History

How the Museum Got Started

In 1982, a group of volunteers met to discuss the concept of an auto museum to be located in Sacramento–the first auto museum in the West to be established in perpetuity. Before the close of the meeting, a challenge was made by an attendee, who produced a one hundred dollar bill and asked who among the group would match it. Five additional one hundred dollar bills came forth and the plan was born. The paperwork was begun to form the non-profit corporation and foundation, and the fruition was seen exactly one year later, on October 5, 1983, when the California Vehicle Foundation was established.

The group adopted the slogan “On the Road to a Car Museum” and meetings were held each week for the direction of museum development. The Mission Statement of CVF became: to develop an every-person auto museum. The first auto to be donated to CVF was a restored 1938 Buick sedan, a gift from John Joyce, president of the Golden One Credit Union, which is still on display at the museum.

In 1985, Edward Towe, a Montana banker owning the largest collection of Fords in the world, sent a letter inquiring if there was any interest in his Ford collection as it was in danger of losing its space in Deer Lodge, Montana. After a search of the area, it was determined that the best available location for the car museum might be a 72,000 square foot warehouse, located in the shadow of the interchange of Interstates 5 and 80, near Old Sacramento. With supervision and commitment by the City of Sacramento, a CVF committee negotiated the purchase of the property for the City in exchange for a long term lease from the City for the Museum.

In June 1986, Hadley Auto Transport offered to haul the auto collection to Sacramento, at no cost to CVF. A very busy summer of 1986 began the transformation of changing the warehouse into a Museum. Cleaning and painting, both inside and out, were monumental tasks. The Towe cars arrived at the Museum on September 27, 1986 at 10:30 a.m. A large crew of enthusiastic people was assembled to unload the cars from thirteen transporters and push the cars into the building.

On May 1, 1987 the Towe Ford Museum opened to the public, displaying the personal collection of Edward Towe, which included one of almost every car Ford ever made, from the pre-Model T to the Pinto. The Museum flourished in its early days, attracting locals and visitors to this new attraction.

In the mid-90’s, however, in a tax dispute with Mr. Towe, the IRS slapped a lien on the cars. When efforts to find a buyer for the cars failed, the most extensive and complete collection of Fords was put on the auction block. The 1997 auction broke up the Towe Ford Collection and that could have been a death sentence for the Museum. Not so. The newly renamed Towe Auto Museum, on the banks of the Sacramento River in the shadow of Old Town, began displaying vehicles of all makes and models, creating a much broader story of the automobile through history.

Since the Museum no longer housed the Towe Collection, in 2009, the Board of Directors officially changed the name of the Museum to the California Automobile Museum, reflecting the expanded mission it has grown into over the last 28 years, which is to preserve, exhibit, and teach the story of the automobile and its influence on our lives.

“We are deeply indebted to the Towe family for providing the car collection that began the Museum,” said Karen McClaflin, Executive Director.  “But over the years, the Museum has outgrown that role. The new name more accurately reflects our current mission and the broader number of programs we offer.”

Many of the cars are set off in eye-catching displays, as a place to educate people about cars; to tell the story of the development of the automobile and its effect on our lives. Approximately 25% of the vehicles are currently owned by the California Vehicle Foundation and the rest are displayed by private exhibitors. Some of the cars are on loan for a month and some for five years, so the display is a constantly changing exhibit of rolling stock.

Come visit us.

Come frequently to enjoy this outstanding invention that so affected our lives and culture. We are open 362 days a year from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., we take our last customer at 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.