The story of 20th century America at the Tupelo Automobile Museum
By Kara Martinez Bachman
Photography by Marianne Todd
In American culture, cars are more than just transportation; they're a symbol of freedom – the tangible result of what interests and intrigues us most. For nearly 12 decades, cars have mirrored the fabric of our country – from the late 19th century's sputtering, spoked-wheeled models to the Delorean that brought us all “Back to the Future.” With America's musical soundtrack piping through speakers and out of open windows on our favorite scenic drives, there's no doubting America's love affair with the automobile.
One of the best places to trace the birth and development of the automobile as it evolved from a motorized carriage to the high-tech transportation we have today, is in north Mississippi at the Tupelo Automobile Museum. Housing a permanent collection of more than 150 antique and collectible cars displayed in 120,000 square-feet of space, the museum also offers visitors special displays – from recent models produced by the local Toyota factory – to displays of hot rods, dragsters and muscle cars.
But you don't have to be a car-lover to enjoy the museum. One only needs a love of American culture. Even Executive Director Jane Spain, laughingly admits “I'm really not into cars.” The museum is, rather, more of a storyteller of American history as seen through the development of the automobile.
Since opening in 2002, the museum has become a visitor favorite in the city known as “The Birthplace of Elvis,” welcoming more than 35,000 guests each year.
“We’re No. 1 on TripAdvisor and have been for two years,” Spain said, adding that the museum now is ranked higher among attractions than the nearby Elvis Presley Birthplace. “We know that’s extraordinary,” she said.
Self-guided tours start at the beginning, with an 1886 Benz representing the origins of the automobile. The tour ends with the newest car of the Tupelo collection, a 2011 Toyota Corolla, one of the first built at the Toyota manufacturing plant in nearby Blue Springs.
When the gas-powered automobile was first put into mass production by German engineer Karl Benz in 1886, little did anyone know the freedom it would provide. No one could have fully comprehended the way its expansion would change how we live, work, explore and play, or have predicted the way the car would become intrinsically tied to the enjoyment of music.
Watch “American Graffiti” and you'll understand how the shiny chrome and bright colors of the day became tied to the youth culture of the 1950s, and through that, to music.
“The '50s cars were very big, very colorful, cheerful, happy cars. I’d say confident cars,” Spain said. “They represent the people driving them perhaps more than any other era.”
The collection also includes a 1976 Lincoln Mark IV purchased by Elvis and given as a gift to Captain Jerry Kennedy of the Denver Police Department, who was in charge of The King’s security when he appeared there in Colorado. Elvis, who had been widely known for his gifts of Cadillacs, had been told by Denver's mayor that the police captain could not accept such lavish gifts as Cadillacs. In keeping with the mayor's wishes, he provided a Lincoln instead. Cars such as this Lincoln represent the age of the big behemoths, an excess that began to wind down as the ‘70s saw gas prices rise.
An era followed of “ ... weird cars, little, smaller cars,” Spain said. “We were starting to worry about gas.” Spain cites the much-maligned Pintos and Gremlins of that era, which sit alongside classic cars of real value.
“We’ve got a few million-dollar cars in the building,” Spain said.
It is probably easy to look at the museum’s 1928 Hispano Suiza Town Car and imagine it parked just outside a Prohibition-era speakeasy, with jazz riffs audible from outside the building. Some might wonder how drivers ever parked these gargantuan cars belonging to mobsters, or the extravagant cars used purely for pleasure by the rich and famous.
It might be especially fun to imagine riding in the museum’s 1969 Corvette, perhaps with the radio blasting Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix, or, driving down the interstate in the museum’s 1981 Delorean DMC listening to a cassette tape of Huey Lewis and the News.
Guests might marvel at the Tucker 48, named for its designer, Preston Tucker, and the model year of its appearance. Only 51 Tucker 48s were ever assembled. Despite the car's innovations, Tucker was put out of business by baseless lawsuits allegedly initiated by The Big Three without having ever sold a single car. The shiny beige Tucker 48 on display boasts extravagant passenger seating room and a third headlight, which rotated left or right as the driver turned. Its hood is opened to reveal the engine, the first to feature fuel injection. Its suicide doors are opened to reveal the car's safety features, such as a padded dashboard and hand controls placed near the steering wheel.
Across the aisle sits a 1947 Jaguar Mark IV, originally priced $3,964, that boasts its own tools and tool box in the trunk. And not far away sits Liberace's black 1982 Barrister Corvette, complete with garish candlesticks.
The museum's most expensive car is the Duesenberg, which carried a $8,500 price tag in 1929 for the chassis only. With only 472 made, this car features all matching original serial numbers, making it a rare find.
Spain agrees with the idea of viewing the collection through the lens of culture and often suggests it to visitors. The exhibits are set up to explore the mechanical and engineering evolution of the automobile and to explore how those designs affected and mirrored the larger social scenes.
“To me, it’s like a memory lane,” Spain said. The museum’s design reflects this, with old Coca Cola bottles and advertisements and displays near contemporaneous automobiles. Underneath a mid-century Exxon sign and next to a restored milk truck, Spain said, “It’s about our behaviors and our culture, not just about cars.”
Often, and especially when talking to groups of women who might not be so interested in the engineering aspects, she presents the museum as this nostalgic tour through Americana.
“I talk to them about memories,” she said.
For older visitors, those memories may involve bouffant hairdos, pedal pushers and drive-in movies, where chrome-covered cars sat bumper-to-bumper at Elvis flicks. For Generation X visitors, those memories might involve cruising the streets in a beat up old Pinto or a decidedly uncool wood-paneled (otherwise known as “Your Mama's”) station wagon.
Whatever the age, our memories of time and place are inextricably tied to cars. At the museum, the cultural story of each vehicle is told along with design and engineering specifications. Each car in the permanent display collection is accompanied by a speaker, where visitors can tap it and hear a story of the car. Often, these carefully-scripted recorded messages contain details of the social and cultural climate into which the car was born.
“It’s like when you hear a song,” Spain said. “You’ll always remember where you were when you heard that song, or remember that time in your life. Cars are the same.”