The man behind the museum
Every great car collector has a really good-paying day job. Think about it. Jay Leno worked as an auto mechanic early in his career, but he probably wouldn’t own a warehouse full of unusual classics if not for his success as host of The Tonight Show. And would the National Automobile Museum exist if Bill Harrah had not been a whiz at the hotel/casino business? Probably not.
It takes money to purchase and maintain the world’s most interesting vehicles, which is why every private car collection conceals a fascinating history. My recent visit to the Tupelo Auto Museum (see story in this issue) in northeast Mississippi introduced me to the legacies engineer/inventor Frank Kyle Spain left his adopted hometown.
I did not meet the man himself, as he passed away in 2006 at the age of 78, but I did spend thousands of happy childhood hours in the nearby town of Amory watching WTWV (later changed to WTVA) – the television station Spain launched in 1957. The story behind Spain’s career and the success of WTWV is one of old-fashioned pluck, luck and quick thinking.
Having earned his degree in engineering from Mississippi State University at the age of 19, Spain worked for several radio stations in Tupelo and places “up north” while he dreamed of bringing an unproven technology – broadcast television – to the rural south. His application to the Federal Communications Commission for a broadcast license in 1953 took three years to meet approval, but Spain was already at work in his basement turning military surplus transformers and hundreds of other raw components into a transmitter, antenna and camera. With a budget that today wouldn’t cover CNN’s monthly phone bill, Spain made WTWV-Channel 9 a reality for the citizens of Lee County.
Corporate America did not take little Tupelo seriously as a market in 1957. Spain had learned a lot about microwave relay machinery while working for NBC in New York, so when the network refused to take on WTWV as an affiliate, he devised a way to “bootleg” (with a vague, spoken permission) the signal out of Memphis. Tupelo watched Memphis programming most of the broadcast day, except for when Spain’s crew flipped the switch and played its own local news coverage, morning educational shows, or the first basketball game televised live in the state. When ABC offered to steal Spain’s station away from NBC in the mid-1960s, the folks at the peacock network suddenly saw the value of Spain’s engineering innovations. WTWV has been an NBC affiliate ever since.
Spain focused intensely on his broadcast career exclusively until he caught the collector car bug in 1974. His second wife wanted an MG-TD similar to the one she had driven years earlier, which caused the engineer to learn much more than he wanted about vintage auto restoration. Comparing the MG’s mechanical simplicity and style to new cars of the time made Spain appreciate just how much the automobile had evolved in its (then) nine decades. Bill Harrah’s Reno-based collection inspired the engineer to locate and purchase his own favorites, at first heavy on cars of the late 1920s and 1930s (he loved Packards). Spain found great appeal in those vehicles that advanced automotive development through clever innovations or marketing – Ford’s flathead V-8 and the Tucker Torpedo, for example.
Spain and friend Max Berryhill eventually assembled 150 cars from auctions and private sales all over North America and Europe. Working with the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau and Mayor Larry Otis, Spain turned the collection into a not-for-profit educational foundation. The foundation’s first job, construction of a permanent home for the collection, was accomplished on December 7, 2002, with the opening of the Tupelo Auto Museum. Just a few months later, TAM was designated the official State of Mississippi automobile museum.
Me, I like to think that the years of my youth spent watching Star Trek (yes, the original), Johnny Carson’s version of The Tonight Show, and The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie contributed to the cause in some small way.