Harrah's Automobile Collection
the field of industrial arts, there are perhaps three U.S. collections
guaranteed to humble, if not permanently discourage, the man who yearns
to own just one nicely restored steam tractor, tri-motor airplane or
Duesenberg J. One such, of course, is the Smithsonian, which makes up
for what it lacks in financing by conferring upon eager donors of acceptable
industrial bric-a-brac the unofficial status of national hero, 3rd class.
Another is the fantastic museum and composite “village”
at Dearborn, Mich., put together by the greatest string-saver of all
time, Henry Ford. There, items ranging from Heinz’s original pickle
factory to not just one, but row upon row of steam tractors stand glistening
and immobile, preserved for a posterity that can look but not touch.
different in philosophy, but equally staggering in magnitude, is Harrah’s
Automobile Collection in Reno, Nev. When we visited this display recently,
no less than 1,142 cars were inventoried, a figure that increases almost
daily. Of these, 125 have received “gold star” restorations
by the Harrah fulltime staff of 70 craftsmen. About 325 cars are on
public display, the difference representing those that were either decently
restored or in good original condition at the time of purchase. Even
so, a little mathematics shows that if purchases were stopped tomorrow,
the staff, which currently averages 30 restorations a year, enjoys job
security for the foreseeable future.
Harrah acquisitions follow several ancillary themes which by their very
magnitude allow pursuit of the central one of displaying automotive
firsts. We felt that owning 14 Duesenbergs was a little grabby for any
one organization, until we counted the Collection’s Fords. There
are no less than 115 in current inventory, ranging from a rare 1903
“A” to a run-of-the-mill 1951 sedan. Some of them get used,
too, as most of the Collection’s transport needs are handled by
a fleet of pertly restored ’26-’28 pickups. Not one year
of the Model T or latter-day “A” is missing from the collection,
and for most years, one of each body style is represented.
Similar completeness is the goal for some of the better known but demised
makes such as Franklin, Packard and Pierce. For example, there are 53
Franklins in inventory, which must be a measurable percentage of all
Franklins surviving. Like the “t,” though, Franklins are
present en masse because they represent an automotive first, as, in
a sense, do the two Frazers and the Playboy and Davis in the collection.
The unrestored cars, which represent the large majority, are stowed
nose-to-tail in modern, tightly locked warehouses scattered around Reno.
Do not feel sorry for these machines, as you might for those owned by
Barney Pollard of Detroit, who hangs his properties by their noses in
draughty sheds like so many sides of beef.
Cars awaiting restoration in the Harrah Collection sit on blocks in
dry, if chilly, security. Nor are they forgotten. As soon as one is
acquired, it gets a sort of physical as researchers determine the parts
needed for restoration. The worldwide, highly organized dragnet then
swings into action and searches just as avidly for, say a starter motor
for a ’20 DeSoto as it does for a missing supercharger rotor for
an SJ. And if the missing vitals for the DeSoto are found before those
needed by the SJ, the plain-Jane DeSoto is just likely to precede the
glamour girl into surgery.
A hulking, soft-spoken man named Edward “Bud” Catlett has
the fascinating job of trying to buy cars for the Collection faster
than they can be restored. A major source, of course, is the private
“collector” with one good car who becomes discouraged somewhere
during the costly restoration process. Another is the cars offered in
the average of 500 letters received each month by the Collection. “Mostly,”
says Catlett, “these are 1930 Pontiacs or something, but occasionally
we are offered a good one at a decent price.” And finally, there
is that increasingly infrequent instance of finding the true rarity
in a farmer’s shed, so unlikely nowadays that regular tours of
the hinterland by Collection employees have been stopped.
Catlett recalls one such shed in Ellenwood, Kan., that turned out to
contain one of the four Welch’s known to survive. Word had gotten
around to the extent that the car’s owners, two prosperous and
elderly brothers who farmed oil as well as wheat, looked upon collectors
as a plague akin to locusts. Catlett arrived and was stopped in the
drive by a hostile brother. “Yep,” said he, “we have
a Welch and the damn thing is going to stay right here.”
It wasn’t an auspicious start to negotiations, but luckily Catlett
spotted a private bone yard that contained, of all things, a bunch of
old Pierce-Arrows converted into farm tractors. Judicious mention started
a conversation. “Never could buy a good tractor, so we made our
own out of Pierces,” the old man allowed. Catlett finally saw
the Welch and made an offer.
Meanwhile, the other brother had arrived and with two sons, entered
the negotiations. “Too much capital gains. Can’t sell it,”
was the consensus after a long conference. Only after Catlett offered
to pay the capital gains (kind of silly, because then the brothers had
to pay capital gains on that payment) and buy 5 ½ tons of Pierce
parts was the deal consummated. Today, the 1909 Welch Model 4-0 is featured
in all its red and brass splendor, an item prized by the Collection
second only to the actual Thomas Flyer that won the 1908 New York to
Paris race via Siberia.
It was indeed difficult to choose the 13 cars pictured on these pages
from Harrah’s “1001” – a number not representing
the total but instead, our way of saying that to probe the complete
collection would take as long as the Sultana Scheherazade’s 1001
nights spent telling tall tales to the Sultan Schahriar.
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