“The mission of the California Automobile Museum is to preserve, exhibit, and teach the story of the automobile and its influence on our lives.”
How the Museum Got Started
by Dick Ryder – Founder, Original CEO/President
Early 1982 – Remember Bill Harrah’s car collection… so called “the largest in the world?” Bill was a young man, only 66… They don’t die that young…do they? He did. And, so far as we know he left no plan for that HUGE bunch of cars. Being a curious kind of guy, I asked and snooped around, and as far as I could find out, no other car collector, at least on the west coast, had made plans beyond his death. The truth was, there was no car collection in perpetuity. So… if we’re going to do something about it, we better get busy!
On the Road to a Car Museum
What’s going on at Harrah’s? Only one way to find out… go and see them. Joined by my real estate partner and attorney (who was also my nephew by marriage) Burl Waits. He was not particularly interested in old cars, but was an eager and enthusiastic organizer. In Reno, we met with the powers of Harrah’s car collection. They seemed happy to share their status, and were discussing the possibility of forming a foundation. That idea struck a
chord with us and by the time we got back to Sacramento, Burl and I had formed a foundation in our minds and the vision was taking shape.
Let’s Get Organized
What does it take to start a car museum? Cars, money, location, but most of all, it takes people. How do we find them? Well, why not call the newspapers? Rob Hughes had a car column in the Sacramento Union and Bruce Grant was the car editor at the Sacramento Bee. Both took to the idea and provided names of key guys and gals in the car community. In that era, there was a sort of classy restaurant in the Stockton/Fruitridge area called the Del Prado. So we scheduled a Saturday breakfast meeting.
Saturday, October 3, 1982 – Twelve people showed up at the breakfast meeting. I was attempting to express a vision for a car museum when I was interrupted by Truett Loftin, who was holding up a $100 bill. He said “You’ve said enough. Who’s going to match this? Let’s get this show on the road.” Six of us did and I guess the rest is history.
It Takes an Organization
October 5, 1982 – OK! Now we have $600… With the $600 Burl Waits Law Firm could start the application for California and Federal non-profit status to include the 501(c)3 provision for charitable foundation and tax deductibility. The following Tuesday, we got together at Burl’s office to decide what to do next …
Those Meetings Begin
October 6, 1982 – We met on Tuesday at Burl Waits Law Office. Let’s call this meeting the ‘Core Committee Meeting’. We met weekly and invited anyone who was interested, had input, and ideas as to how a car museum should be run. First; we needed a name. California Vehicle Foundation was suggested. Passed! Next, we needed a program to attract the car hobby community. So we planned a breakfast meeting on the first Saturday of every month at the Del Prado. We’re on our way! Among those attending the first meeting was Rob Hughes of the Sacramento Union.
Program Meetings to Attract a Crowd
November 1982 – We’ve got the Del Prado on Saturday mornings. Now where do we find speakers? We attracted our first celebrity speakers from the San Francisco Bay Area and Carmel. Pretty good heavyweights for a neophyte outfit like CVF. Among them, Herman Brunn of coachbuilder Brunn and Co; Bill Hinds, a restorer of several Pebble Beach winners; Don Williams, who is soon to be the basis of the Blackhawk Collection; and above all, Ed Archer, collector, restorer, appraiser (and my mentor), Art Deco collector and entertainer. He and his wife, Karen, put on a memorable Dixieland Jazz show back then and reenacted it for us at our first Founder’s Day celebration several years ago.
1983 – Long before we got our 501(c)3 approval, gifts of cars came. The first was a red 1938 Buick given to us by a young guy John Joyce, the manager of the California State Employees Credit Union who had rebranded it The Golden One Credit Union. With that conspicuous car, and my 1934 Pierce Arrow we hit the streets doing parades, weddings, and any other event with signs “On the Road to a Car Museum.” We were being given a number of donated cars which became our cash flow. We even raffled off several of them including a ‘57 Chevy, ‘71 Pinto, and ‘57 Cadillac El Dorado. This became sustenance for our forward motion.
With lots of support from the Sacramento Union and Bee we started out with our own newsletter, using an old mimeograph machine in my driveway! But soon that was not enough, and having developed a competent writing staff we talked a printer into setting up and printing a few pages to go out to the 2600 interested folks we had accumulated. Our coup, however came when we tried to get the Governor Brown (Moonbeam) ‘74 Plymouth at an auction. Apparently the auctioneer, in his ineptness, ignorance and/or/ inexperience saw only one bidder; that of Stockton school janitor Leo Singer. This ended in a semi-violent protest by a group of frustrated bidders from CVF; we made the front page of The Bee (with pictures) and also made the national network TV news. Incidentally, Leo’s intention in buying the car was to drive Jerry Brown down Pennsylvania Avenue when he became president of the US…
The Rest of that Story… A couple of years later, when the presidential circumstances became obvious, Leo, with no prior notice, brought the car to our doorstep including a scrapbook with its clippings and ownership documents.
Spring 1986 – We’ve had several successful program meetings, including the ones at the Del Prado. Our mailing list had grown to 2600 names and our Monday CORE meetings had created a plethora of great ideas. So now is the time to enroll them all as members! We humbly asked if each of them could spare $10 a year… And over 500 came forth to put the CVF “On the Road to a Car Museum!”
It’s been a year since Truett Loftin raised the $100 bill. We have been granted IRS Educational Foundation status and can legally acknowledge the gifts we’ve been getting. Our CORE committee is bursting with ideas and we had a car show at the Del Paso Country Club. We have been receiving Resolutions of Support from many California counties and had a well attended annual meeting with Sacramento Mayor Ann Rudin and County Supervisor Illa Collin in attendance. Now we’re really “On the Road to a Car Museum!”
Fast forward a couple of years… In October 1985 I got a letter from Edward Towe of Deer Lodge, Montana inquiring if we would be interested in having his auto museum in Sacramento. The significance of which was that his was the world’s largest collection of a single make of car: the Ford. His museum represented every year and model of the first 50 years of Ford. Were we interested? Wow! What an opportunity. An immediate world class museum ready-made for us! All we need is a place to put the cars.
The Towes came down that Christmas to look us over. Oh, yes! Edward brought a 1909 two-pedal Tourister Model T for me to play with on that first trip. A peace offering? Not only that; he soon made a second trip bringing a 1946 Sportsman woody convertible. Eat your heart out because he made a third trip bringing a 1932 Model B station wagon. Supposedly, one of five in restored condition. Now, we’re really getting along “On the Road to a Car Museum!”
Must Find Space
Summer 1986 – Now we’ve got the cars – or at least the promise of them. But where are we going to put them? First suggestion: the old power plant on Jibboom Street. Neal Frandsen, one of the original $100 contributors brought us the plans for it. It was a great focus for publicity but we could only fit 40 cars in there. Then THIS building showed up. About two acres, built in 1946 as a grocery warehouse, later a tire warehouse, it was now a repository for used restaurant equipment. We had a new board member, Carl Amundson, who was on the Redevelopment Agency Board. They wanted this building for Sacramento’s waterfront manifest destiny. Figuring it was worth $2,000,000 – they challenged us to get it for that.
We Got Our Building
1986 – 1987 – Challenged by the Redevelopment Agency to negotiate the price of the building for $2,000,000, we dutifully contacted the owners, the Finegold brothers, Ray and Cecil. Their attorneys agree, with an appraiser who just happened to appraise the value at exactly $2 million. We took that to the Redevelopment Agency with the deal, to be told, “Sorry, we’re out of money.” A truly revolting development. We were at a drop dead date with the Finegolds. Desperate, we were able to get an audience City Councilman, and Chairman of the Finance Committee. A car guy by the name of Joe Serna. Three of us had spent 36 hours straight hobbling together the semblance of a pro forma document.
On Monday morning we were at City Hall, I presented the document to Mr. Serna, who, without opening it, laid it on the corner of his desk. He said, “Let me make a phone call to Tom Friery.” (The City Treasurer at that time.)
“Don’t we have a couple of million dollars left from the convention center bond issue? Yes! I’ll call you back.” Call two was to the head of the convention center, Sam Burns, “How’d you like to be the landlord of a car museum?” Response, “OK!” Joe called the treasurer back, “Tom, we’ve got a deal! Then Joe turned to me, “Dick, I know you guys don’t have any money, do you suppose if we gave you twenty years you could dig up $200 a month?”
What do you suppose it feels like to levitate?
The Towe Cars Came
OK … We’ve got a contract for a car museum and a place to put the cars. How do we get the cars from Deer Lodge, Montana to Sacramento? One of “the guys” had a contact with the local Teamsters Union secretary. And he had a contact with the Teamsters’ boss in San Francisco. Out of the blue I got a call from Bill Hadley of Hadley Auto Transport (who denies being contacted by the Teamsters) He set it up as a reward/reunion for his drivers. The result was 13 transporters from the Hadley empire: Denver, Salt Lake, Seattle, Portland, Benicia, and Los Angeles plus expeditors and planners. Each having over 25 years of clear driving records with the company.
Seven of us, including a cameraman from Channel 40, loaded in an old pickup and camper, set off to Deer Lodge to help load 95 Towe Museum vehicles onto those transporters for the long caravan to Sacramento, plus five cars that were to be driven.
Now came the adventure! It was the third week of September. The weather had been fine. We pulled out at dawn. Within a few miles the weather burst into the first full scale blizzard with several inches of snow by Idaho Falls. Onward to our first night in Jackpot, Nevada. Next night, hard to believe, blizzard conditions closed I-80 over Donner Summit. Our problem: the Highway Patrol refused us passage at 6am and our scheduled arrival time in Sacramento is 9am. How do we get there on time? Well, we won’t! It’s 9am and finally, the Highway Patrol released us to go.
Edward Towe had to do some emergency repairs on one of the five cars and put me into the lead car, a 1933 right hand drive Phaeton with a top, but no side curtains. The road over Donner Pass was fine, and by the time we approached our destination we had accumulated additional procession of cars; the Sierra Mustang Club, some early V8 Fords and the British car club, among others.
Our pre-designated route was to come in on I-80, transition to I-5, then across the river to Front Street to here. I looked down as I came around this curve above… I honestly thought I saw thousands of people in front of the museum. It was noon and I thought everyone would have gone home. Now, emoting, my hair stood straight up and I began to bawl. I was so nervous I drove right past the reception committee and up the ramp into the museum.
We opened the Towe Ford Museum on May 1, 1987 and we have lived happily ever after. Don’t we wish it had been that easy. But we are here now as The California Automobile Museum, and we are looking forward to an even more fabulous future.
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