Harrah's, where the Automobile Age is locked in a time capsule

Comedian Jack Benny drew many a laugh when he spoke about his old Maxwell automobile. While it was not the radio-TV comedian's car, nonetheless it was a 1911 Maxwell, along with a 1911 Ford, which helped start the largest collection of antique automobiles in the world. And they're still part of the 1,500-car collection at William Harrah's famed antique-car museum in Reno, Nev.

Mr. Harrah, who passed on in 1978, began building his collection in 1948. Today the complex includes 13 buildings on 10 acres.

Formally known as Harrah's Automobile Collection, the famed attraction depicts man's technological advances with the automobile in a most definitive manner, arranged in antique, vintage, classic, and special-interest sections.

Opened to the public in February 1962, the auto museum's quest for authenticity keeps nearly 90 craftsmen busy at restoration. Many of them work out of the museum's research library, which contains original car manuals, encyclopedias, and trade journals to provide answers on the smallest details required to make auto restoration exactly to specifications.

In this complex, where some 1,100 autos are displayed, are administrative offices, visitors lobby, parts storeroom, restoration area, and Pony Express Museum.

But the autos of old are what folks come to see, such as the 1892 steam-powered Ohilion, oldest in the collection, and the 1907 Thomas Flyer that won the 1908 New York-to-Paris Race. There's a complete line of Fords, PAckards , and Franklins as well as 18 Duesenbergs and two of the six 1931 Bugatti Royales in existence. Only seven were made and Harrah's has developer Etorre Bugatti's personal Royale.

Other popular cars among these beauties are the 1933 red Duesenberg SJ Speedster, a yellow 1913 Mercer Raceabout, 1929 Packard Phaeton, 1933 Auburn Custom Speedster, 1912 Stanley (steam) Mountain Wagon, 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK drophead coupe, 1930 Franklin Pursuit, and a 1910 Rolls-Royce Roadster, among numerous others.

Each of the cars is mechanically and aesthetically perfect upon restoration, Harrah employees declare, so much so that even the smallest brass manufacturer's plate, the color and the upholstery stuffing are as they were when the car first rolled off its original assembly line.

Attesting to this is the fact that Harrah's entered the 1907 Thomas Flyer in the 1968 Transcontinental Reliability Tour commemorating the 60th anniversary of the world-famous race the very same car won in 1908, while in 1971 it shipped 30 cars to the World Classic Car Festival in Japan. It participated in a New Zealand vintage-car rally in 1972 and enters the London-to-Brighton run in England each year.

Small wonder, then, is the popularity of Harrah's annual swap meet and car show, biggest in the West. Held each June in Reno, the three-day meet often draws about 30,000 persons, with attending "swappers" trading and selling everything from taillights to autos themselves.

Harrah's authentic collection also has been the subject of television specials, has been featured in Grand Prix TV commercials, and has received coverage in major magazines and trade journals.

Perhaps the most interesting car restored by Harrah craftsmen is the 1907 Thomas Flyer. In storage for 52 years after being sold at the E. R. Thomas Company bankruptcy sale, the champion auto deteriorated to the point that it was actually in very poor condition when acquired by Harrah's. The craftsmen decided then to restore the auto, not to its factory specs but to the condition it was in when it reached the finish line in Paris in the 1908 race.

Some 40 experts went to work on their prize and spent an enthusiastic six weeks "aging" the Flyer by driving it through the Nevada desert sagebrush to simulate the wear it received in the old race. They did such a good job, supplying even the "scars" the auto encountered on each racing journey, that the late George Schuster, who drove it in that 1908 race, was visibly shaken when he examined his old favorite at Harrah's a few years ago.

The trophy Schuster won in the race now is on display with the flyer, whose place is distinguished upon a red-carpeted platform a few inches above the showroom floor.

Yet Harrah's museum is more than just automobiles. It also offers something for those who may tire of the automotive way and prefer viewing famous boats or aircraft. For that breed, the museum offers a 1937 Arrow Sport two-place open monoplane powered by -- you might have guessed -- a Ford V-8 auto engine.

There's also an ancient Curtis Jenny, a World War II P-38, and the famous Ford Trimotor, or "Tin Goose," which required four years of restoration work.

The boat division includes an 1815 Venetian gondola and the famed Miss America X, which set a world speed record in 1932.

But for complex radiators, hubcaps, or unique decorative pieces, there's only one antique car museum, and that's Harrah's -- the place where the glorious autos of the past have been saved from the junkyard for their rightful places as symbols of the automotive age.

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