The story of Bill Harrah has a certain “only in Las Vegas” quality, except that it actually happened to the north in Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World.”
This 1937 Airmobile is the only one built. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Like Steve Wynn, Bill Harrah was born into the gambling business. His father operated boardwalk games and concessions on Venice Beach near Los Angeles, and the bingo-like “Ring” made twice as much money as anything else. Authorities called it gambling and shut down the operation occasionally, so Harrah looked for somewhere to operate legally — and found Reno (and Lake Tahoe).
James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" Mercury; and next to it, the 1977 Jerrari. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
He started making big money in 1969, when he built large hotels in both Reno and Tahoe. He started having fun, too, marrying seven times (including briefly to singer Bobbie Gentry) and buying cars — lots of cars.
Harrah wanted to own one of every car made, and as the casinos began generating obscene amounts of money, he got a pretty good start on that goal. Eventually he owned a whopping 1,400 vehicles of all kinds, including a sterling collection of very early cars. But Harrah had a bad heart, and eventually it killed him. Holiday Inns bought the company, including the cars, in 1980, and sold off the bulk of the collection for $100 million in auctions held between 1984 and 1986. Many a collector car today is “ex-Harrah’s.”
This DeDion-Bouton dates to 1901, and is one of many very early cars in the collection. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Enough remained to create two museums. The Imperial Palace collection, on the Vegas Strip includes the 1939 Chrysler Johnny Carson drove to his senior prom, a ’62 Lincoln Continental used by President John Kennedy, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces. I toured the collection once and found myself standing next to Jay Leno, admiring a brace of Duesenbergs.
But the real cream of Harrah’s crop is in Reno, at the National Automobile Museum, which has more than 200 cars. With affable sales and marketing manager Becky Contos as guide, I recently toured it. “We’re not just a big warehouse of cars,” she said. And how!
One of the few surviving Tuckers was fun to see. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
In the museum’s garage, Leonard Bonilla was working on the ex-Frank Sinatra 1961 powered-by-Chrysler L6.4 Dual Ghia. “Mr. Sinatra sold it to Mr. Harrah in 1975,” he said, adding that the late singer had trouble identifying the switches so he put blue Dyno labels under them. I’m sure they’re still there. These were big Rat Pack cars; Dean Martin had two of them.
From there, it was into the first of four galleries showcasing really early cars. And I mean early. An 1892 Philion was the first American car, Bonilla said. The poor thing, a steam car, ran on bare metal wheels and must have been brutal. There was also an 1897 Leon Bollee, an 1899 Locomobile Stanhope and a 1901 DeDion-Bouton. The latter was especially lovely.
Harrah's garage featured a DeLorean, a Lincoln, a Mercury and ... way in the back, Frank Sinatra's Dual Ghia. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Especially wild was the only known air-cooled Adams-Farwell. Priced at $3,000, the latter had an aircraft-type radial engine that spun horizontally as the driver cruised along. Only 52 were built. Adams-Farwell was just one of 2,300 automakers in the U.S. before the 1930s, and I was able to admire a 1913 K-R-I-T, a 1915 Briscoe and a 1904 Knox. The battery side was represented by a 1914 Detroit Electric (with Edison cells), proving there’s nothing new under the sun.
Things really warmed up with a sporty Jordan Playboy, whose famous ad started out, “Somewhere West of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it sure sold cars — for a little while, anyway.
Col. Albert Pope built his Pope-Hartfords in Hartford, Connecticut, and, betting on bicycles and electrics, proclaimed "You can't get people to sit over an explosion." He was proven wrong. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
A 1921 Rolls dual-cowl model had a hand-seamed copper boattail body. Gorgeous, but hugely impractical. Near it, in the second gallery, were the incredibly radical and aerodynamic Lycoming-engined 1938 Phantom Corsair (a probable inspiration for the Batmobile), designed by ketchup heir Rust Heinz (who died soon after in an accident).
Rust Heinz' amazing and radical Phantom Corsair. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Star cars! A crazy-looking 1941 Chrysler was designed by Lana Turner’s husband. An early 1953 Corvette was — briefly — owned by John Wayne. That understated Mercury really is the James Dean car from "Rebel Without a Cause." And that ’73 Cadillac Eldorado was owned by Elvis for a moment before he gave it to his karate instructor.
This 1941 Chrysler custom was created by Lana Turner's then-husband for a very limited run — only six were built. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
I couldn’t believe the only 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K on public exhibition (pictured above story). Not long after this car rolled out of the factory in Stuttgart, the company had other things on its mind. But it’s among the most beautiful cars ever built.
There was other cool stuff, including a Jeep Wagoneer that Harrah stuffed a Ferrari 365 GTC/4 V-12 engine into (creating the 1977 “Jerrari.”) Harrah loved the concept and gave at least one of these to singer Bobby Darin. But the best car on exhibit, for me, was the 1933 Dymaxion, created by the visionary Buckminster Fuller in the Bridgeport, Connecticut factory that also built the Locomobile referenced above. Here’s a closer look at it on video with Becky Contos:
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