Car Parks: Your Tax Dollars at Work

Geysers and grizzlies — yes. But America’s National Park system also includes vintage cars, trucks, and buses. From West Glacier, Montana, to West Orange, New Jersey, vintage vehicles are on display in storied facilities or are in service within the parks. Some are worth a fortune. And yet, the Parks system doesn’t seem to have a consistent policy for maintaining or restoring them. — Ronald Ahrens

Thomas Edison National Historical Park
West Orange, New Jersey

Although described as a “helpless” driver — others usually took the tiller or the wheel for him — Thomas Alva Edison was a car nut and had the garage to prove it. Built in 1908 out of reinforced concrete, with which he experimented, the palatial garage was outfitted with a gas pump, a grease pit, and an overhead washer. The garage also has an electric charging station, a testament to his commitment to battery development.

The Cars
1900 Locomobile Stanhope steamer: Edison used it as a battery test bed. Years of work resulted in the 1909 Edison battery, which used an alkaline electrolyte with nickel and iron electrodes.
1911 Detroit Electric Model L-1 runabout: Detroit Electric was the best-selling electric make — and therefore Edison’s greatest customer.
1914 Detroit Electric Model 47 brougham
1922 Ford Model T touring: A gift from Henry Ford, this T was often driven by Edison’s son Charles, taking the old man down the hill to the lab. Restored in the 1980s, it’s driven every year in the West Orange, New Jersey, Saint Patrick’s Day parade.
1936 Brewster Ford town car

Conservation Policy
Per National Park Service policy, the Edison cars have had their fluids drained, batteries removed, hinges lubed, frames supported, and are protected from light and dust. One estimate places the cost of conserving Edison’s cars at between $50,000 and $60,000 each. Only the Brewster, owned by the Charles Edison Fund (for Thomas’s son), is likely to receive a restoration. “If we were to restore a vehicle, it would become a general example of a historic vehicle type,” says Edison park curator Michelle Ortwein. The garage, however, could be improved and expanded as an exhibit if the parks can raise the necessary funds.

Death Valley National Park
Death Valley, California
In 1922, Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson began building a mansion (“Scotty’s Castle”) in Death Valley. In 1943, ten years after Death Valley had become a national park, he was driving in the area and was involved in a car crash that killed his wife. The NPS acquired Scotty’s Castle and its fleet for $850,000 in 1970.

The Cars
1914 Packard Series 4-48 seven-passenger touring: An original ’14 Packard touring was auctioned in 2010 for $425,000. Like its Death Valley stablemates, however, this giant barely avoids complete decrepitude.
1925 Graham Brothers pickup: Graham Brothers, of Evansville, Indiana, was America’s largest manufacturer of trucks in the mid-1920s. The firm used Dodge four-cylinder engines, and the trucks were sold nationwide at Dodge dealerships.
1928 Ford AA dump truck
1933 Packard roadster: “If we had to make it run, we could,” says Death Valley National Park spokesman Terry Baldino.
1936 Dodge commercial sedan

Conservation Policy
The cars receive a bit of cleaning and “attempts to slow the decay as much as possible,” says park ranger Patrick Taylor. A hoped-for visitors’ center expansion could include indoor display space.

Glacier National Park
West Glacier, Montana
In the 1930s, the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, manufactured several hundred buses for service in western national parks. With canvas lids peeled back, these red buses carried summer tourists for six decades in Glacier National Park.

Conservation Policy
The Ford Motor Company generously oversaw the buses’ comprehensive rehabilitation between 2000 and 2002. The new V-8s run on propane, and modern brakes enhance safety.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
Hyde Park, New York
At FDR’s Hyde Park, New York, estate (administered by the National Archives), a ’36 Ford Phaeton has hand controls and a hands-free, automatic cigarette holder and lighter that dispensed lit smokes — an uncanny precursor of Bluetooth.

Conservation Policy
The Phaeton was cut in half and reassembled in the museum’s basement; with current building renovations, the first since construction in 1941, the car has to be moved around for protection.