This Is What We Found Inside America’s Oldest Car Collection
Photography by Thomas Lavin
The Larz Anderson Auto Museum is one of Boston’s best kept secrets, and it’s been that way for some time now. Hidden in the low-lying hills outside the city center, the Larz Anderson Park and Carriage House is home to the nation’s oldest, and one of the most historically significant, private automobile collections. The cars, the property, and the people involved are quintessentially Boston. The park itself is deceptively large, with various paths crisscrossing the grounds, and from the top of the hill, one can spot the iconic Prudential and Hancock towers in the city skyline.
Although I had done some light reading on the museum and its founders before my visit, I learned so much more from being there, speaking with the curators, and seeing the cars in person. Thankfully, a good friend of mine had put me in touch with the chairman of the museum’s board, a Mr. John Darack, who was eager to show me around and tell me the museum’s history at great length. John, like many others, has been involved with the museum since the age of 13, and is certainly one of its leading experts, so I couldn’t have asked for a better guide.
Despite the fact that the museum itself is rather small compared to the monstrous collections at the Petersen for example, it does not skimp on the details. Every inch of the carriage house is jam-packed with automotive history, and it’s quite a different world in here among the fairly ancient automobiles in combination with the 1800’s architectural workmanship. The people behind the museum, John included, have spent decades developing it into a “New England Headquarters” of the automotive world. Although some vehicles in the museum’s static collection are more than a hundred years old and aren’t as active as they once were, the museum’s yearly calendar is quite active, with nearly three dozen lawn events held each year during the warmer months. From Italian and German classics to Japanese Car & Motorcycle Day, there is at least one day each year for every enthusiast to bring their car, motorcycle, or vehicle of choice to a crowd of likeminded gearheads. According to John, this is one of the museum’s biggest goals: to bring together different enthusiasts from all persuasions, just as Larz and Isabel Anderson did more than a hundred years ago.
The day of my visit was unfortunately a rainy one, although there was still a sizable turnout for the weekend’s Tutto Lite show. Various Italian cars were in attendance despite the wetness, ranging from a few Ferraris and Lamborghinis, to various small, and all soaking wet, Alfa Romeos and Fiats.
Although the museum is called Larz Anderson, it really only exists because of the contributions and automotive interests of Isabel Anderson, Larz’s wife. As a member of the affluent and influential Weld family, she was the first woman in Massachusetts to get a drivers license, and was for a period of time the richest woman in the entire United States. Many of the vehicles in the museum were her personal ones, including a rather strange looking 1908 Bailey Electric Phaeton Victoria.
One of many cabriolets in the museum, and one of three electric cars, this particular vehicle was a so-called “lady’s model,” complete with a then uncommon electric start. The vehicle also came with its own charging station, which John remarked “looked like something from Frankenstein.” The vehicle had also, reportedly, made a thousand-mile journey to Michigan, although the details and logistics of this voyage are certainly lost to time. Most of the other vehicles in the collection took similar and frequent journeys to and from Washington D.C., at a time when railroads were still the standard means of long distance transit.
The Bailey Electric was surrounded by various chauffeured vehicles from the early 20th century, such as a rather massive 1920 Panhard et Levassor, as well as a 1911 Renault 40CV Victoria Phaeton. The Renault was a particularly interesting vehicle, with very identifiable signs of its “French-ness.” Most prominent were the massive engine cover, resembling an alligator’s snout, and the equally large radiator, positioned strangely behind the engine block. Only a handful of these Renault still exist in their original condition, one of which took a very tragic and permanent plunge off of the HMS Titanic!
Nearby the Renault was a monstrous 1906 Charon-Girodot et Voight or more simply, “CGV.” The vehicle, which had more in common with a present-day American RV than a car, was equipped with its own ladder, roof-mounted luggage rack, and even a functioning toilet. Unfortunately, only some of Anderson’s original collection remains, as a handful of the cars were sold when the museum ran into financial troubles in the ‘80s. A number of the current vehicles were also “dumbed down” during the Great Depression by the Andersons from their original lavish and almost Great Gatsby-esque appearances. The interiors were mostly unchanged though, and maintain their original wear and tear.
Around the corner from some of the Anderson’s original collection were various smaller exhibits. The largest of these featured antique bicycles with the massive front wheel and diminutive rear, known as “penny-farthings.” This quaint little corner of the museum was across from what seemed to be a library, but filled with vintage motorcycles rather than leather-bound books. Although that section of the museum was currently closed, I was able to stick my camera up to the glass to get a few photos of the occupants all the same.
The bottom floor of the museum was shared by two more rooms. The smaller of the two was dedicated to the history of the museum itself and its creators, the aforementioned Larz and Isabel Anderson. The space prominently features a scaled-down recreation of the park in its original state, and a life-size bust of Larz Anderson himself. The last room was a very cramped workshop, filled with four vehicles and a single go-cart. An early 1960s Rolls Royce and a seemingly misplaced Fisker Karma, both donated to the museum in recent years, were the two most noticeable semi-permanent residents in the shop. For many years, as John tells me, the room was a functional workshop for the Vintage Motor Car Club of America, then called the Veterans Motor Car Club.
As John and I worked our way upstairs towards the last few exhibits, the park was hit by a freak storm which drove most of the day’s attendees from Tutto Lite inside the museum to see the rest of the collection in drier conditions. The first room we visited in our new, larger group was very obviously a converted stable, with mounting points for leads as well as small placards with names of the former residents. The room now houses a different variety of horsepower in the form of various automobiles, both on loan and as part of the collection, such as a 1933 Auburn Boat Tail Speedster, and a stunning 1907 Fiat Tipo 50/50, upon which the Andersons bequeathed the motto “No Hill Can Stop Me.” Several other vehicles throughout the museum featured similar mottos, or even names, in either French or English. The strangest part of the the room though was certainly the BMW i8 mounted to the side of the wall, without much explanation as to why.
Finally, we moved into the main area of the museum, a two-story hall with brilliant wood and brickwork from the floors to the ceiling high above. We were flanked by two sides of super cars, the most notable of which was a sublime Aston Martin DB4 in a brilliant shade of green. The Aston, like the rest of the vehicles in this room, were all on loan from various donors and patrons, and although the DB4 was a personal favorite of mine, it was not the only remarkable vehicle in the room. Positioned next to it for instance was a Mercedes-McLaren SLR, a truly massive car in person! Regardless of your opinion on its looks, this is a car with presence. Across from the SLR was another crop of vehicles, including a Porsche Carrera GT and a Jaguar XJ220, the later of which was sadly and strangely facing away from us like it’d been put into a time out.
The Larz Anderson Auto Museum’s collection is a century-spanning history tour worth taking, but it is the venue and the people who volunteer their time that make this place special. This is not some immaculate, sterile collection that has been organized with mathematical efficiency, rather, it feels welcoming and lived-in. Every wall and crevice is filled with remarkable amounts of automotive history, such as vintage badges and emblems, books, pictures, signs, and general memorabilia. The sheer amount of history in this collection, whether it be the cars, the people, or the building itself, is staggering for such a modest museum.
Lastly, I would also like to extend my gratitude for the tremendous hospitality and work of those who pour their time into making the museum what it is today, including, Mr. John Darack and Mr. Sheldon Steele, the museum’s current director.