You are probably thinking: “Tupelo, Elvis’ birthplace, but isn’t that all there is?”
True, the mid-size southern town of 35,000 is primarily known for a tiny, two-room shack once owned by the Presley family, which millions of people from every continent have visited since the singer’s death in 1977.
But this progressive city named for a mild-tasting honey (and the tree responsible for its creation) has been attracting collector car enthusiasts since 2002, when the Tupelo Automobile Museum (TAM) opened.
On the day we attended, the 120,000-square-foot facility displayed 133 vehicles on its main floor, and another 40 to 50 in the “back room.” (In case you have not heard, just about every car museum has a back room, where cars are warehoused while they await restoration or a new owner. The easiest way to get a tour of these hidden treasures is to ask the curator.) The city of Tupelo worked with the museum’s not-for-profit, educational foundation to raise three million dollars to cover property and construction, and the money appears to have been well spent.
TAM’s founder, the late Frank Spain, began assembling this collection in 1974, and eventually purchased many cars from William Harrah’s incredible museum when it began selling off inventory. Spain’s eclectic tastes produced a group of cars that evenly covers automotive history – everything from a replica of an 1886 Benz three-wheeler to a 12-mile ’94 Dodge Viper spreads out for the tourist to view in chronological order. Each car in the museum has a two- to three-minute recorded history available at the push of a button. A simple sign informs spectators of the car’s year-of-manufacture and retail price when new.
Allen McDaniel, TAM’s curator, spent a few hours showing us the display and chatting about old cars in general.
Exiting the lobby and gift shop deposits visitors right into the earliest part of automotive history, where the Benz replica immediately attracts attention. From there, we saw a 1908 Glide, which peanut and coffee roaster J.B. Bartholomew built from 1903 to 1920 in Peoria, Illinois. The Glide’s innovative engine-mount system drew praise from critics for reducing the severe noise and vibration associated with horseless carriages.
The 1916 Owen Magnetic was a real head-scratcher. We had heard of this early “hybrid” car, which was fitted with a six-cylinder internal combustion engine as well as a generator and electric motor in the rear axle. Costing from $3,000 to $5,000 at a time when Ford’s products sold for less than $400, Owen Magnetics were large, hideously expensive luxury cars owned by the likes of opera superstar Enrico Caruso. The company managed to make sales from 1915 to 1921 while moving from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
McDaniel has personally owned many collector vehicles and street rods, but he prefers the styling of cars from the 1930s.
“I’m a 1932-’40 kind of guy,” he told us. “I think those were some of the prettiest cars ever made.”
He is especially fond of the collection’s 1935 Packard One Twenty, a once-gray sedan that now wears yellow at Spain’s request.
“Frank used to point to that Packard and say, ‘This shows you just how far a car company can fall,’ referring to Packard’s end two decades later.”
A man with his family in tow asked McDaniel with a laugh if the prices on the signs were still good. The father told us how much he liked the museum, and that it reminded him of the Petit Jean collection in Arkansas. Then he asked the question it seems everybody wants to know: who owns all of these cars? Since we had already heard the story, we wandered to the end of the first row and found “Goob’s Garage,” a full-scale diorama of an old country gas station. As it had once been a working building, there was no need to “antique” the wood; everything was laid out as it might have looked to travelers in the 1950s or ‘60s. McDaniel intends to park a “cleaned-up” Nash Metropolitan in front of Goob’s so museum attendees can have a hands-on automotive experience and use the opportunity to pose for photos.
McDaniel caught up to us as we were inspecting a 1918 Chevrolet V-8 engine on a stand.
“We have drained and drained the fluids out of this engine,” he told us, pointing at a catch pan sitting under Chevy’s first V-8, “but it keeps leaking. One of the guys who works on cars here says it’s probably coming through the block itself –the metal is so porous that oil is going to seep out for years to come.”
Nearly half of the cars at TAM were built before World War II. Only a car guy would notice the invisible line that separated the museum’s 1941 Ford woody wagon and the neighboring 1948 Tucker Torpedo. A sampling of foreign cars – representing the types of compact, sporty vehicles returning GIs would have seen while serving in Europe – included a 1948 Jaguar Mk IV convertible, ’49 Triumph 2000, ’51 Talbot Lago, and ’55 Messerschmitt.
A ’57 Corvette conspicuously had its hood open.
“The average person likes to see cars with the hoods and doors closed,” McDaniel told us, “but we get a lot of requests to show off the Corvette’s fuel-injected V-8, so we leave it up.”
The late-model stretch revealed some interesting vehicles, such as a ’64 Studebaker Avanti; a “Big Daddy” Roth creation from ’67 known as the “Wishbone”; a ’76 Lincoln Mark IV purchased by Elvis for the captain of the Denver, Colorado, police department; a heavily modified, Liberace-owned ’82 Corvette; and a space-age single-seat car built by Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan as a way to effectively deliver pizzas (before his advisors pointed out that no insurance company would touch a fleet of tiny, custom-built cars driven by teenagers).
With the main part of the tour over, McDaniel took us through the back room, where we saw a Bricklin SV-1 in good shape, an unrestored 1915 International truck with its solid tires intact, an enormous 1914 Peerless (“it dwarfs a Suburban,” our host said), and several 1970s-era MG roadsters. Some of the cars were awaiting restoration, and some had been purchased without a clear purpose. The latter vehicles will probably go to new owners if the museum cannot find space on the main floor for them.
The Tupelo Auto Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (March to October), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (November to February) and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed Mondays, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Easter. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for ages five through 12. For more information, visit TAM online at www.tupeloautomuseum.com.