The Columbia River Gorge provides some of the most diverse and scenic country in the USA. Green fir and cedar-lined banks of the wide river merge into the sparse tumbleweed-covered desert of central Oregon and Washington. Huge skewed ancient volcanic escarpments thrust up for thousands of feet above the gorge.
Those are the awesome sights of nature. Tucked away in Hood River, Oregon, along the scenic Columbia River Gorge, is a place to view some inspiring man-made sights. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) offers enough antique, vintage and classic automobiles from the golden age of American motoring to keep an aficionado entertained for several hours. Inside this astonishing museum is an enormous collection of automobile gems—row upon row of 114 gleaming, highly polished classic vehicles, stretching to the back of a huge, 90,000 square-foot hall—a sight that will bring any red-blooded classic car buff to his knees.
Enthusiasts of early automobiles will find themselves in automotive nirvana as they stroll past antiques and rarities like twelve Model T Fords (1911-1927), ten Model A Fords (1928-1931), a unique 1918 Stanley 735B Steam Car, a pristine 1923 Locomobile Model 48, a 1912 Auburn Touring car, and a 1927 Chrysler Model E-80.
But it’s not just the high and heavy early model cars with their long, curved fenders, running boards and vertical windscreens that keep car fans entranced at the WAAAM. A staggering array of classic and muscle car Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Chryslers, Dodges, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Packards, Plymouths, Pontiacs, Studebakers, and a few other memorable surprises are also found within the museum’s cavernous halls. It’s like walking through the history and evolution of American gutsiest and most iconic automobiles.
Indeed, the WAAAM has its share of hot vehicles—most being highly prized collector’s items. In fact, several are the only remaining ones in existence. Some of WAAAM’s automobiles still bear their original paintwork and interior, without any restoration. And all are operational.
I’m wondering how the WAAAM museum came into existence in such an isolated place, and get the history from Terry Brandt, museum president and founder, as we sit in the lobby that also acts as the museum’s gift shop. “I spent 50 years gathering up the airplanes and vehicles that are in the museum”, he tells me. “I donated and restored 42 of them, and the rest have been donated by other people. When I was 67 years old my wife told me to get going with this project—she reminded me that I wouldn’t be around forever, so it was time to put them all together under one roof. At the time I was doing real estate developing in Nevada and sold some property, making enough money to build the museum.” Opening in September 2007, the museum has attracted crowds from around the world since.
Brian Brandt, Terry’s son, who oversees vehicle procurement and restoration, takes me on the grand tour of the museum starting with the earliest models. I’m told that 84% of the cars on display are on loan. Brian’s passion for automobiles shows through as he walks me past the museum’s foremost pride and joy, the 1923 Locomobile M 48 Sportif, considered the American Rolls Royce. “This is the most incredible car in the museum”, he tells me. “It’s hand built; the Locomobile 48 was used by presidents. It was too expensive even for wealthy people. There are no others like it—it’s totally unique”.
The WAAAM museum’s gray and red M48 is so rare and immaculately restored that the museum’s insurance assessor had great difficulty estimating its value. He eventually arrived at a tenuous “$400,000 to $500,000”. Back in the day, Locomobile M48 parts were so hard to come by that their owners just got rid of them and junked them out, explaining why so few Locomobiles remain. Interestingly, Mr. Wes Lematta, founder of Columbia Helicopters, donated this car two weeks before he died. Apparently aware of his impending mortality, Mr. Lematta wanted to make sure the Locomobile went to a good home.
We walk past an 1899 steam powered Locomobile, the oldest car in the museum—one of the first horseless carriages. Other early models of note are the 1911 Overland Touring Car and a 1912 Auburn Touring car on loan the Jack Woolf Family. “The Auburn is incredibly rare”, Brian Brandt tells me. “It’s an oldie but goodie”. Then we admire a 1918 Stanley 735B Steamer. There aren’t many of these around either, I’m told.
But we’ve got dozens more cars to check out, so it’s on to the 1920’s. “You won’t find another 1927 Chrysler Model E-80 Imperial Cabriolet anywhere else in the world”, says Brian. “This car was completely destroyed by fire, then restored”. We look at a couple more 20’s rarities: a 1929 air-cooled Franklin Touring Car and a maroon 1929 Packard Model 626 Sport Coupe still sporting its original wooden spoke artillery wheels, making the wheels even more rare than the car. “But the Packard is also very valuable”, adds Brian.
As we enter cars of the 1930’s era, Brian Brandt shows me the 1931 Pierce Arrow Model 41. “It’s completely original, paintwork, interior, the lot. I don’t know if there are any others left”, he says. We skim past a 1931 Model A Ford sedan and1932 Plymouth Model PB (Plymouth’s last 4-cylinder model until the 1970’s) and Brian stops me in front of a royal blue 1935 Packard Model E-12. “This is a super deluxe V-12 Coupe Convertible. The movie stars of the ‘30’s drove these. There are very few left in existence”.
On past a 1936 Plymouth 2 Door Coupe to a 1936 Cord 810 Westchester Sedan. The Cord 810 debuted at the New York show in December 1935. It was a sensation; a completely new car noted for its stylish, sophisticated design, ‘coffin nose’, and its headlights hidden in the fenders. And it had some grunt too. With V8 front wheel drive, automatic gearshift, Lycoming built engine and electric solenoids for gear changing, this was one hot car.
Entering the 1940’s we cruise past a 1940 Mercury 4 Door Limited soft top V8, and a deep red/brown colored 1940 Ford Deluxe Business Coupe, which Brian tells me was in great demand in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. We pause at a rare 1941 Nash Model 4145 Business Coupe, and I’m told this is the original car—no restoration necessary. We finish our tour of the 1940’s with a 1942 Chevrolet Town Sedan, one of the last civilian cars GM built at the start of World War II. You can tell this a great museum when you can only mention some of these great vehicles in passing!
I’m excited as we enter the 1950’s. I’m on a nostalgia trip here. Perhaps I’ve listened to Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Elvis records for too long, and seen Grease once too many times, but the ‘50’s was a great evolutionary era for American automobiles. Our first stop is a 1950 Mercury Club Coupe, a hot collectible right now. Then on to a marine blue 1951 Hudson Hornet. “This was the hot car in 1951. It has dual carbs, a high compression engine, and pre-overhead valve”. This bad boy had an impressive record in AAA and NASCAR stock-car events from 1951 and was simply invincible through to 1954, winning 12 out of 13 races in the 1952 AAA season.
Next up is a black 1954 Mercury2-door sedan, Ford’s first V-8 overhead valve engine. Out went the ancient flathead V8 and in came the 161 hp Y-block mill. This beast had some power, and viewed from front on appears to be scowling, so it was no wonder it was the car of choice of movie star James Dean in his movie Rebel Without a Cause. You know, where he drives his car over the edge. Everyone wanted a Merc in ’54.
“The 1955 Pontiac Catalina Star Chief marked a turning point in car lore”, says Brian. “Everyone wanted one of these in 1955—it was THE hot rod car. This copper and white painted Star Chief is renown for its V-8 overhead valve engine, with whitewall tires.
Then we come to a couple of T-Birds that catch my eye. “The Thunderbird is an iconic car”, says Brian. In 1955 it outsold the Corvette by an amazing 24 to 1. In 1956 a “continental” spare wheel was added to the back, plus a beefy 193 hp Mercury V8 engine, and softer suspension.
Then the 1957 T-Bird came out. “Our 1957 Ford Thunderbird is a very rare configuration”, says Brian. “ This is called an E-code car. It has two factory four barrel carbs, 312 cubic inch engine with 270 horses”. He tells me. ‘Not only that, but it has a rare bronze interior. They only made 25-50 of these”. The ‘57 T-Bird is on loan from David and Marilyn Elkins.
My head is swimming with images of these husky cars by now, and we’re not even into the 1960’s yet. We forge on. “The 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk 289 Paxton still has its original paintwork and interior. It’s been in a shed its whole life, and is probably the only one in original condition in the world”, says Brian. This was the fastest production car in America in 1957—it reached 150 mph”.
Finally we reach the 1960’s. Brian tells me, “The 1962 Chevy Corvette is a very hot collector’s item right now”. This was a hot piece back in the day, boasting 250 to 360 horses, modified fuel injection system, and heavy-duty suspension. Aesthetically the ’62 ‘Vette sported ribbed aluminum appliqués to the rocker panels and dummy reverse front fender scoops.
Then 1963 brought the all-new Sting Ray, a complete revision of Chevy’s sports cars in the previous decade. “Our 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray is very rare. It is one of 10,594 built in 1963”, Brian points out. The 1963 Sting Ray was the first American car with independent rear suspension. And it sold like hotcakes. It was the fastest and most roadworthy ‘Vette yet, and its 1963 sales were nearly twice the record total of Corvettes sold in 1962. If the Sting Ray, with its dramatic futuristic sculptured shape, doors cut into the roof, divided rear screen, and headlights in its pointy nose, had been a British car, it would undoubtedly have been a “James Bond Car”.
We press on to the 1966 Chevrolet Corvair. This pretty rear-engine “compact” car was Chevy’s answer to the VW Beetle. It sold for half the price of a Ford T-Bird. But because of the early omission of a suspension-stabilizing bar (as a cost cutting measure) the Corvair handled like a pig. Despite the popular belief that Ralph Nader’s toasting of the Corvair in his book Unsafe at any Speed had tolled the death knell for this promising economy car, the introduction of the “pony” cars like the Mustang, Camaro, Barracuda and Firebird were just as responsible for the Corvair’s demise.
We’re nearing the end of the tour, and I’m frazzled from trying to take it all in. There are plenty of cars left. I could go on about the WAAAM’s other rarities like the 1966 Chevy Nova SS, 1967 Pontiac GTO, the 1968 Dodge Charger (made popular in “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Vanishing Point”) and the 1976 Jensen Interceptor III convertible sedan, but I really need to leave some cars for you to discover for yourself when you visit the WAAAM.
The WAAAM’s automobile collection must rate in the stratosphere with the Royal Automobile Museum collection in Brussel’s Parc du Cinquantennaire, Belgium. Classic automobile enthusiasts will find themselves in Nirvana as they stroll past these gutsy, fin-tipped and chrome-lined beauties. And if you’re an antique aviation aficionado, you’ll get double value—the museum has quickly gained international recognition for having the world’s largest antique prop aircraft collection. And then there’s the museum’s collection of 12 jeeps for you to check out. Clearly, the WAAAM is well worth a lengthy visit. One warning though, from the museum’s coordinator, Ken Olsson: if you’re coming to see one particular car, call in advance to make sure it will be there, because the loan cars are often taken out by their owners for tours or shows.
The Columbia Gorge provides some of the most diverse and scenic country you’ll ever see in the U.S.A.—a wide scenic river, with green fir and cedar-lined banks that merge onto the sparse tumbleweed covered, arid desert in Central Oregon and Washington. Huge skewed ancient volcanic escarpments thrust up for thousands of feet above the Gorge. The WAAAM is just part of the great sightseeing in this area.
The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum is located at Ken Jernstedt Airfield, 1600 Air Museum Road in Hood River. The museum is open 7 Days Week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Ticket prices are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and veterans, $6 for students aged 5-18, and free to active serving military and children less than 5 years. For further information call Ph.541-308-1600 or visit the museum’s website at www.waaamuseum.org
WAAAM is located 3 miles south of I-84 in Hood River. From exit 62 take an immediate turn onto County Club. Turn left on Barrett and go through 4-way intersection, then head right onto Air Museum Rd.
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