Museum Hawk: Vegas Car Collections

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One of the finest car collections I’ve ever seen exhibited is all but hidden in a most unlikely place – off the infamous “Strip” of Las Vegas , Nevada , the epicenter of the world’s gambling enterprises. It’s The Auto Collections, housed at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino.

Other than its odd location, The Auto Collections is distinguished by three factors, (1) relative to other collector car displays, it is HUGE, (2) everything in the collection is for sale and (3) it has some of the best labeling on cars I’ve ever seen in a museum. But of course, it is NOT a museum in the strictest sense; it’s an emporium of beautifully restored or original low-mileage collector cars.

Indeed, it calls itself “The World’s Largest Classic Car Showroom.”

Nevertheless, it’s worth a trip to Sin City just to take in the collection. Finding the place is not easy. The vintage 1979 Imperial Palace is one of the older operations in Vegas – yet very popular judging by the casino action. Still, it’s been totally outdone along Las Vegas Boulevard (“The Strip”) by the lavish newer Hollywood-set luxury hotels and casinos like the Bellagio.

Another hotel-and-casino called New York New York features a tower that looks like a chopped off (from the bottom) NYC Chrysler Building while also luring guests with a miniature Brooklyn Bridge alongside The Strip. The whole city is faux.

You reach Imperial Palace and its cars by scuttling down a narrow pedestrian alley off the Strip and then running an obstacle course through the hotel lobby, casino, bars, hookers, gamblers, tourists and entertainment stages to the very rear, where you catch an elevator to the top floor of the parking garage and, Presto! The Auto Collections.

There’s an admission charge to the collection, but free passes can be found readily through their Web site or with coupons in the welcome magazines found in Las Vegas hotel rooms. But even if you have to ante up, it’s worth it. One big advantage over traditional car museums is that this one is open daily, 9:30 am to 9:30 pm.

Starting somewhere

About 125 vehicles are on display here in no particular order. Most seem to be Pebble Beach Concours quality. Having no order or interpretation is what separates The Auto Collection from a “real” museum, where generally there is a story to be told via the selection of models on display and their story boards or labels as, for example, at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich.

At the Imperial Palace , the vehicles are mostly cars with a sprinkling of motorcycles and one special truck. Raymond Thompson, the very knowledgeable sales representative in the collection, told Museum Hawk they have about 350 vehicles in all. Cars not on display either are stored elsewhere, are being held for pickup by buyers, or are displayed at other museums, notably the San Diego Auto Museum or the Blackhawk Museum in the S.F. Bay area. Not all the vehicles are owned by The Collection itself as many are on consignment from other owners for sale.

1933 DuesenbergAs noted above, the labels for the cars are very complete and in most cases quote an asking price. And the prices seemed in line with Hershey “askings” and auctions. I didn’t look at every car closely, but noted a range from $17,500 for a ’65 Beetle convertible to—take a deep breath—$1.950 million for a 1933 Duesenberg Bohman & Schwartz Disappearing Top Roadster.

The day I visited the collection, the latter car had been out for a road test by a, needless to say, prosperous real estate developer who was considering its purchase. That dashed my thoughts that winning gamblers constituted the obvious buyers for cars in the collection.
1954 ChryslerAs in many collections and museums but especially as you’d expect in Las Vegas , this venue has its share of celebrity vehicles. For example, there’s a light blue 1954 Chrysler New Yorker sedan with a special filtration system to supplement the car’s factory air and only 1600 miles on the odometer. The documentation on the label demonstrates that it was owned by Vegas’ most noted–and most reclusive–citizen of the time: Howard Hughes. The asking price? $125,000, steep for the car despite its mileage and provenance.
Curiously, a 1953 Buick Roadmaster with factory air and added filtration system, also purportedly owned by Hughes, was among the auction offerings in Scottsdale this January. I wonder if Howard Hughes cars aren’t ubiquitous, a little like cars supposed to have been owned by Hitler or Elvis.

A rather mundane but neat car was a dark green 1939 Chrysler Royal sedan owned by Johnny Carson, who just died Sunday, January 23. According to the label, this was the car in which Johnny drove his date to their senior prom in Nebraska . Years later, after fame and fortune, he tracked down his father’s old Chrysler, bought it and had it restored. It had no price listed.

Generally, though, there were few Chrysler or Ford products among the cars on display. Favored were exotic Europeans, Cadillacs, Chevrolets and a handful of Packards. Also worth mentioning: a really rare Nash-Healey coupe.

1966 Ford FairlaneAmong “original” low mileage cars displayed were: ’64 Chevrolet 409 Biscayne two-door sedan with 975 miles at $90,000, ’66 Ford Fairlane convertible with 660 miles at $37,500; ’75 Olds 88 convertible with 6694 miles at $25,000, and 1976 Cadillac El Dorado convertible (“Last”) with 3605 miles at $39,500.

1948 Cadillac SaoutchikThe exotics ran the gamut of Aston-Martin, Bentley, Duesenberg, Jag, Isotta Fraschini, Lancia, Maserati, Mercedes, Porsche and Rolls. Among the more unusual exotics were a lavender-colored 1948 Cadillac with custom convertible body by Saoutchik of Paris, priced at $650,000, a car I’d seen before at the Blackhawk Museum ; and a rare ’39 Horch phaeton.

1939 HorchThe Horch resembled the Mercedes 300 series and sported the four interlocked circles of Auto Union, an Audi predecessor, on its grille; it was made in what became East Germany , and it was said most of them ended up in the Soviet Union as farm tractors after WWII.

Not quite exotic but rare and desirable was a 1957 Porsche 356A Model 1600 speedster, tagged at $125,000.

Altogether, it was clear that the Imperial Palace auto collection itself could mount a formidable Concours d’Elegance. The collection’s Thompson said they send ten to twenty cars to Pebble Beach each year.

The collection has a curious history. In 1959, a Norwegian builder from Minnesota and North Dakota named Ralph Englestad migrated to Las Vegas to build houses. He was very successful and in 1971 acquired the property on the Strip on which he built the 2700-room Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. He was also a car nut and lavished his business success on his car collection. He even set up his own restoration shop near the state prison at Indian Springs, according to Thompson, where inmates got vocational training learning how to restore classics. Pretty classy, you might say.

When Englestad knew he was dying of cancer a couple of years ago, he disposed of much of his collection, but turned over the operation to his son-in-law Richie Clyne and Don Williams of the Blackhawk to run as a business rather than as a sideshow to the casino.

1949 Chevrolet The unusual truck in the collection, for sale like everything else in the area, was Englestad’s black 1949 3/4-ton Chevrolet stake bed truck, restored in 1981. The asking was $32,500. Would they really sell their heritage down the river? You bet, this is Vegas! And every asking price, said Thompson, was of course negotiable.

He tried to persuade your Museum Hawk to make an offer on one of the beauties. Clearly he had not dealt with many journalists before. I told him, there are many here I’d like to have a chance to drive but, thanks, I didn’t want to actually own one. More fun to write about them.

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