The 10 Nuttiest Vehicles at the Lane Motor Museum
There was a time when these cars made sense.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- Jeff Lane's love of quirky European cars started when he was a teen in the 1980s with a disassembled MG TF his father gave him, and it burgeoned out of control so completely that by the turn of the century "a museum was the only thing that made sense." A mechanical engineer by training and former civilian Air Force employee with the luxury of a family business to enable his habit, he quit his day job and set up Nashville's Lane Motor Museum in 2002.
Lean and ponytailed, Lane isn't after the timeless blue-chip classics, though he has a few in his collection. And his interest didn't stop at old MGs. Today the sports cars from Abingdon stand as paragons of normalcy situated among the oddball machinery filling the early 1950s ex-Sunbeam Bread factory.
From micro-cars to Wankel-engined Citroens, from failed California dream machines to the largest assemblage of Tatras this side of the Czech Republic, from expressions of inspired genius to rolling demonstrations of certifiable lunacy, the focus of the 54-year-old proprietor's showcase -- around 450 cars strong -- is mostly foreign and, dare we say, most un-American. French, failed, and three-wheeled aren't themes of great automotive success, it must be admitted, any more than are idiosyncratic Eastern European engineering and utter inscrutability. But taken together they make for a fantastic automotive museum. And as Lane hastens to remind visitors, it's all about context: These cars made sense in their time and place, at least to somebody.
We're going to have to take his word on that. During a recent visit, we chronicled some real head scratchers. Here are 10 of the Lane's strangest residents:
1. 1933 Dymaxion Replica
Buckminster Fuller, the futurist/designer who hoped to better mankind's lot, saw the Dymaxion car of 1933 as a companion to his Dymaxion house of 1927, a precursor to his much more successful geodesic domes. Fuller was concerned with "doing more with less" though the Dymaxion road machine -- painstakingly re-created by the museum since two of only three originals were destroyed -- seems to do the reverse. It does less with more. Long as a Silverado twin-cab, it still manages to seat only four, with not much room for luggage and almost no provision for ventilation. What its futuristic aerodynamic design does for stability, an absurd chassis design -- with a Ford flathead V-8 at its stern and a single rear wheel for steering -- takes away. The replica's aerobicizing six turns lock to lock compare well to the 21 spins baked into the original steering gear, but catching it when something goes wrong is still basically impossible. This means crowned roads and potholes at speeds over 20 mph can present insurmountable challenges to life, limb, and vehicular integrity. It's no wonder the originals crashed so many times and even less that this car of the future was quickly relegated to the past.
2. 1932 Helicron
Some nutty Frenchman in the 1930s thought he could skip driveshafts and transmissions and instead propel his car with a front-mounted propeller. Found in a barn in 2000 where it had sat for almost 70 years -- quite understandably to us, now that we've had a follicle-punishing go in it -- this wooden-bodied gem has been lovingly restored with a non-original Citroen GS motor now spinning its prop but its original rear-wheel steering in place. And let's be frank, it drives like what it is: the unholy offspring of a Sopwith Camel and a forklift.
3. 1928 Martin Aerodynamic, 1950 Martin Stationette
The work of dreamers and schemers figure prominently in the collection at the Lane, and so do these two from the fevered brow of James V. Martin, a Long Islander who spent decades trying to come up with a revolutionary model he could persuade someone richer than he to build under license, thus ensuring a steady stream of royalties and a life of ease. First up was Martin's rear-engined, rubber-sprung Aerodynamic of 1928. Revolutionary with its single door, faired in rear wheels and flat floor to better channel the wind trickling by, it stopped at the 1932 New York auto show (barely, thanks to friction brakes) but languished in the Depression. Undaunted, Martin would return years later with the Stationette. Strangely, the advantages of having a full wooden monocoque, no axles or propshaft, and a labor-intensive construction made this handsome suburban commuter another non-starter.
4. 1938 Citroen Berline 11 Gazogene
Those big tanks you see straddling the front fenders of this early Traction Avant are the most obvious signs of its aftermarket coal-burning setup, courtesy of the Fap Elgazo Tarbes outfit, to work around Europe's scarcity of petroleum. Fill one tank with coal, light it up, and in half an hour, presto, enough methane gas to go 30 miles at a reduced top speed of 45 mph. It beat walking. And to think some of you are complaining about the range of a Nissan Leaf. (Incidentally, Nissan houses most of its historic collection at the Lane.)
5. 1946 Hewson Rocket
The skilled handiwork of the regarded Coachcraft Ltd., founded in Hollywood by three former employees of Howard "Dutch" Darrin, the Rocket was actually the brainchild of a former Southern California car dealer William Hewson. Aluminum paneled, with a flathead Ford V-8 positioned beneath its front bench seat, the open-topped Rocket featured two closely spaced rear wheels and a wide front track beneath a polished, assiduously aerodynamic form that presaged the coming Jet Age. Curiously, it didn't set the world on fire. Failing to interest big-scale manufacturers, Hewson's exit strategy involved not paying his bills, so Coachcraft kept it, unloading the failed $16,000 project in 1959 to a Minneapolis used-car dealer for $650.
6. 1951 Hoffmann
Some of the world's worst automobiles have been three-wheelers. Among the "three's company" set, arguably none has been lousier than this diabolical, one-off, postwar contraption built by a Munich craftsman from scrap metal and hardware store parts. A track wider than its wheelbase and steering by a single rear wheel make its 28 mph top speed a mixed blessing. It's astonishingly ill-mannered and not very spacious for its width, but it sure is cute.
7. 1951 Iota 350 Sport
While the Germans still had austerity on their minds, victorious Brits got sporty more quickly after World War II. Built by veterans of Bristol Aircraft who'd taken to building 500cc race car chassis, the Iota was ahead of its time, with the world's first all-aluminum monocoque housing a mid-mounted Douglas flat-twin. Rigid and highly aerodynamic with extraordinary craftsmanship to the metal work, it must have been too much for too little, as only two were built, and the other one has long since gone to meet its maker.
8. 1961 Von Dutch Rocket Car
You've heard of the legendary SoCal Kustom Kulture savant Von Dutch - aka Kenny Howard -- but probably for his pin-striping artistry and not his car-building prowess. And with good reason. Believed to have been created for a stillborn film whose details are now lost to time, the master's Rocket Car was built around the belly tank of a F86 Sabre Jet, likely in Bud Ekins' famous Triumph motorcycle shop in Los Angeles. With tandem seating for two and a full set of (non-operative) aircraft gauges, the Rocket Car's crude suspension and unresolved electrics make us thankful that this streamliner was not powered by a real rocket engine -- rather a Harley flathead -- and that it was rarely driven.
9. 1980 SZD Invalid car
Never let it be said that the former Soviet Union did nothing for its war veterans. Instead of forcing them, like the miserly Brits, into three-wheeled handicap cars impractical and dangerous for mud, snow and ice, they built instead these four-wheeled death traps. This particular "invalidka," or "motor-wheelchair," sported 17.5 horsepower from its air-cooled two-stroke, with cold steel hand controls that recall the 19th century. Take that, comrade!
10. 1930 American Austin, ¾ scale (built 1988)
This scaled-down replica of the pint-sized American -- an English car built under license in Pennsylvania by the American Austin Company (later Bantam) 1930-'34 -- was built by Bill Minor of Columbia, Tennessee, and, though tiny, it is as grand a tribute to a great artisan and fabricator as we can imagine. With a single-cylinder serving up 10 horsepower, the model's light weight means it will still go 50 mph, though its natural home is the parking lot. Minor passed in 2005, but we predict his brilliant repurposing of household items -- the headlamp covers formerly served as refrigerator shelves -- will blow observers away for generations to come.
Photos courtesy the Lane Motor Museum.