Hidden away in Cape Cod’s Heritage Museums and Gardens, a collection of cars traces the history of American automotive innovation, design, and aesthetics.
We got a tour when Tom Gregory visited the museum as the host of Driven. You can view the collection along with Tom in the video, or enjoy the tour transcript that follows (lightly edited for clarity).
Tom Gregory, Host of Driven 00:04 – A car collection like this has got to get your blood racing. But a well curated automotive exhibit can open up a world of possibilities. We discover such a place in a place you might not expect. Just a few miles from where the Atlantic breaks on the shores of Cape Cod is a place all car enthusiasts should seek: the Heritage Museums and Gardens.
Anne Scott-Putney, CEO Heritage Museum and Gardens 00:30 – Every year, people look forward to our hydrangea festival. We have the largest collection of hydrangeas in this region. We are also the largest Botanic Garden in southeastern New England.
Don’t judge the 100 acres by its floral cover. Because here the J.K. Lilly Automotive Collection covers pretty much the history of American cars.
Anne 00:52 – Heritage Museum and Gardens was founded in 1969 by J.K. Lilly III, in honor of his father, who was a passionate collector.
Jennifer Madden, Director of Collections Heritage Museum 01:01 – The Auto [collection] is really important to Heritage because it was the first collection of our founder.
Jon Elmendorf, Heritage Auto Committee 01:13 – Out of this collection of 41 automobiles, he really bought the cream.
Jennifer 01:18 – Cars in the heritage collection range in date from 1899 to 1965. They’re all American.
Jon 01:26 – What we try to show is important unique designs; automobiles that have had something to contribute to the history of the automobile.
Anne 01:36 – And it helps us tell the story of innovation and ingenuity, design and aesthetics, taste and culture in American automobiles.
So here among flower festivals: a working carousel, family fun, and exhibits of American art, is a carriage to classic look at the automobiles of America.
Anne 01:58 – A car isn’t just a car. A car has a story. It might be the story of an owner, it might be the story of the inventor, it might be the story of President Taft, who was the first president to have a fleet of autos in the White House.
Heather Mead, Director of Visitor Engagement Heritage Museum 02:13 – The fact that it has that provenance, that history, that President William Howard Taft actually rode in that car between 1909 and 1912, is just so special. And of course that its steam powered also gives us a terrific story to tell. When we talk about different types of power that in the early 1900s, it would have been really difficult to predict whether gasoline, steam, or electric engines would have been the power that we use today. Every car has a story to tell and every car in our collection was selected because it’s a superior example of its type.
Jennifer 02:49 – Heritage has 41 cars in its collection. We can house them all here in our auto museum, but only about half of them can be on display at any one time. The other half are in our open collection storage area downstairs, where you can look through glass and and see all of the cars
Half the exhibit awaits an exclusive exploration of the employees-only area.
Anne 03:05 – What happens behind the scenes when we when we take guests there, is that they can take a look at what some of our volunteers, our car guys we call them, are doing.
And what they’re doing is getting these masterworks – to work again.
Jennifer 03:30 – At Heritage we have an auto reactivation program, where we get one car running each year that hasn’t been running for some time.
Jon 03:47 – These cars have been sitting roughly 51 years now. And so there are a lot of unknowns that have to be checked out. And the engines have to be partially disassembled, to go through the insides and see if there are any major issues that need to be addressed.
Anne 04:05 – It’s like surgery, they take it apart, they inspect every piece, they replace pieces that need to be replaced. And they slowly, slowly put their heads together and their expertise together to build it back.
Jennifer 04:18 – The only way we can do that is by having a small group of extremely dedicated, extremely knowledgeable volunteers. Some of them have been working with our collection for 20 years. They know our cars well.
Jon 04:37 – I have four other people that work with me, so we’re a team of five. They each bring from their own personal backgrounds, different areas of expertise, into working on the automobiles.
Anne 04:50 – Volunteers are the heart of the maintenance and exercising of our car collection.
Jennifer 04:56 – In the nice weather months of the year, they’re exercising our cars through the grounds
Did they just say exercising their cars?
Anne 05:04 – People will be perhaps surprised when they hear the rumble of an automobile engine coming around the bend, because one of the things that we are committed to doing on a regular basis is exercising our cars. And if that sounds a little funny to you think about exercising a horse.
Or like exercising the 300 horses under the hood of this 1965 Ford Country Squire station wagon, with no kids in the way back.
Jon 05:31 – About 18 years ago, the museum only had, I believe three cars in running condition. At this point out of the 41, I believe our number is now 21 running automobiles
Jennifer 05:43 – [People can] come in and look at the cars and appreciate their mechanics and their beauty and their importance in the American story. But seeing a running car outside adds a whole new level, a whole new dimension, to people’s experience here. And we’ve decided as a museum that that’s important to us.
Jon 06:03 – As we need to occasionally run them, let them warm up, run them through the gears, exercise the brakes, the clutch, all the mechanical components on the automobile. And that way they stay in better condition for future generations to see.
And what all generations should be able to see is the best of American ingenuity on the road.
The Heritage Annual Auto Show is a chance for the collection to get an airing, and also features antique and classic automobiles, hot rods, and custom cars in excellent original or restored condition. With awards on the line, some seriously clean vehicles show up to show out. You can catch the highlights from last year’s show below.