SACRAMENTO — With the first seven or eight footsteps forward, visitors transcend the hurry-up world of 2012 and instantly drift back in history.
Listen … is that Teresa Brewer in the background, putting another nickel in the nickelodeon?
Look straight ahead. Yes, that’s a 1958 De Soto Fireflite. Look left … it’s a 1956 Nash Rambler Cross Country. In an eye-popping black-and-red two-tone, the Thermos and picnic pack hanging on the rear seat of this Rambler take visitors back to those ambitious family vacations of an era gone by.
As the music changes to Rudy Vallee crooning an 80-year-old love song, visitors are stopped in their tracks by a 1924 Delage DI. Made in France in 1924, the wood-accented coupe (with a rumble seat) has the feel of a period Chris Craft speed boat.
Just three cars seen so far and a guest could be 15 to 20 minutes into his first visit to the California Automobile Museum.
A hidden treasure itself, the facility has its own special pockets in which sports and auto enthusiasts can lose themselves.
On this day, we’re looking at the museum’s small but interesting gasoline alley. It’s a 20-or-so-vehicle display that packs mind-numbing history into a cul-de-sac of racing lore.
Despite no engines running, the ground begins to rumble from the mere sight of two Shelby Cobras.
The early racing version shows a few pit marks, a scratch here, a ding there. A tired steering wheel and well-worn pedals hint at the pace this vehicle might have once kept.
The 1966 street version, a glistening silver, not a spark plug out of place, looks like it’s nudging its roommate: “Come, let’s go for a spin.” Both sports cars have 425 hp power plants. Visitors swear they hear the Cobras’ engines humming as they walk past.
Near the north end of the museum’s racing shrine, a stop-short-yellow 1932 Ford hardtop jalopy sits. It’s striking in its own right, but read the information stand … This isn’t just any redux of a classic. It is four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt’s first racer.
Drink it in, but move on. There’s so much more …
The 1909 Ford Model T Racer that won the first New York-to-Seattle Ocean-to-Ocean competition is there. Designed as a publicity stunt, the 23-day race drew attention to the convenience of the automobile and the need for highways.
The car’s story is all here, in fascinating detail.
Going forward, there are displays of memorabilia, racing motorcycles and midget racers. A docent happens by …
“Come here, look at this… It’s Hughes Stadium,” says Bob Daloia, a veteran docent.
The museum-goer is drawn to the facility’s tribute to Hughes Stadium and the late driver Billy Vukovich.
Originally called Sacramento Stadium, Hughes is in the throes of a two-year rehabilitation that should elevate the Grand Ol’ Lady to its former stature.
From high school football (the first game played there was Sacramento vs. Modesto in 1928) to Olympic Trials and Sacramento Solons baseball, then through the years with concerts that included Chuck Berry, Jefferson Airplane and Sammy Hagar, the 23,000-seat facility was a catch-all for regional entertainment.
But in a visit to the California Automobile Museum, folks discover that Hughes played host to the first midget-car racing on Earth back in 1933.
Sacramento motor sports enjoyed heydays in the 1930-50s with promoter J.C. Agajanian and Vukovich — a Fresno native — supplying much of the drawing power.
“He was one of the greats,” Daloia continues about Vukovich. “He won the 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500s … and was quite dedicated to racing and making appearances in Northern California.”
Daloia points to one of the two midget racers sitting in front of the Hughes Stadium exhibit: “That one was Billy’s …”
Vukovich was killed in the 1955 Indy race.
The defunct West Capital Speedway and the old California State Fair Grounds also played host to meaningful races and gave further stature to Vukovich. The region’s races started the announcing career of local voice Gary Gerould.
Visitors surely will want to slowly stroll down this memory lane, even if the cars on display were a blur 30 to 100 years ago.
Notes: The museum originally began as the Towe Ford Museum in 1987. A dispute between the IRS and facility benefactor Edward Towe almost broke up the museum, but it had offers from other vintage car owners to lend and donate vehicles to the site and the facility evolved — still with a foundation of Towe’s Fords. … Over the years, visionaries like Richard C. Ryder, who was a catalyst for the museum in the first place, have ensured that the facility has a healthy collection of cars with a constantly changing series of exhibits. … Friday, with former Sacramento newsman Stan Atkinson on hand, the California Automobile Museum kicks off “1968.” Displays of period information, clothing styles and, of course, cars, will be part of the overall experience through May 12. … General admission for the museum, located at 220 Front St., Sacramento, is $8, with a “vintage” discount for folks 65 and older ($7). Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily with Third Thursday events going until 9 p.m.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.