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Reno’s National Automobile Museum showcases casino magnate’s impressive collection.
Photo: PR (National Automobile Museum, The Harrah Collection)
Pasadena teenager Bill Harrah was furious when his first car was stolen and vowed to spend the rest of his life collecting a replica of every automobile that his family had ever owned. The theft sparked a passion that lives on to this day.
The gaming entrepreneur liked his cars, but he loved showing them off—he opened his collection to the public in 1962. But when Harrah passed away in 1978, he left no indication as to what should be done with his priceless autos, which once numbered more than 1,400. Now, a part of the casino patriarch’s legacy is preserved in downtown Reno at the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection), which opened in 1989.
Just steps from the Truckee River, in the burgeoning Riverwalk District, the 100,000-square-foot museum houses more than 200 cars that illustrate the automotive history of America and the world. Visitors walk through four recreated street scenes of each era, from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s—for example, the 1930s to 50s wing has a façade of a Union 76 Minute Man Service Station. “That combination of autos and history is what our visitors love,” says museum Sales and Marketing Manager Esther Isaac.
The National Automobile Museum’s ambiance is further enhanced by its décor, which features chrome trim and a Heather Fire Mist exterior, automobile-related art, and even vintage gas pumps. You can set your sights on an Orange Studebaker and a green Jaguar—this award-winning museum is a reminder of the merging of mechanical genius with pop-culture consciousness that brought about a generation of unforgettable rides. Visitors can take self-guided audio tours in English or Spanish and view a 25-minute film on Harrah’s story and the history of the automobile. For those reasons alone, Isaac recommends a visit of 90 minutes to two hours.
Some locals have memories of Harrah and his cars that stretch back decades. “Bill Harrah was an icon in this town,” says long-time Reno resident Jerry Tiehm, who remembers when Harrah’s collection was split among several warehouses in neighboring Sparks. “When you toured the cars you could also watch the workmen restoring them,” he recalls. He particularly remembers the “Jerrari,” a jeep with a Ferrari engine installed, a car that is also part of the current museum. “If you just breathed on the gas pedal it would fly!” Tiehm says.
Nowadays, visitors can take care of a particular vehicle themselves through the museums Adopt-a-Car membership program, whereby donors come in quarterly to dust and buff these beauties of a bygone era (despite the signs, a few fingerprints have been known to appear on the classics). For the cars which still appear in events like the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, Automotive Collections Manager Jay Hubbard keeps them running.
Not only do the cars have historic significance, they carry some star power. The Harrah Collection includes autos once owned by Jack Benny (1923 Maxwell), Lana Turner (1941 Chrysler Newport Phaeton), James Dean (1949 Mercury), Frank Sinatra (1961 Ghia), and Elvis Presley (1973 Cadillac El Dorado Coupe). Other “celebrity mobiles” include the former cars of President John F. Kennedy, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Griffith, and John Wayne. Be aware that some cars can be moved to other museums for a temporary period.
In addition to the classic roadsters, the museum hosts the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, an organization dedicated to the bikes and buggies that dominated races like the legendary Baja 1000. Members include famous proponents of dirt driving such as the late Steve McQueen and fellow actor James Garner.
The museum celebrates its 20th anniversary in November.
National Automobile Museum
10 S. Lake St., Reno