoneer’s engine compartment, which had to be slightly stretched to accommodate the larger engine. Road and Track magazine had called an earlier version of the hybrid, which looked more like a Ferrari, “a crime against nature.”  

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The 4X4 1977 Jeep Wagoneer with its Ferrari V-12 engine.

In addition to the Harrah exhibit, the museum also hosts more than 200 classic and historic automobiles set among street scenes from various American time periods. The sets include a gas station, a hardware store and a movie theater. The street scenes include sounds and artifacts from each era.

Every car has a story. And the upholstery inside some of them has rubbed against the shoulders of the likes of Elvis, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, James Dean and John Wayne. Other vehicles have had starring roles in movies, including the “Magnificent Ambersons,” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” The 1912 Rambler carried Kate Winslet’s character’s luggage to the dock in “Titanic.”

Some have made history: the 1907 Thomas Flyer, the car that won the 22,000-mile New York to Paris race around the world in 1908;  the Dymaxion car, the lone survivor of three prototypes, which was designed by American inventor Buckminster Fuller. Fuller came up with the streamlined “car of the future” during the Great Depression and it featured prominently at Chicago’s 1933/1934 World’s Fair.

PHOTO/BUDDY FRANK: The 1934 Packard Sport Phaeton with the “Jerrari” in the background.

The bulk of the Harrah car collection was sold off after Harrah’s death in 1978. His casinos also were sold, but the brand endured. His name still blazes atop hotel-casinos in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas and around the nation. Harrah’s Reno closed this year after an 82-year run in the Biggest Little City.

The National Auto Museum has been named in the “Top Ten Museums” by Car Collector magazine, one of “America’s Five Greatest Automobile Museums” and one of the top 16 auto museums in the world by AutoWeek, and has been repeatedly selected as the best museum in Northern Nevada in Nevada Magazine’s annual reader’s poll.

Other museums and attractions open

While many of Northern Nevada’s attractions have shut down due to the pandemic, a few remain open, albeit with some new rules. Face coverings are required at all of them and some have limited the number of visitors who can be inside at any one time.

The Nevada Museum of Art, which is showcasing an timely exhibit entitled “On the World Stage” is featured in a Reno News & Review sidebar to this story. Other local museums that are open include:

The Wilbur D. May Center museums at Rancho San Rafael

The Wilbur D. May Center, 1595 N. Sierra St., is located inside Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. The center contains a museum, arboretum, and botanical garden dedicated to preserving the legacy of Wilbur May, a Reno rancher, world traveler, and philanthropist. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from noon until 4 p.m.. Admission is $6, adults; $4, children and seniors. The May Museum houses the private collection of Wilbur D. May. During a lifetime of world travel and adventure, Wilbur May accumulated thousands of rare and exotic artifacts, which he brought back to his Reno home.

The May Arboretum and Botanical Garden, 1595 N. Sierra St., also located inside Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, is a living plant museum with over 4,600 native and adaptive plant species on display on 13 of its 23 total acres. Pathways snake through groves, gardens and over bridges above wetlands. The arboretum is in a transitional zone between the Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin Desert and the beauty of the plants change with the seasons. It’s free and open every day during daylight hours. No vehicles or dogs are allowed within the arboretum and gardens.

Talk about social-distance: keep watching the skies

Fleischmann Planetarium, 1664 N Virginia St., at the University of Nevada, Reno. is open on a limited basis to small household groups up to five people each during the pandemic. The Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center features shows in a 60-seat Dome Theater (with special protocols; call for details and reservations), an exhibit hall, and a science store. The planetarium is open only at 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and on Fridays for advance bookings. Tickets for the household groups must be purchased in advance online. Email: planetarium@unr.edu  (775) 784-4812.The Discovery Museum needs support during pandemic

The Discovery Museum needs support during pandemic

The Discovery Museum, 490 S. Center St, Reno: The Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum is again closed after reopening for about six weeks. The museum’s finances are stable for now, but the 10-year-old institution is asking for donations to keep it alive during the pandemic.

The Discovery is Nevada’s largest hands-on science center. It has 67,000 square feet of ever-changing exhibitions focused on science, technology, engineering, art, history and invention designed to inspire curiosity, creativity and lifelong learning in all who visit.

The museum also regularly hosts exhibitions on topics ranging from rare monster-sized fish, to larger-than-life dinosaur fossils, to mind-bending puzzles, and daily science demonstrations. Other programs include events series including Social Science, a quarterly adults-only science exploration series, and Science Distilled, an informal lecture series curated  in partnership with Desert Research Institute.

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