Our love affair with the automobile began more than a century ago, when the first ungainly "horseless carriage" bumped its way into our hearts. These top 10 automobile museums display more than classics, more than an evolution of engineering and design. They also remind us of the automobile's impact on the world's culture and economy, and why we fell in love to begin with.
1. Volkswagen Autostadt — Wolfsburg, Germany
VW's automotive and science complex has become a top tourist destination. So popular, in fact, that BMW copied the concept for its new BMW Welt in Munich. There's barely a logo in sight, no costumed creatures roam the grounds and gift shops sell car mats along with Beetle-shaped baby squeeze toys. Interactive exhibits include consoles where you can computer design your own model, but my stretch Beetle pickup truck is only good for a laugh, not a showroom.
The museum's displays consist of mostly German marques, including the original Beetle designed by Ferdinand Porsche before he went off on his own, and a 1934 Audi with a mother-of-pearl dashboard. Each VW brand and partner has its own building showcasing, well, whatever it wants. Bentley displays a half-dozen sleek and historic models. The Czech brand Škoda features a history of Bohemian crystal and art. Lamborghini displays a single yellow drooler showcased by fake fog and disco lights. There's also the opportunity to test-drive a Touareg SUV on an obstacle course, including up and down stairs.
2. Petersen Automotive Museum — Los Angeles, California
This museum is housed in a former department store on Wilshire Boulevard, large enough to display 200 historic vehicles at a time. Most are grouped in a series of period dioramas; customized 1950s hot rods, for example, are shown in a "garage" with authentic-looking period details. Since this is Hollywood, after all, there are movie cars and celebrities' cars, including a Batmobile, a '32 Duesenberg that evokes visions of Garbo and Gable, and a rare 1983 400i Ferrari automatic-tranny convertible once owned by Rod Stewart. Another area features vintage motorcycles.
Rotating displays range from a timeline of mini-cars to alternative fuels. If you think the Prius' hybrid drivetrain is fabulous new technology, you would be wrong — the Woods Dual Power sedan on display here is from 1917. Even the escalator between the first and second floors is interesting. Its walls are decorated with photos of yet more vintage vehicles.
3. Mercedes-Benz Museum — Stuttgart, Germany
The most photographed car here, not surprisingly, is the iconic 1950s red 300SL Gullwing, even though it's not as valuable as the 1936 500K roadster with a rumble seat. The 500K is worth a cool $11 million, since only 25 were ever built and only five survive. Displays are in a timeline, from Gottlieb Daimler's 1888 horseless carriage through 120 years of partnership with Karl Benz, Rudolph Diesel and, more recently and less successfully, Chrysler, with stops in between for the likes of a 1939 Silver Arrow and a "Popemobile." A motorsports section includes Juan Manuel Fangio's 1956 Grand Prix winner and a futuristic-looking Formula 1 Mercedes-McLaren. The building itself is as sleek and stylish as a CLK550, a shiny silver confection that somewhat resembles the shape of a motor.
4. National Corvette Museum — Bowling Green, Kentucky
Ever since 1981, every Corvette has been produced at the assembly line here, and most visitors combine a guided factory tour with a museum visit. Displays rotate, but you can always see a 1982 Collector's Edition Hatchback, or a '53 convertible displayed in front of a barber shop of similar vintage, plus concept vehicles that were never produced. The rarest Vette is the only 1983 model in existence; by the time they finished tweaking design and testing, '84 models were being introduced. A popular exhibit within the racing area gives visitors the chance to be a pit crew member and change tires and fuel up. This part of the museum also features cutaways of engines and powertrains, close-up glimpses of the "heart of the beast." This is the mother ship to Corvette buyers, many of whom opt to pick up their new babies here and drive them home.
5. Toyota Mega Web — Tokyo, Japan
Part showroom, part amusement park, part science museum and part history museum, there's something for everybody in this sprawling complex in a modern shopping and amusement center on the city's outskirts. Take a ride in a computerized driverless car. You can kick the tires of Toyota models not available in the USA, such as the $125,000 Century V12 luxury sedan. The complex also offers you the chance to learn about hybrid technology.
The History Garage has a large motorsports section, including Mario Andretti's 1977 Ford Lotus Formula One. Street cars include an '81 DeLorean DMC 12 with an unpainted brushed silver finish and a gleaming white '59 Eldorado convertible. This garage also has an impressive collection of small die-cast cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles for sale, including a '68 Honda Super Cub bike and the iconic VW Microbus.
6. Mille Miglia Museum — Brescia, Italy
This has to be the world's only automotive museum housed inside an 11th-century monastery, an appropriate setting for those who worship fine vintage motorcars — especially Italian ones such as the 1955 Monza Scaglietti and the 1937 Lancia Aprilia (which resembles an older Beetle, with its running boards and split rear window). One section is devoted to Enzo — in Italy, Mr. Ferrari needs no last name. Another area showcases the famous Mille Miglia race, from Brescia to Rome and back, held annually except during WWII, from 1927-'57. There are photos of drivers and attendees, including gunmaker Ugo Beretta and racer Stirling Moss. There's a re-creation of this event each April, limited to cars from '57 or earlier. Unlike the event that inspired it, this is a rally, not a race; some vehicles are removed from the museum by their owners to participate.
7. National Automobile Museum (the Harrah Collection) — Reno, Nevada
Along with building a hotel-casino empire, William Harrah amassed a formidable collection of vehicles, and 200 of his favorites are displayed here; included is the 1911 Maxwell that was his first acquisition. A "Cars of the Stars" section includes Al Jolson's 1933 V16 Cadillac All-Weather Phaeton, Jack Benny's 1923 Maxwell that was so much a part of his humor routines, the 1949 Mercury driven by James Dean in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, and a 1961 Ghia hardtop owned by Frank Sinatra. Much of the museum is devoted to four authentic street scenes, representing each quarter of the 20th century, with facades, autos and artifacts from each era. Of special significance is the beat-up-looking 1908 Thomas Wire, which won that year's Around the World race — easy to walk past, until you know its history. Rotating displays also are themed, such as "Convertibles of the 1950s."
8. Studebaker National Museum — South Bend, Indiana
The Studebaker brothers were sons of a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, wagon builder and blacksmith who got rich in his trade during the Civil War. The sons used the family expertise to build bodies for a horseless carriage propelled by an electric motor designed by Thomas Edison and built by George Westinghouse. That was in 1912, and by the '50s, Studebaker was famous for its trend-setting styling, including its famous "bullet nose" design.
Displays include an 1835 Conestoga wagon, the one that opened the American West (familiar to anybody who has ever seen a Hollywood movie), President Lincoln's carriage, a 1934 Bendix and several of Studebaker's last models (it ceased production in 1988), set in a re-created 1950s dealership display. You'll also find rotating displays such as muscle cars of the past and alternative-fuel vehicles of the future.
9. International Motorsports Hall of Fame — Talladega, Alabama
Long before the Will Ferrell movie made Talladega a household name, this track was a favorite of both NASCAR drivers and devotees. The display complex spills over into five buildings, each with a different theme. There are Indy cars driven by the likes of Andy Granitelli and Billy Vukovich. You'll also find the Budweiser Rocket Car, which looks like a missile on wheels and broke the speed of sound (Mach 1+, 739.666 mph) in 1979. Present, too, is a #3 Goodwrench Chevy driven by Dale Earnhardt, who won 76 races before that deadly last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. Close by is the vehicle that Hall of Fame inductee Harry Gant drove in his final race in 1995, No. 33 Skoal Bandit Monte Carlo. In addition to vehicles, there are hundreds of trophies, helmets, uniforms (including shoes and boots) scale-model cars, pictures and artwork, from nearly every type of motorsport, including motorcycle racing. Track tours are available, except during race weeks in April and October.
10. Henry Ford Museum — Deerfield Village, Michigan
The star of this sprawling 12-acre museum, located alongside Ford headquarters, is the 1909 Model T that put America on the road. But there are hundreds of other historically important vehicles, including the lamented Edsel, the Lincoln limousine John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, and one of the few 1948 Tucker sedans produced. (The showcased Tucker sedan is the one with three headlights, including one in the hood.) Historic advertising, photographs and newspaper articles help put each vehicle or news event into context.
Another area features airplanes and biplanes, including those with Ford's Tri-Star engine. A "Made in America" display explores the legacy of other mechanical devices that also changed the way we live, from the toaster to the locomotive. Tours of the Ford Rouge plant also are available. And we're not even mentioning Greenfield Village; this venue is kind of a theme park of Americana, with glass-blowing demonstrations and transportation between attractions via a 1931 Model AA bus.