Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The San Diego Auto Museum is interesting, but not overwhelming

I just got home from a little field trip to sunny San Diego. And although there are all kinds of beaches and attractions that would appeal to normal people, I went ahead and spent my leisure time checking out a few car-related destinations.

One of them was the San Diego Auto Museum. Located in an area with several other museums in Balboa Park, the San Diego Auto Museum is a combination of spectacular and not-so-spectacular.

The smallish showroom is split between a permanent display and a revolving display. Currently, the revolving display is “Volkswagen; The People’s Car.” For me, there are about a thousand things I’d rather look at than a Volkswagen display, but alas, the Pontiac and hot rod exhibitions that preceded my visit had run their courses. At least it wasn’t the history of Kia.

They had some nice enough Volkswagens, though. I had never seen one of the last Mexican Beetles from 2003, which is why when I wrote my Beetle history piece, I couldn’t picture one. Now I have, so that’s a plus. They also had a 1952 Zwitter, which was a German-market Beetle. And there were the rat rods, a camper bus, a Squareback wagon, a dune buggy, and of course, a Herbie.

I suppose the most interesting thing on display was “Louis Mattar’s Fabulous Car.” It’s a weird, old ’47 Cadillac sedan that has been somewhat of a celebrity since the 1950s. It was rigged up with all kinds of stuff, including an ironing board, a shower, and a platform from which you could change the tire while the car was in motion. In 1952, Mattar, the owner and builder, set a record by driving 6,320 miles from San Diego to New York and back without ever stopping. It was refueled on the fly by truck. They had an old episode about the car of That’s Incredible! (you remember—John Davidson and Cathy Lee Crosby) that looped on a screen in the background. The car is definitely an odd duck, but it’s fun.

Other notable attractions included a super-rare, Lamborghini-powered 1966 Bizzarrini P538 Spyder, a very impressive 1925 Bentley 3L Red Label, and a gorgeous ’32 Cadillac V16 Roadster. One of the docents caught me looking at the Cadillac, and pointed out that it had been parted out in the late-‘30s to cobble together a homemade tractor. It was “discovered” in the early 1970s, and underwent a long and extensive restoration to bring it back to its original black and red glory. Oh, and the volunteer who was speaking with me had a ’57 Lincoln, which was parked right out in front of the museum.

They also had a pretty neat motorcycle display. The bikes were generally split out by country of origin, and many of them dated back many years. I’m definitely not a motorcycle expert, but they’re kind of fun to look at.

If you’re really into cars, the San Diego Auto Museum may not be the most impressive collection you’ll ever see, but it’s worth the eight bucks admission. I think it’s probably meant to appeal more toward non-car folks, though. It sort of has an intellectual, general history/culture feel as opposed to something geared toward enthusiasts. But really, for as influential as southern California is supposed to be for automotive culture, I couldn’t find too many other places like this to visit in San Diego. Visit http://sdautomuseum.org/ for more information.

Anyway, if you aren’t going to be in San Diego anytime soon, or you want to see the Volkswagen display before it’s replaced by Woodies on February 3, you’re in luck. I’m including the usual collection of mediocre photos, which can be seen in the slideshow below.


  1. I'd rather look at Cadillacs than V Dubs!
    Nice job, giarc.

  2. Agreed - not too much on VWs myself either, but that lifted Karmann Ghia dune buggy type thing was pretty cool. And any place that has a Bizzarini AND a purple, injected 64 Hemi Dodge cant be all bad!
    Thanx for the pictures

  3. Hey, you didn't mention that the cross-country, 47 caddy was equipped with a hookah and a whiskey bar. You're fired!