Confession: I am not a car person
I’ve always thought of the automobile as just a mode of transportation. Nothing fancy, totally practical. However, the marketing person in me completely understands the emotional appeal cars can have on people. And the product manager in me can appreciate a good design in any form. So I was completely surprised after my visit to the Lane Motor Museum when I had this strange desire to just pick up one of the microcars in their collection and take it home. Maybe it’s my recent fascination with all things tiny (no Game of Thrones for me – I binge watch shows about tiny homes). Or maybe it’s just the mash-up of something so practical in a package that seems so impractical. Whatever the reason, their vast collection of microcars is just one reason to visit the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.
Home to the largest collection of microcars, and also one of the largest amphibious vehicles – the 60 Ton LARC – the Lane Motor Museum has enough variety to satisfy both the hardcore and casual car enthusiast (and even just the average museum nerd!). Focused primarily on European cars — although there are cars from all around the world — the museum goes beyond the traditional car museum by collecting cars that are odd, unique, or are truly one-of-a-kind. Most of these cars are models that were never sold in the United States, and most of them are not the type of car you’d find in the typical homeowner’s garage. Whether it’s a prototype car, a test car, a modified car, a failed innovation, or a product designed for a very specific niche, all of the cars in their collection reflect a specific point in history and a specific cultural influence that drove its development.
So let’s get started traveling through their amazing collection!
Lane Motor Museum – starting out with just 80 cars from the founder’s private collection, the building that houses the museum was originally a Sunbeam bread factory. The original 80 cars have now grown to a total of 545 – with about 150 cars on display at any time — and the collection now includes scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, a few airplanes and some canoes. Rumor has it that sometimes on a hot summer day visitors can still smell the faint odor of baking bread.
Restoration & Care of the Collection – listen to the episode to hear about how they “exercise” the cars, the restoration process, and the challenges of finding parts for foreign cars no longer in production and never sold in the U.S.
The “Vault” Tour – when you visit, make sure to take the Vault Tour. This tour goes down into the basement where you see cars not on exhibit. I love behind-the-scenes tours and this one doesn’t disappoint. This area includes vehicles in the queue for restoration, ones that are actively being worked on, and some that are just waiting for their moment to be brought upstairs for an exhibit.
World Flags – don’t forget to look up when you visit. Hanging from the ceiling throughout the museum are flags from around the world. Underneath each flag are cars manufactured by that country. In the U.S. we tend to think of the automobile as only an American invention, but around the world numerous car manufacturers have adapted, modified and developed cars uniquely qualified for their geography, their time in history, or for their specific customers.
1947 Tatra T-87 Saloon – Tatra was a well-known Czechoslovakian automobile manufacturer. This sleek, silver Tatra T-87 was the luxury car of its day and was regularly used as the chauffer vehicle of Czechoslovakian military officers. Notice the big fin on the back? These cars were very heavy, especially in the back end, so the fin was a design feature that helped with stability.
1938 Tatra T-97 – look closely at the front of the T-97. Does that design remind you of any other car? Ferdinand Porsche, father of the Volkswagen Beetle, was heavily influenced by the design of the Tatra and incorporated key design elements into the Volkswagen Beetle.
How did the Tatra cars contribute to defeating Hitler? Listen to the episode for the full story to find out how the design of the Tatra automobiles did their part in the war effort. If you’ve ever wondered if design can have a direct impact on the world, then this story proves it.
1958 Tatra T-603 – with its unique, 3-headlight design, the T-603 has a very rounded front end. The back fin seen on earlier Tatra cars is replaced by a rear window for visibility, but the body definitely grew in size.
1962 Citroën 2CV Sahara – the 2CV is an iconic French car. Developed before World War II, it wasn’t produced until after the war because the engineers wanted to hide it from the Nazis. When it was introduced at the 1948 Paris Auto Show, journalists laughed at it. They didn’t get it. Made from thin sheet metal, with a tiny two-cylinder engine, seats that looked like lawn chairs, a rollback roof, and a very cushy, rolling suspension, the 2CV did not conform to what everyone at the time thought a car should be. Of course, the engineers weren’t designing the car for the average Parisian, but to replace the farmer’s horse and cart. After World War II much of the population in France was very rural. This car was designed to be durable, travel across fields and in places with very few roads, and be simple enough to be repaired by a rural farmer with just hand tools.
1938 Citroën Berline Traction Avant – introduced originally in 1934, the front-wheel drive of the Berline Traction Avant was a breakthrough in technology. However, the company spent so much money developing this model that it actually bankrupted the company, and ended up being sold to Michelin.
Of course, the museum wouldn’t just have the standard Berline Traction Avant. Notice the large pontoons on each side of the front fenders? During World War II, some of these cars were converted to run by burning wood or coal instead of gasoline. Gasoline was rationed by the Nazis. Instead of asking the Nazis for gasoline rations, French engineers came up with another solution. This specific model in the museum runs on coal. Coal would be put into one of the pontoons and lit on fire. The methane gas from the burning coal would then run through a tube underneath the car and up into the second pontoon to cool down before being cleaned and filtered through a special carburetor. The car couldn’t go as fast or as far as it could on gasoline, but those limitations were worth it instead of asking the German army for fuel rations.
Mignet Flying Fleas – the Lane Motor Museum also includes a collection of unique, French staggered wing airplanes nicknamed “the flying flea”. Originally sold as a set of plans that the owner could use to build the plane themselves, these planes were unique in the fact that they did not include a rudder pedal. This meant the plane couldn’t roll, which supposedly meant it wouldn’t ever stall. Of course, owners have reported that it’s true that they don’t stall – instead, they just kind of fall out of the sky, which is the reason most of these planes are equipped with parachutes. The specific flying flea in the picture (HM.293) is unique for its foldable wings – a design improvement so the owner could just store the airplane in their garage versus having to pay expensive hanger fees.
1964 Amphicar 770 – originally developed in Germany, the 770 was the most successful amphibious car ever produced. Built on a very intuitive platform using the steering wheel to steer and the front wheels acting like rudders, the 770 is still taken out every August to a local lake and rides are given to visitors.
1961 Chevrolet Corphibian – designed by two Chevrolet engineers as a side project, this amphibious vehicle prototype modified a Chevrolet Corvair pickup truck. Once the truck was driven into the water, all of the marine controls are located in the bed of the truck. Unfortunately, Chevrolet never went forward with the idea and this Corphibian is the only one in existence. There is also a great video of the “maiden voyage” of the Corphibian on YouTube.
1959 U.S. Army LARC LX – the largest amphibious craft, the LARC LX (Lighter, Amphibious, Resupply, Cargo) is capable of transporting 60 tons of cargo. Outfitted with four diesel engines (one for each wheel) the LARC is the largest vehicle at the Lane Motor Museum and sits out behind the museum due to its 62’ length, 26’ width and 20’ height. The tires alone are 9’ high. Listen to the episode to hear how the museum acquired the LARC and how it was transported from Florida to Nashville. And, yes, it still runs – they actually used to crush cars with it.
1964 Peel P-50 – recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest production car, this is where the start of my fascination with all things microcar began. This single-seat microcar was built by a fiberglass manufacturer and is only 4’ high. Weighing only 250 pounds, there was no need for a reverse gear. The driver would just simply use the convenient handle at the rear of the car to pick up the car and turn it around. Fun fact: depending on the country, some microcars would only have 3 wheels because cars were taxed by the number of wheels.
1965 Peel Trident – of course, the next evolution in microcars would be the two-seater so the Trident was introduced with a clear, plexiglass “bubble top” design. Don’t be fooled by the two-seater design – it wasn’t that roomy for two people. And the bubble top – while great for visibility – was poorly ventilated and it quickly became as hot as an oven inside the car on a sunny day.
1956 Heinkel Kabine 175 – now the Germans enter the microcar market with cars developed by the airplane maker Messerschmitt. Prohibited from building aircraft after World War II, the company started making scooters and then microcars. If you look closely at the front of the car, you’ll see a door handle. This car had a very distinctive front opening door. The idea was you could pull up curbside, open the door, and step out onto the curb without having to parallel park.
1957 BMW Isetta 300 – BMW made full-sized cars, but wanted an inexpensive car to supplement slow post-war sales. Although this car is not painted to factory specs, over 3,000 Isettas were sold in the U.S. until a California ruling prohibited the car from being driven on their state highway system.
1957 Messerschmitt KR200 – all the microcars up until now have been the “bubble” design and very compact. Developed by the airplane maker Messerschmitt, this car is a significant departure from that design with a wide front end, extended front fenders, and a long body. Unique to this car is the fact that the interior seating is more like an airplane cockpit with the driver in front and the passenger seated directly behind.
1980 Subaru X-100 – looking like a rocket and built for speed, the test vehicle was specifically designed for the sole purpose of producing a car that could travel 100 miles on a single tank of gas. Did it achieve that goal? Find out if it did, and what happened to the project, by listening to the episode.
1955 MG TF-1500 – the car that started it all. When asked what he wanted for his 12th birthday, museum founder Jeff Lane responded, “my own MG.” Rebuilding this car from pieces with his Dad, this 1955 MG was Jeff Lane’s first classic car and is still being driven to this day. Next to Jeff’s car is his sister’s red MG, his dad’s car and his brother’s car. Who would have guessed back then where Jeff’s fascination with cars would have ended up?
1932 Helicron – okay. Let’s take a car and a plane and then mash the two together. Yep, that sounds like a good idea. That’s the Helicron. With a giant propeller on the front of the car, it’s very distinctive in both looks and sound. For some reason, though, the Helicron never quite caught on. If you want to know why, just watch the video. Can you imagine that sound on a city street?
As I learned the backstories behind some of these cars, it made me appreciate the human ingenuity and the commitment required to design a machine this complicated and bring it to market. The Lane Motor Museum showcases how the automobile has been an integral part of our cultural identity far beyond just as a mode of transportation. From someone’s idea to build an amphibious car, or a plane with fold-up wings, or a microcar based on a scooter platform demonstrates both the innovation and the craziness that resides within us all.
Don’t forget – when you make the trip to visit the Lane Motor Museum, I highly recommend the behind-the-scenes Vault Tour that includes a visit to the “basement” to see cars that aren’t on display. Really interesting.
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Lane Motor Museum – their website has details on all the vehicles in their collection, upcoming events, and current exhibits. The Rally for the Lane sells out quickly every year, but you can see all the vehicles they plan on driving in the event every year on their website.
Virtual Tour – if you can’t visit the museum in person, they have an online virtual tour you can check out.