In the Car Museum Race, Some Drop Out

Posted May 10, 2018 2:58 p.m. EDT

LAS VEGAS — On the final day of move-out for the Auto Collections at the Linq Hotel & Casino, Rob Williams sat at a lonely wooden desk on one end of 125,000 square feet of emptiness. The only trace of the hundreds of cars that have passed through here over nearly 40 years were the oil stains on the carpet and walls adorned with the painted logos of the manufacturers whose wares were once among this tourist city’s most popular daytime attractions.

“This is not what we built right here,” Williams said. “I can’t wait to close the door and walk away. I don’t want to remember this place like this.”

The Vegas collection shut down to the public on New Year’s Eve, the same day another car display, Hostetler’s Hudson Auto Museum in Shipshewana, Indiana, also closed its doors. A year earlier, in December 2016, the Walter P. Chrysler Museum on the corporate campus of Fiat Chrysler outside Detroit was eliminated and its building converted to office space. A few months before that, the Riverside International Automotive Museum — the last remaining piece of a once-celebrated, long-gone California raceway — also closed.

The news has been so bleak for so many auto museums that Kurt Ernst, editor of the classic-car news site Hemmings Daily included in his five predictions for 2018: “Expect to see more museums close and more collections head to auction.” He added this warning: “If you have a favorite museum, 2018 will be a good year to pay it a visit, or better yet, make a cash donation.”

Auto museums, like some other cultural institutions, rarely turn a profit from ticket sales. And collections that were opened to the public by wealthy owners as vanity projects or tax strategies are closing as their benefactors get bored, tire of losing money or die.

In Las Vegas, Williams’ father, Don, 72, decided that it was time for him to downsize his once-vast car collection, which he also displayed in California and Shanghai. There were typically 150 to 200 cars on display here at any given moment, with another 100 in storage.

In 1999, the Williams family took over the space — actually the fifth floor of the hotel-casino’s parking garage — at what was then the Imperial Palace. In return for the rent-free space, the resort pocketed all the ticket and merchandising revenue and the family used the prime spot to sell their classic cars. (Before that, the space for two decades boasted the personal collection of the Imperial Palace’s owner, Ralph Englestad.) The Auto Collections once drew more than 3,500 visitors a day, Williams said; by the end, the average was fewer than 1,000.

By the time Williams was moving the cars out in February, there were 40 that had not been sold. They have been moved to the family’s main classic car dealership, Blackhawk Collection, in Danville, California.

“Perhaps there’s a limit to how many auto museums there can be,” said Matt Anderson, a curator at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, and the president of the National Association of Automobile Museums. His members worry about declining attendance. “They’re struggling with this realization that younger folks aren’t into cars the way their parents and grandparents were.”

Changes in how Americans view car culture are taking a toll, said Ernst, the Hemmings editor.

“The need to go to museums isn’t what it once was,” he said. “Rather than traveling cross-country to see a car, if you want information on that car, it’s instantly available. You can find out more information on the internet about a particular Hudson, for example, than you’d even be able to learn inside of a museum.” In Shipshewana, a tourist town nestled in northern Indiana’s Amish country, the museum housing a $4 million collection of about 50 Hudsons was expected to be liquidated at auction this summer, said Bob Shanahan, the city manager. The museum was named for Eldon Hostetler, known as J.R., who donated his cars, land and an endowment to the city in 2005. But the endowment was hardly enough to cover costs, so taxpayers have been on the hook for the difference. Shanahan said the attraction had been expected to lose $1.2 million over the coming five years; ticket revenue last year came to a paltry $17,000 on attendance of fewer than 4,000 visitors.

“It wasn’t that there was a lack of people who come to the town; it just wasn’t the draw that I think people envisioned it being,” Shanahan said.

There have been success stories, however. Some museums have thrived by offering unusual experiences and a different mix of wares.

The Volo Auto Museum outside of Chicago shifted away from displaying production cars about a decade ago and focused on vehicles from movies and television, said Brian Grams, the museum’s director. The Petersen Automotive Museum, on Museum Mile in downtown Los Angeles, reopened in 2015 after a $125 million makeover as a sparkling, sleek venue with an exhibit dedicated to the Pixar “Cars” movies, Xbox racing simulators, a motor sports gallery and virtual tours for the iPhone or iPad. At the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, visitors who book ahead can take lessons on driving a vintage Ford Model T, and the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia hosts twice-monthly “demonstration days.”

“People hear ‘museum’ and they think quiet, they think of some cars lined up, probably dusty and dirty,” said Grams, the Volo director. “We’ve got music; it’s very happy. We’ve got this dome where you walk next to displays and video plays playing on the wall, so you can view a clip of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ when you’re standing next to the General Lee.”

Still, the Volo, much like the Vegas collection, survives not on gate receipts but as a classic car dealership. Others, like the Simeone, the Petersen and the Henry Ford, subsist on grants, fundraisers and endowments. But the museums that display a particular person’s passion — like Bruce Weiner’s now-closed Microcar Museum — face the greatest challenges.

“I would say every year I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Weiner, a candy magnate who operated a museum in Madison, Georgia, for 14 years before closing in 2013. “To keep your museum relevant and current and active, you’ve got to always be changing what you’ve got and that’s very difficult to do. Only a few museums can afford to do that.” Some, like Kevin Biebel, chairman of the Saratoga Auto Museum, are less disheartened by the loss of car museums and the liquidation of their collections. New owners mean the potential for new hobbyists, he said.

“While museum closings might be a bad thing for that town, it’s not a total disaster for the hobby because they’re not going to the crusher. They’re not getting turned into soda cans,” Biebel said.

That means he does not see the closings as a demise.

“They might not be that tourist attraction,” Biebel said, “but they might very well be the next makings of another car collection.”