Cars on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
A new president takes office this week in our nation’s capital. And it so happens that we were recently in Washington, D.C., so I’m using this as a tie-in for a car-related story. The Smithsonian’s Museum of Transportation is usually included on lists of car museums, so naturally we had to go here. Truth be told, there weren’t many cars to look at, though. Cars are presented as appliances here. They have a collection of cool cars hidden in their catacombs, but they aren’t available for public viewing. Really, all of Washington, D.C. comes across as anti-car culture. The streets are jammed with hideous red and silver taxicabs, police cars, and black SUVs. Personal cars are typically rough, beat-up hoopties that reflect the harsh traffic and parking issues that clog the streets. I snapped a few pictures, though, and there are a few interesting things if you squint hard enough.
This ’29 Ford Roadster hot rod was very cool, but it wasn’t actually part of the Smithsonian collection. It was on loan from the NHRA Museum, squirreled away in a dark corner display. This is a fantastic period hot rod, and was originally built in 1939 by California hot-rodder John Athan. It went through some minor updates throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, and was driven by Elvis Presley in the 1957 movie Loving You. This is one of the first Model A Ford bodies to be mounted on a ’32 Ford frame, making it a trendsetter for the highboy body style. The windshield is actually the rear window of a ’39 Chrysler with a custom cast frame. There’s not much information on it at the Smithsonian, but it is one of the most significant early hot rods in history.
This ’48 Tucker was on display in the hallway outside the food court. Known as Tucker #1039, it is part of the permanent revolving display at the Smithsonian. They only built 51 Tuckers, so they’re pretty rare and valuable today. Pretty much all of them appeared in the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola-directed movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream, starring Jeff Bridges. An interesting side note about this particular car is that it was seized in a drug raid in 1992, and the U.S. Marshals Service transferred it to the museum. I’ve never seen a Tucker in the wild, but this is the fourth one I’ve had the opportunity to look at in a museum.
The Museum of African-American History is the newest branch of the Smithsonian, and this ’73 Eldorado convertible, once owned by rock-and-roll icon Chuck Berry, was displayed front-and-center. The Smithsonian had this car restored for the museum. It’s mostly just a nice, stock Cadillac, but Berry added rock star features like Vogue Tyres, chrome radiator shell, ’47 Cadillac hood ornament, and cheesy aftermarket Continental Kit. In 1987, this car was featured in a documentary about Berry in which he drove it onto the stage of the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. The Smithsonian had it permanently wired up so the parking lights stayed on. No dead battery here!
Many of the posters and literature for the Museum of Transportation feature this ’55 Ford Country Squire station wagon. It just looks very 1950s, and represents the type of car families would take on vacations in an era that did not include videogames or minivans. This Pinetree Green wagon belonged to George and Nancy Harder, a California family that did all the stuff you would expect a ‘50s family to do with a car like this—pick up the kids from school, go on trips, haul landscaping supplies, etc. The whole notion of Americana and apple pie was strong with this one. Just look at that wholesome, clean-cut lad there with the basketball.
There were a few promo models on display, including a small group of ‘50s Cadillacs, and this ’71 Pinto. Originally, this model was supposed to be a nice scale collectable that generated interest in the Pinto, but this one was actually used against Ford in court. The fuel tank and rear axle were painted on this to highlight the dangers of the Pinto’s fuel tank design. Safety expert Byron Bloch and Ralph Nader can be seen pointing to the damning design on this model in an accompanying photograph. Hopefully they drained all the gasoline out of it before they put it in the case!