One man’s driving passion is now Reno’s coolest collection.

Replica cars from famous movies.

By Megg Mueller

Bill Harrah standing with a group of men with several cars behind them.
Bill Harrah, front, in 1975. The cars were gifts for his employees.

Casino magnate Bill Harrah had a bit of an obsession. The man who launched the Harrah’s gaming empire in 1937 also had a penchant for collecting cars, which led to him eventually owning around 1,400 vehicles. During his lifetime, his collection—often referred to as the most significant assemblage of vintage and one-of-a-kind cars ever—was housed in Sparks and open to the public.

Harrah passed in 1987 and sadly made no provisions for the collection in his will. When Holiday Inn purchased the corporation in 1980, they also inherited the cars and began to sell off the lucrative collection—but Reno and Sparks residents took up the cause to keep the cars together in Nevada. Holiday Inn struck a deal that if money could be raised for a museum, it would donate 175 cars.

The initiative succeeded and in 1989, the National Automobile Museum (NAM) opened in downtown Reno. Harrah’s collection quickly became one of the city’s top attractions.

Two men looking at older cars at the National Automobile Museum in Reno.


Wandering the museum’s exhibits, autophiles will be entranced at the more than 225 cars displayed throughout the 105,000-square-foot complex. Changing exhibits keep the offerings fresh (and beg for repeat visits), while the static displays divulge a deep dive into automobile history. Cars from 1897 to 2003 are presented in gleaming style, revealing the beautiful craftsmanship of days past. With so many of today’s vehicles looking rather cookie cutter, it’s a treat to see the wide range of details that were once a part of our driving machines (anyone remember hood ornaments?).

Top: Hood ornament on a car. Bottom: Lightning McQueen stock car from the movie "Cars." Text: Membership at the National Automobile Museum is the perfect way to stay up on all the changing exhibits for a low seasonal price.Thomas Flyer car. Along with the plethora of beautiful vehicles, there are some historic cars that should not be missed, starting with the original 1907 Thomas Flyer. Winner of the 1908 New York to Paris Race around the globe, the car is featured in an exhibit that gives a fascinating look at the world’s enchantment with the new motorized carriages and the tenacity of pioneer motorists. Six vehicles attempted the almost-inconceivable race, and only three finished, with the Thomas Flyer crossing the finish line 26 days before the next car.

Other champion vehicles await—think myriad speed record setters and race winners—along with a seriously fun collection of celebrity cars. James Dean’s 1949 Mercury Coupe and Elvis’ 1973 Cadillac Eldorado Custom Coupe are two of the many you’ll find once you walk the red carpet into the collection. Tip: Grab a prop and take a selfie with the celebrity cut outs on the way in.

For kids, check out Guinevere, the van from the film “Onward,” or famed stock car Lightning McQueen from the movie “Cars.” These cars rotate frequently, but there’s always something for the younger members.

The museum excels at showcasing cars, but it also does a great job creating the perfect vibe to match its amazing assemblage. Every collection has a particular feel, with art, props, signage, and more helping to set the scene.

Row display of older cars.


A $3 million renovation to refresh the museum and its environs is underway. From revamping displays to building a new events center (now the largest venue on the Truckee River), NAM is keeping its eye on the future, not just its historic past.

Put it in Drive National Automobile Museum Open Daily 775-333-9300One of the issues Executive Director Phil MacDougall is keen to address is the oft-heard comment, “I’ve been there once, so why go back?”

While most of the collection is static, new vehicles are brought in on a regular, rotating basis, he explains. MacDougall is also excited about new programming for children and families. The renovations include a newly expanded Kids Interactive Center with fun activities. It’s also a place kids can take child-focused (read: fun) classes on auto-related subjects.

The new outdoor venue is another way to attract visitors, and it’s also to help local nonprofits; MacDougall knows how much venues can cost to rent, and he’s committed to helping the local community have an affordable place to showcase their events. He wants the museum visited, enjoyed, and used as a place for education. A new speakers series debuted last year, with Jeremy Renner of the car-focused “Rennervations” Disney+ show as the kickoff speaker.

Woman looking at old cars.

Replica car from the film "Jurassic Park."PUT THE PEDAL DOWN

An afternoon at the National Automobile Museum delivers a nostalgic experience. MacDougall says when he meets guests, he’ll often ask them what their first car was, and almost everyone smiles remembering that first ride. Cars are an incontrovertible part of American culture, and these beautifully maintained machines thrill all who see them, whether they are into car culture or not. The next time you’re in downtown Reno, motor over to the museum and fuel up on some gorgeous Americana.

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