E-town museum’s collection includes “gangster” car, Rolls Royces, and a “speedy” 27 mph model
Some people dream of driving a vintage, century-old automobile, shining in pristine condition from its yoke-shaped radiator to its fluted hood.
Shannon Avila lives that dream. As the director of Swope’s Cars of Yesteryear, Avila has driven a 1923 Packard Sport Touring Car—the darling of the in-the-know style-setters of the Roaring ’20s era—and a 1935 Ford Roadster, a car so sporty, fast and feisty, it inspired Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame to pen a fan letter to Henry Ford.
“I just got permission last year to drive the cars,” Avila says.
Both cars are among the dozens of vehicles, ranging from the early 1900s to the 1960s, in a variety of makes and models in both original and restored condition, collected by the late Bill Swope for his museum in Elizabethtown.
Talking about the cars to the people who find their way to this family friendly, free-admission museum is Avila’s greatest passion (besides being behind the wheel of one of these beauties).
Most visitors discover the E-town treasure through TripAdvisor.com, where it has a perfect 5 review rating. They have come from all 50 states and from as far away as South America, Europe and Asia to see the museum, which opened in 1999.
The collection actually began nearly 50 years earlier, with the purchase of what Swope was told was a 1918 Dodge Touring Car, for which he paid $200. Turns out, the car was really a 1922 model and pretty similar to the original car design produced eight years earlier, on November 14, 1914, by the Dodge brothers.
“There is so much history here,” Avila says. “This collection is so important because it shows our history through the automobile. It shows how far we’ve come, that things that are old are new again, but with better technology.”
The permanent collection comprises 66 cars, with 33 cars on display at any given time. Some models, Bill Swope’s favorites among them, remain on exhibit. Others, like a 1925 Pierce Arrow that is now back on the museum’s showroom after an eight-year absence, are rotated in during nice weather.
That 1925 Pierce Arrow—the car of choice for the rich and famous—is among the collection standouts that also include a 1919 Chandler Motor-Car, a gleaming black “gangster car” used in the 1959 crime drama, The FBI Story, starring Jimmy Stewart; and a 1930 Hupmobile Victoria featuring custom coachwork and often referred to as a “doctor’s car.”
Another one, the 1910 Brush Roadster—the oldest car in the collection—never fails to grab visitors’ attention or imagination. This jaunty little charmer with polished brass appointments has a 10 horsepower, single cylinder vertical motor and zips along at speeds of up to 27 mph.
Called the “Everyman’s Car,” it was a favorite among “men who make less than $1,000 a year and the very wealthy who make up to $25,000 a year,” according to the day’s advertising. Its original sticker price? $600.
The car with the most intriguing story is a 1939 Rolls Royce, a custom-bodied classic beauty with an epic provenance that involves English royalty, Hitler’s loathing of cigarette smoke, a music festival in the Swiss Alps and a saddlebred farm in Kentucky’s Simpsonville. But you’ll have to visit the museum to hear the full story—and it’s one Avila loves to tell.
The museum is free for all who enter; that is, for all except unaccompanied children—as the museum’s sign cheekily proclaims, their admission fee is $100. Hours: Open 10 a.m. year-round. When the clocks spring forward in March for Daylight Saving Time, the museum stays open until 5 p.m. When it falls back in November, it closes at 4 p.m. Closed on Sundays and major holidays.