William Harrah Automobile Collection

Here is a story written about the William Harrah Automobile Collection In Reno, Nevada during 1964. At one time it was the largest collection of vintage cars under one roof. Bill Harrah was a true automobile enthusiast. After his death the majority of the collection was auctioned off and now the cars that once were owned and restored by Harrah are in homes around the world. I remember during the mid 1970’s when the cars were finished being restored, the mechanics would test drive the vehicles up and down Glendale Blvd. in Sparks, Nevada where the museum resided to insure that all repairs were perfect. Many times they would even dress up in the clothing of that era. It was a site to see. I hope you enjoy the story.

harrah's collection1 004One of the most fabulous arrays of antique, classic, vintage, special interest cars and related automobiliana in the world was Harrah’s Automobile Collection, located in Reno, Nevada. The collection numbers, during its heyday, were over 850 cars with more than 300 of them on display. Purchasing, research, restoration, and display was the task of some seventy employees. William Harrah started the collection in 1948 when he purchased a 1911 Maxwell and a 1911 Ford. Shortly after, he acquired a 1905 Ford and a 1902 Curved Dash Oldsmobile. From that modest beginning, the Harrah’s Club’s collection grew steadily until in 1961, its size and importance justified the Club’s acquiring a permanent museum for the display.

The first display and restoration shop was in a large four-car garage. From there it was moved to a larger commercial garage. This too soon became crowded, as museum restoration was competing with servicing of modern vehicles from other departments of the Harrah organization. Restoration facilities were housed at the museum where visitors can see upwards of thirty cars being restored in spotless surroundings with up-to-date equipment for performing every phase of rebuilding and renewal from sandblasting to upholstery. No detail of reconstruction and preservation is over-looked. Every car that leaves the shop and receives “gold star” approval must be in as good condition as when it left the dealer’s showroom. A tour of the museum included a visit to the library where thousands of catalogs, manuals, books and magazines are cataloged and used for research to authenticate and restore cars belonging to the collection. This of course was pre computer days but still managed to obtain all the restoration information necessary.

There was a department for purchasing and warehousing of cars and parts—-also a department devoted entirely to research. Each car was made to salvage original parts or acquired original replacement parts rather than substitute newly made items. Wheels, rims, and tires must be the correct type and size. Demountable rims were never substituted for non-demountable ones. The ignition system, carburetor, lamp equipment, etc., could only be the correct original type listed in parts books, manuals and original factory catalogs. An example of the extreme attention to detail was the 1910 Oldsmobile Limited. Restoration was delayed several years until 43 x 5 tires and 33″ rims could be found for the car. The method of duplicating original floor mats and running boards were of interest to Antique Automobile Club of America members, since most of the original rubber items that are found have deteriorated with age and are suitable only for patterns. The restoration shop used flat rubber sheets in black, gray or white as desired, and has original designs hand carved to duplicate the original. The collection included 195 make of American cars with such famous names as Duesenberg, Mercer, Stutz, Adams-Farewell, Thomas Flyer, Pope-Hartford, and Stanley. Also in the collection were some of the more popular makes such as Dort, Metz, E-M-F, and Essex that Grand-father or Aunt Minnie Drove.harrah collection 3 003

The most famous car in the collection was the original Thomas Flyer that won the New Yor-to-Paris race n 1908. This car had been restored in the Harrah’s Automobile Collection shop to its appearance upon arrival in Paris, July 30, 1908 at the end of the race. Hundreds of photos were scanned and every bit of the contemporary literature was read to insure the correctness of every detail. Extreme care was taken to preserve every original piece, including bolts and screws. Mr. George Schuster, the only man of the Thomas crew to cover the entire race route, was called in for consultation. When the car was torn down, Mr. Schuster was able to authenticate it as the actual New York-to-Paris car because repairs he had made to the engine, flywheel and frame during the race were there as he remembered them. The car was on display at the museum in 1964 when this story was written and then headed to the Glidden Tour in Colorado shortly after.

There were 29 makes of foreign cars in the collection, representing seven countries. Also included was a fabulous Bugatti Royale. The motorcycle collection numbered 43, with such famous makes as Excelsior, Pope, Thor, Yale, and Indian. Of interest to “hot rodders,” old and young, was the speed engine display. Speed and racing equipment, including Rajo, Frontenac, and Miller heads.

Winfield carburetors, Bosch ignition, etc, was on view mounted on appropriate engines. A display popular with youngsters and railroad buffs was the old Porter Steam Locomotive. The locomotive and tender were restored to new condition and were on display in a special building on the grounds. In addition, the museum had several early day railway cars and it was planned to eventually have a complete early day railway in operation for visitors to ride. Unfortunately due to Mr. Harrah’s death, it never prevailed. Many items from the former Parker Lyon Pony express Museum were to be seen at the museum. The display included stage coaches, guns, Indian artifacts, many Wells Fargo and Pony Express items as well as personal items that belonged to famous personalities of Western history. The museum and shop areas were open to the public seven days a week, 10 a. m. to 4 p. m., and visitors were free to wander through the various areas at their leisure.

Harrah's collection 002Admission was free upon completing an application at the Harrah’s Club in downtown Reno. Free bus transportation to the museum was available from the club, or visitors could have driven directly to the museum, there was an admission charge of $1.00 for adults and $.50 for children. The entire charge was refundable upon application at the club, by adults, within 24 hours. As you have read, this museum was incredible. I was lucky enough to have been living in Reno when this museum was around for all to feast their eyes on so many wonderful pieces of various parts of history.

The museum still exists today in Reno, unfortunately most of the collection was sold at auction and isn’t the same magnitude as it was back in 1964. The literature collection is still intact and the museum offers copies to the public upon request for a small fee.

Reference: Antique Automobile Magazine dated 1964

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