Located in the Lehigh Valley, it situated on the banks of the Lehigh River proper. A booming industrial and finance centre after the Civil War, Allentown's fortunes began to decline in the 1970s but has made an effort to regain its lustre as heavy industry faded by turning to health care, transportation and other services. Part of its ambitious redevelopment plan includes the on-again, off-again development called Lehigh Landing, near the river and located on the grounds of a former meatpacking plant. It is here that the America on Wheels Museum, built at a cost of $17 million, opened in 2008. Its administrative offices are actually located in the old office of the abattoir, which remains standing. The museum is 43,000 square feet in size, of which 23,000 are devoted to exhibits in three galleries. There is space for about 75 cars and the majority on display are not owned by the museum itself but are on loan.
We had arrived around 11:00 and were surprised to see only one car in the parking lot. Of course, I had misread the opening schedule and while it is generally open from 10:00 until 4:00, Sundays have a noon opening. Peering in through the front door, we were greeted by a nice lady who invited us to come and start our visit, and to pay our $10 admission later once someone had come in to mind the cash register. So we were made to feel welcome right away (and, yes, we did pay the $20). An extra hour and an early start in the museum was really helpful given we had a long drive home that day.
|First exhibit area, near the entrance|
|1933 Hupmobile KX-231 Convertible Coupe|
This very handsome coupe was the first car to catch our eyes. The handiwork of noted designer Raymond Loewy, this 1933 Hupmobile is one of only six known to exist. The Hupp Motor Company built cars in Detroit from 1909 until 1939. Builder of stylish, mid-priced cars with some advanced technology of the day, the company was in decline due to its inability to take advantage of economies of scale enjoyed by its competitors. A desperate effort was made, with Graham-Paige, to use the body dies for the iconic Cord, acquired in 1938 for $900,000, to build the Hupp Skylark and the Graham Hollywood, both rear-wheel conventional cars compared to the Cord, but too was doomed to failure. Parenthetically, an unsuccessful Hupp dealer used his car to transport miners in 1914 and expanded operations to eventually become Greyhound Bus Lines.
|1919 Model AB Mack Truck|
The first of a number of Mack trucks on display, this Model AB 2 ton flatbed featured chain drive or a worm gear drive and a 30 hp four cylinder engine. Introduced in 1914, the AB remained in production, with some styling changes, until 1937, with over 55,000 having been built. In addition to the trucks, the museum houses the Mack Truck company archive.
|1965 Ford Thunderbird Landau Coupe|
|1954 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster|
Of course, from our standpoint old Corvettes are always a welcome sight. This is an example of the rather unsuccessful 1954 car, which ended the model year with 1,200 examples unsold, and only 700 were built in 1955. But Ford's successful Thunderbird lit the competitive fires and rather than cancel the Corvette, GM engineers installed the new small block Chevrolet engine, transforming the car and Corvette remains the automobile model with the longest production history as it celebrates 65 years in 2018. This example has the "Blue Flame" 155 hp six cylinder engine, coupled with the two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, making it a leisurely boulevard cruiser and not the capable high-performance sports car it was to become.
|Period Corvette advertising, baldly claiming heritage with the hairy pre-World War I Mercer Raceabout|
|2009 Bonneville Motorcycle Streamliner|
This motorcycle streamliner was designed, built and driven by an engineering professor at Lehigh University, Joachim Grenestedt. Powered by a two-stroke, water-cooled 125 cc Honda motocross engine, and featuring a steel tube frame and GRP and carbonfibre fuselage, it even boasts elaborate safety equipment including a seven-point harness and fire extinguisher system. Prof. Grenestedt piloted it to a class record speed of 133.165 mph in September 2009 on the 11 mile Bonneville Salt Flats course, shattering the previous record of 125.594 mph.
|1972 DeTomaso Pantera|
|1952 Allard J2X|
|Classic Rail-type Dragster, "The Clock Teaser"|
A small gallery was devoted to a number of different types of racing cars, including a classic mid-engined dragster, a midget racer, a sprint car and others.
|1939 Wendling Midget Racer|
The Wendling brothers were employees of the famous Fleetwood BodyWorks in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, and built up this dirt track racing car with excellent craftsmanship and some impressive innovative thinking. The engine is a 91 cu. in. four cylinder 16 valve overhead cam boat motor, turned around. The nice bodywork incorporates a Packard grille. By flipping a Ford Model T rear-end backward and upside down the brothers had front-wheel drive. Brakes are on the rear wheels only, something to give one pause in a car capable of 110 mph. The Wendlings went on to operate a noted restoration shop.
|1958 Hillegrass V8 Chevrolet Sprint Car|
From Conceptcarz.com: This 1958 Beletsky Special is an example from that time, and was raced into the late 1960s. It was featured in Speed Age Magazine, May, 1959 and shows period livery as the first Chevy V8 powered sprint car to race against Offy powered cars in Pennsylvania. Several owners and their drivers over the years campaigned this track car largely in the New England area. Similar solid axle, light weight cars running in-out gearboxes were a handful at 400 horsepower, then became hairy-chested beasts with over 500 horsepower. Sprint car racing took on its modern form with cars of those type, those with aluminum sheet metal bodies, chassis and suspension similar in form to cars raced in the 1930s with 1960s era horsepower.
|1957 Kurtis Kraft 500G2 Indy Car|
This car was built with the intention that Carroll Shelby would drive it but he preferred to remain with sports cars--a smart choice given that he won at LeMans with Aston Martin in 1959. This car was raced at Indianapolis in 1958 and 1959 under different names, failing to qualify either time, and was converted to right-hand drive in 1960 and raced at other tracks. It was restored to its 1961 appearance and takes part in vintage racing events.
|1984 Racing Lawnmower|
Realizing that car racing was a hobby few could afford but that most people could manage to pay for a lawn mower, the English developed the sport of lawnmower racing in 1968 and the Sta-Bil company brought it to the United States, where it has multiple national organizations. Sadly, the lawnmowers are raced without the blades...
Powered by a 160 hp Suzuki GSXR 1000 engine, this custom aluminum vehicle was built by a shop in the Lehigh Valley and is capable of speeds up to 156 mph. It weighs 900 pounds and can accommodate drivers of widely varying size.
|1983 Veloce Track Bicycle (foreground), with c. 1912 Reading Track Bicycle behind it|
There was more pedal action at the museum with a pair of track bicycles. The 1983 Veloce Time Trial Track Bicycle was built by John Stinsmen of Stinsmen Racing, a framebuilder who appears to have been working from his home in Allentown. The Reading bicycle was another track two-wheeler, this one built by the Reading Standard Manufacturing Company of Reading, Pennsylvania around 1912.
Further two-wheelers on display were of the motorized variety:
|In the foreground is a 1909 Marsh Metz Motorcycle, once owned by actor Steve McQueen|
|1910 Flying Merkel (foreground), manufactured in Pottstown, Pennsylvania; 1913 Excelsior Model 4C (background), made in Chicago by a company purchased by bicycle entrepreneur Ignaz Schwinn in 1912|
|More Indian Motorcycles, including a 1929 Scout 101 model with a sidecar/toolshed setup that was actually produced by the company as "the Indian Scout Service Car."|
The next gallery contained an excellent selection of pre-World War II vehicles, with a surprising representation of alternative fuel vehicles.
|1880 Studebaker Carriage|
Occupying a unique spot in American transportation history, Studebaker began building carriages in South Bend, Indiana, in 1852, acquiring fame for the quality of its construction, and by 1885 the company was producing 75,000 carriages yearly. The company moved into automobile production in 1902 with electric cars, following with gasoline vehicles in 1904, but these were built in conjunction with other manufacturers. The first car branded as a Studebaker appeared in 1911. Production of Studebaker cars ended in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1966, three years after operations ceased in South Bend.
|1910 Brockway Motor Wagon, manufactured in Homer, New York, for farm use. Powered by a Chase 16 hp, three cylinder two-cycle engine|
|1903 Ford Model A Runabout, the first car produced by the Ford Motor Company, and this particular one was the first car owned in Allentown, licensed to the owner of Shoemaker's Drug Store. 1,700 Model As were built from 1903-1904.|
|1922 Detroit Electric, with a top speed of 20 mph and range of around 80 miles. 1,000-2,000 were sold each year to people who did not want to deal with the disadvantages of steam or gasoline vehicles and could accept the short range.|
|1931 Ford Model A Deluxe Roadster. The Model A was in production for only four years but 4.8 million examples were built. This Washington Blue roadster cost $385.00 new and had styled cues from the more expensive Lincoln of the day.|
|1920 Briggs and Stratton Flyer|
One of my favourite weird vehicles was on display in the museum. I have seen several examples of this now-rare cyclecar. It was conceived as the Smith Flyer and manufactured by the A.O. Smith Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 1915 until 1919, when manufacturing rights were obtained by the Briggs & Stratton, who marketed it as the Briggs & Stratton Flyer. The direct drive motor wheel was an English invention meant for bicycles originally. The company improved the engine, bringing it up to 2 hp, before the rights were sold on in 1925. However, Briggs & Stratton continued to produce the engine, which formed the basis of all the company's future small engines used in applications such as lawn mowers. All of the Flyers were red and are also known as Red Bugs. In addition to being sold as inexpensive novelty items in the US, UK and France (typically costing $150 in 1922), they were adopted by the wealthy and used on estates and upmarket resorts. Blueprints are still available!
|1914 Ford Model T Depot Hack|
The Depot Hack, as its name implies, was meant to ferry passengers from the local train station to their hotels, and were originally horse-drawn wagons. Ford produced Model T chassis and drivetrains and left the bodywork up to independent coachbuilders to produce variations such as this Depot Hack. These outside sources included a number of firms in Pennsylvania, including the York Body Corporation. In 1929 Ford began to sell station wagons but York (now York-Hoover) continued to build bodies for the commercial market. The company still exists as the York Group--and is the second-largest manufacturer of caskets in the United States, still using those old woodworking skills it seems.
The museum has made an effort to give character to its displays. Here we see a family "auto-camping" with their Ford Model A Fordor Sedan and tent trailer.
Nearby is a vintage service station, reminding us of Pennsylvania's history of oil production. And with that we move into the commercial gallery and some impressive trucks.
With the nearby headquarters of Mack Trucks, it is no surprise that the marque is well-represented in the museum. In addition to the early truck in near the entrance, this section of the museum has a range that shows the development of Mack.
|1918 Mack AC Fire Truck|
This fabulous centrepiece of the museum began life as a dump truck intended for shipment to Europe but the Armistice made it surplus and it joined the sale of surplus chassis. In 1921 the City of Baltimore bought 12 chassis and two years later the Baltimore Fire Department installed the body and pump. It was used by the city from 1923 until 1947, at which point it went on reserve duty until 1958. The Mack Museum purchased it in 1959. It has a 471 cu. in. four cylinder engine, developing 75 hp, wooden spoke wheels, a hand crank start and mechanical brakes for the rear wheels only. The tires are solid rubber and its vehicle weight rating is 5 1/2 tons. It is capable of pumping 600 gallons of water per minute.
|1923 Mack AC Dump Truck|
|1927 Mack AB High Lift Coal Truck|
The Mack AB series saw many changes in its 22 year model run, from 1914 to 1927, including pneumatic tires, electric start, and electric lighting. This particular truck has a body for residential coal delivery, allowing the dump body to be raised to the vertical and then tilted to a gravity-feed coal chute. Still chain drive though!
|1958 Mack B753LS: the B70 series was in production from 1955 until 1966 and used for heavy applications. This example is equipped with a 15 cubic yard dump body.|
|1957 Mack B61: the most popular conventional diesel-powered truck on American highways in the 1950s and 1960s, Over 123,000 B-series trucks were built between 1953 and 1966.|
Now it was time to climb the stairs to the upper floor of the museum to look at some more modern cars. The hallway was decorated with a range of automotive art.
The first area we came to was the restoration shop, which is used for educational purposes and featured a pair of 1960 Armstrong-Siddely Sapphires, a very conservative British sedan built from 1953 to 1960, with the complete car here being the very last one built, while the other is an example showing what restorers have to deal with when starting a project found in a barn.
|1934 Graham Model 68 Sedan|
The main gallery on the second floor housed a variety of American cars from the 1950s, as well as several hot rods, in a temporary exhibition called "Fender Skirts and Poodle Skirts."
|1958 Edsel Pacer|
|1934 Chevrolet Master Hot Rod, loaned by the original builder who has owned it for more than 60 years.|
|1941 Mercury Convertible, mildly customized with a chopped top and smoothed body panels|
|1955 Buick Century Convertible|
|1956 Ford Thunderbird, in Peacock Blue|
|1959/60 Buick Electra 225 Convertible, built as a styling exercise and driven by Harlow Curtice, President of General Motors at the time.|
|1958 Corvette and 1941 Mercury Convertible|
And, of course, as is usual with this blog I close with another fine Corvette. This is a 1958 model, in the very rare Panama Yellow colour, which was applied to only 190 cars that year. The 1958 car saw the addition of fake hood vents and chrome trunk spears, which were seen as being a bit too much and not carried on later years. This over-decoration today actually makes the cars highly desirable. The 1958 model was the first with dual headlights and the first Corvette to have seatbelts installed as standard equipment.
The American on Wheels Museum was a great place to visit and its future has been assured through support from Nicola Bulgari, Vice Chairman of the Bulgari luxury brand, who is a collector of American cars from the 1940s and 1950s. He owns around 150 of them and keeps them in seven warehouses in the Allentown area.
Lastly, I was fascinated by a little showcase featuring the most amazing vehicle and one I had never heard of. The Pickwick Nite Coach was a two story Pullman-style sleeper bus introduced for transcontinental trips in 1928. It offered berths for 26, plus the two drivers, who alternated, and a porter/cook. It is believed four were built; an improved version was built in 1932 and in larger numbers but none are known to survive today. 34 feet long, it weighed 14,000 lbs and cost $30,000. The Nite Coach transcontinental route ran from Los Angeles to Philadelphia via Phoenix, El Paso, St. Louis and Indianapolis.