There are a number of publicly displayed car collections scattered around Arkansas that might be of interest to the casual tourist and the automobile enthusiast alike. The best known of these collections is the Museum of Automoblies on Mount Petit Jean right next door to Petit Jean State Park. Pictured right is one of its most popular exhibits, former Governor Bill Clinton's blue flake Ford Mustang. Standing next to the Neckmobile is a life-sized cardboard likeness of Slick Willy himself. Displayed on the other side of the car is the Clinton Mustang Memorial T-shirt, exact copies of which are on sale in the gift shop.
When Mr. Clinton moved to Washington he left the Neckmobile in the care of the Museum of Automobiles, which is the property of another former governor, Winthrop Rockefeller. Win Rockefeller, grandson of superwealthy Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and brother of former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, bought a ranch in Arkansas and ran for governor. He served one term. New York voters should think about that when they call Hillary a carpetbagger. I'm not saying whether I think she should be a senator or not, just pointing out that once upon a time the shoe was on the other foot.
Here's the rarest auto in the permanent collection. It's the Climber, the only automobile ever to be manufactured in Arkansas. The Climber Motorcar Corporation was organized by three Little Rock businessmen in 1919. The idea was to build a car that could handle the widely varied road conditions in Arkansas, a car that could drive well on pavement as well as on unimproved roads, one rugged frame with a gearbox that could handle the Ozarks as well as the long flat stretches of delta road.
According to the stories that accompany the display, the three partners hired an engineer from Detroit to design and build their car. Unable to acquire all the finished parts he needed, he had to fabricate some components on site. I'm not exactly sure what that meant, but I assume it went something like he could buy the engines except for the crankshafts. Something like that. Anyway, the parts he manufactured to complete the cars did not work as well in the cars as did original equipment. There was also a falling out and two of the partners jumped ship and after four years they had delivered fewer than a hundred cars and the Climber Motorcar Corporation was in recievership.
The plant was sold to two guys who formed the New Climber Company, but they were just a salvage team. They assembled as many Climbers as they could, about 200, from the parts that were on hand and then closed down the factory for good. Of the estimated 275 Climbers produced, this is one of only two known survivors. If you want to see the other one, you've got to go way over to the other side of the room. Yup. Here it is, the only OTHER surviving Climber. Don't get your hopes up. I think they're both males.
The Museum of Automobiles is on highway 154 on top of Petit Jean Mountain between Morrilton and Russellville.
Hardy is on highway 63 just sixteen miles south of the Missouri border at Mammoth Spring. There are two exhibits that auto buffs might find worth a stop. One is the jeep exhibit at the Veterans Military Museum. They've got eight or ten restored WWII and Korean War era jeeps on display (Willys, yes, but sorry, no Bantam). I don't recommend this museum for those with a Martha Stewart sensibility. They've got lots of interesting artifacts, but the museum itself is pretty much an open-to-the-public warehouse where north Arkansas veterans collectively store their military memorabilia.
A stone's throw from the Veterans Military Museum is the Good Old Time Vintage Motorcar Museum, the name of which might mislead. While there are a number of flivvers and tin lizzies to look at, the Good Old Time Vintage Motorcar Museum has a lot of motorized monster meat like this 1981 DeLorean. And that yellow thing pictured here on the right. I don't know what it is, but it's breaking the speed limit just sitting there. Looks loud, too.
The red doodle bug on the right is a 1958 BMW Isetta. The accompanying sign says this is the same car Steve Urkel drives. I don't know who that is. The museum also has a Bowden Spacelander. Sorry I don't have a good picture of it, but it's a futuristic art-deco all-fiberglass bicycle from the 1920's. Very cool. Very rare.
Stop number three is the Mountain Home Auto Museum at 801 S. Main in Mountain Home. While there is a permanent collection, most of the cars are for sale. So what we've got here is as much an antique car consignment shop as it is a museum. I suspect that the nonprofit museum is a designation that comes in handy at tax time. During my visit, the partner told me that garage space was beginning to get a little cramped and that soon he intended to handle only cars predating 1970.
There's a showroom in the storefront showcasing three or so of the very best local antique cars, and through the swinging doors you'll find a garage full of whatever's passing through. I saw a lot of '70's muscle cars along with a Bentley, an Edsel, a couple of Ramblers. Here's a smattering.
Call ahead if you want to visit. The partners are in and out of town based on whatever car shows and swap meets they can visit. If you're looking for a particular year, make and model, let them know. They regularly make the rounds of car shows in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas and they have a finger on the pulse of the regional antique car trade.
In spring of 2004 the Hot Springs Muscle Car Museum opened. I visited at the end of May. Here are a couple of snapshots. I saw seventeen cars on display, five of which were mustangs and four of which were camaros. Those numbers might sound a little lopsided from a museum point of view, but they do reflect the ratios of the thrumming herds of Detroit steel that prowled the streets thirty years ago.
The muscle car was a phenomenon of gas priced at four gallons for a buck. There were no PCV valves, no catalytic converters, no computerized fuel injection. As big as the engines were, there was lots of room under the hood, and all the loose-fitting parts were easy to get to. People worked on their own cars, pasting on all kinds of ill-advised gear, like glass-packed mufflers that made your Mach I sound like a rolling gunfight. High performance was the excuse. The actual purpose was the annunciation of your arrival. ThwopthwopthwopTHWOPobbobbobbbb was the crow of the iron rooster.
See that red mustang fastback in the picture on the left. It was the road equivalent of a fighter jet and had about the same trunkspace. As a teenager, four of us piled into a car very much like that, a cherry red 1969, and drove to the Redneck Riviera, where we spent a week. Where did we put our luggage? What luggage? Flip flops, t-shirts and cutoffs. On top of investing lots of money in making the power plant as loud as possible, the driver had also bought the loudest, cheapest stereo available and the complete Lynyrd Skynyrd cassettte library. It never occurred to anybody that the engine noise and the stereo noise were cumulative, that poorly reproduced music does not improve road noise. As if that weren't enough, the high performance plugs installed to burn the extra rich mixture interfered with the stereo electronics and you could count the RPM's right through the speakers like mobius strip of ladyfingers.
Young and stupid, every one of us. I don't think I could be persuaded today to ride six hundred miles enduring that kind of noise, heat and discomfort, but then I insisted on it. It was like being dragged to Florida in an un-air-conditioned mailbox. If you kept four enemy combatatants in those conditions for twelve hours, the Red Cross would be all over you. I sometimes wonder how acute my hearing would be today had I not made that trip.
In addition to being a museum, this place is also a consignment shop. Some displays have asking prices listed right on them. I assume there are some kind of tax advantages to warehousing your collectible inventory on public display because some of the other car museums do it, too. The girl at the front desk told me the displays rotate a lot, that I could come back in a week and see an entirely different batch of cars.
In the lobby they give out free popcorn, popped in one of those glass cage poppers fondly remembered from the same era. The address is 620 Malvern Avenue in Hot Springs. The phone number is 501-321-1752.
RTJ -- 6/2/04
P.S. Here's a link to the Museum of Automobiles (Petit Jean) website.
P.S. Here's a link to the Hot Springs Muscle Car Museum website.
P.S. Here's a link to the Mountain Home Auto Museum website.