Harrah's Automobile Collection Magazine Article

In 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.

Slightly 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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