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The Saratoga Auto Museum is in Spa State Park

The Saratoga Auto Museum is in Spa State Park

Day Trips: Saratoga Automoble Museum

By Patricia & Robert Foulke

Monday, January 3, 2011

Americans have always jumped at opportunities for sudden wealth, never mind the risks. That drive to make it big in a hurry dates back to the fur trade in the colonial era and recurred as recently as the dot.com explosion at the turn of the 21st century. In between flows an endless stream–grabbing land from Indians in the 17th and 18th centuries, building canals, then replacing them with railroads, a series of gold rushes in the West, mining coal and smelting steel, all in the 19th century.  At the beginning of the 20th century, before airplanes grew out of bicycles into their dominant shapes, the big opportunity was automobiles.

A century later we are still in their thrall, sometimes reluctantly, even though making automobiles is no longer a bonanza. But in the first decades of the 20th century small start-up automobile companies multiplied in garages just as computer start-ups did in the last decades.  In New York alone, it is estimated that 700 to 900 infant companies tried to build cars even though only about 200 ever produced a prototype and fewer stayed in business.  Among those that did were the Pierce Arrow and Thomas Flyer in Buffalo, the Cunningham in Rochester, the Franklin in Syracuse and the Lozier in Plattsburgh.

Now we have a museum close at hand to tell that story, and it has been doing so with style since 2002. Housed in the restored and renovated 1934 Saratoga Bottling Plant on the grounds of the 2,500 acre Saratoga Spa State Park, the Saratoga Automobile Museum is a non- profit chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York Department of Education. Its mission is “to preserve, interpret and exhibit automobiles” and to “celebrate the automobile and educate the general public, students and enthusiasts” on the wider role of the automobile in American and world culture. In short, to document our love affair with fine cars and all they represent–freedom to move about the land at will, engineering precision, power, speed, style and, for some, a symbol of affluence.

The building itself is handsome, rising two stories in neo-classic style with large Palladian windows.  The museum takes pride in displaying cars, trucks and other vehicles from the heritage of New York, Detroit, Europe and Asia. Exhibits on the main floor gallery space change every four months, while the permanent exhibits fill the floor above. The museum provides a full schedule of workshops, lectures and outdoor shows, as well as a meeting place for the 70 car clubs in the Capital Region. It provides outreach programs for students in grades K through 12, and we have heard about the tremendous fun Girls Scouts had on overnights in the building. Besides the excitement of a slumber party in this setting, the girls may even learn how to change a tire!

As we moved onto the main gallery floor several weeks ago, the current Cadillac exhibition on loan from the General Motors Heritage Collection was a virtual automotive style show.  Remember the towering tailfins of the late 1950s? By 1959 Cadillac had reached its high-water mark in the Eldorado Biarritz. And there’s one on display in flamboyant red. You can see this fine show until November 2.

For over one hundred years Cadillac has continued to develop the latest technological features and achieve stylistic excellence n its cars. Begin with the 1902 Runabout Prototype in jewel-tone red, as if it came from Tiffany’s. Next is the 1915 Type 51 V-8 Touring Car in stunning black.  Back then you could order the 5 or the 7-passenger version. The spokes on the wheels are varnished.

The 1920 Type 59 Sedan by Don Lee Coachwork is a custom design. The model was finished in Washington Blue, a lovely cobalt color. It has a triangular windshield and  beveled oval glass rear windows. Buyers could order an optional Westinghouse Air Spring Suspension System.

The 1931 V-16 Phaeton was popularized by Babe Ruth and Marlena Dietrich, among others. It has a 148 inch wheelbase and the body is by Fleetwood. The spare tires are mounted on the sides of the body. Don’t miss seeing the speedometer and clock mounted for back-seat drivers–a perfect mother-in-law vehicle.

Nicola Bulgari, of jewelry fame, owned a 1941 Series 62 Coupe. The price of the new Coupe DeLuxe was $1,510 and the car weighed 3,970 pounds. The 1976 Eldorado Convertible has a 126.3 inch wheelbase. Cadillac called this car “the last of a magnificent breed.”

Briggs S. Cunningham decided to compete at the 24-Hours of Le Mans with an American car. He built the 1950 Series 61 Le Mans Racer which is on display. You’ll also see the 2003 Cadillac CTS-VR  raced at Sebring International Raceway, a  car with enough power to win repeatedly..

The star of the show is CadZZilla Billy F. Gibbons, ordered by the ZZ Top guitar maestro  in 1988. He wanted “a four-wheel reflection of the group’s music, that’s now using 50′s technologies, combined with current recording techniques, to produce a richer sound.” This is the only car we were not allowed to photograph so you will have to go to see it.

After the Cadillac exhibit closes on November 2 get ready for The Sichel Collection which is a view of the pre-WWI brass era. You will see a Stanley Steamer, an early Model T, a Rambler and more.

Head upstairs to see the permanent collection. We were intrigued with the 1928 Franklin Airman Sedan which is very special because it belonged to Charles A. Lindbergh.  In 1927 he was the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic from New York City to Paris in 33 hours. His monoplane, “Spirit of St. Louis” (sponsored by the Bixby family of St. Louis and Bolton Landing) had an air-cooled engine, which led to an intriguing connection with automobiles.

The H.H. Franklin Company, later the Franklin Automobile Company, of Syracuse used air-cooled engines in its cars. The company promoted its air-cooled cars, calling the new series the airman “to honor the courage and vision of Colonial Lindbergh.” They gave Lindbergh one of the first models off of the line.

Lindbergh courted Anne Morrow, who later became his wife, in his new Airman. By 1933 he had retired his Franklin. When Henry Ford let it be known that he wanted a Franklin for his Museum Lindbergh donated his car. Then he drove it alone in August 1940 from his home in Englewood, NJ overnight to Detroit, where he gave it to Ford. Lindbergh was not sleepy as he drove through the night but said he became sleepy “as the first streaks of dawn lightened the eastern sky.” He assumed that “daybreak would have the same effect on me while driving a car as it has when I am flying a plane.”

This LaFrance Grey sedan cost $2,790 in 1928. It has six cylinders, an air-cooled engine and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. What a machine!

Other cars upstairs include a 1931 Pierce-Arrow, a 1903 Weebermobile, a 1910 Maxwell, a 1956 Ferrari, a 1935 Maserati, a 1936 Vanderbilt and a 1948 race car that George Weaver used to win a remarkable string of victories at Watkins Glen from 1948-1955.

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