From cruising to drive-ins to family road trips, cars have been a part of summer almost as long as they’ve been a part of our lives. Whether it had fins or a hatchback, ran on electricity or diesel, played music on an 8-track or streamed it via satellite, our cars have always been there to take us to a day at the beach or a weekend in the mountains.
No wonder Americans love their wheels so much.
Across the country, you’ll find excellent museums that pay homage to our romance with the automobile. Join us on a virtual road trip to 6 standout automotive shrines, which we chose for their breadth, their innovation, or their unique focus.
6 great American auto museums
Petersen Automotive Museum
Los Angeles, California
Car culture is especially strong in Southern California. This is where the tradition of cruising began, and as we all know, nobody walks in L.A. The Petersen shows the evolution of American car culture with a SoCal spin. Its Streetscape exhibition displays vintage cars against dioramas replicating actual places from the area’s history, from a blacksmith’s shop to a Googie-style diner. And since L.A. is home to Hollywood, there’s also an exhibition of cars from TV and film.
The museum rotates its collection of 300+ vehicles, showing around 150 cars at a time. There’s also a separate Vault exhibit housing rare vehicles like a “Round Door” Rolls Royce Phantom and a Popemobile. Guided tours of the Vault are available for an additional fee.
National Auto Museum (Harrah Collection)
When I was growing up in Reno, we’d often take visitors to Harrah’s Automobile Collection. I always thought it was cool, but I didn’t know it was one of the largest in the world. A very avid collector, casino magnate Bill Harrah had amassed some 1,400 cars by the time of his death in 1978. Shortly after he died, Holiday Inns bought his empire, including the collection, and announced plans to sell it off. A huge uproar ensued, a nonprofit was formed to help save the collection, and Holiday Inns agreed to donate 175 cars to the future museum, with private donors adding some 60 other vehicles.
The National Auto Museum opened in 1989. It features an eclectic mix of vintage, classic, and one-of-a-kind vehicles, including one of the first American-built cars, the steam-powered 1892 Philion Road Carriage. It also houses the 1907 Thomas Flyer that won the 1908 New York to Paris race and cars owned by Elvis Presley, Lana Turner, and Frank Sinatra.
The Henry Ford
No one is more closely tied to American automotive history and ingenuity than Henry Ford. This 9-acre museum delves into the legacy of American innovation as well as the automobile’s role in American culture. Memorable exhibits include the limousine that was carrying President Kennedy when he was assassinated, the bus where Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat, and the first Ford Mustang ever produced.
National Corvette Museum
Bowling Green, Kentucky
First introduced in 1953, Corvettes have been called the “only true American sports car.” The National Corvette Museum showcases more than 70 Corvette models and unique concept cars. Across the street is the GM Corvette Assembly Plant, the only place where the iconic cars are made.
Here’s another interesting tidbit about the National Corvette Museum — on February 12, 2014, a huge sinkhole opened up under their Skydome, swallowing 8 Corvettes (including the Millionth Corvette to be built at the assembly plant). All were eventually recovered, and the museum recently announced plans to keep part of the sinkhole, with 2 of the damaged vehicles on display within.
The National Corvette Museum is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this August 27-30, with special exhibits and the arrival of the National Corvette Caravan from points all across the U.S.
Lane Motor Museum
As much as we love domestic cars, there’s a lot to be said for their stylish and sometimes quirky European cousins. The Lane Motor Museum houses the largest collection of European cars in the U.S. (nearly 400, which are on regular rotation) and strives to keep all its vehicles in working order. Unique exhibits include the Peel P50, which holds the Guinness World Record for the smallest street-legal car, and the one-of-a-kind, French-built Helicron, which has a wooden body and is mobilized by a 4-foot-propeller.
Muscle Car City Museum
Punta Gorda, Florida
Corvettes may be the “only” American sports car, but no one tops the U.S. when it comes to muscle cars — the fast, rumbling, high-horsepower coupes of Beach Boys songs and movies like Bullitt. Muscle Car City is home to over 200 classic GM cars and hot rods dating from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s, one of the largest displays of its kind in the nation. It also features one of the largest automotive memorabilia shops around.
As for your own valiant ride, it may not end up in a museum, but you can show it some love by protecting it with the right car insurance.