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Garaj Mahal: The Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 6/24/2015 Michael Shaffer, Jan Tegler

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC Unfortunately, automobiles never had such a champion at the Smithsonian. The museum's first automobile (an 1894 Balzer) was acquired in 1899. Despite more than a century of history since then, the collection numbers just 73 cars plus a smattering of trucks, buses, motorcycles, and other machines. At the time of our visit, only five postwar cars were on public display in the National Museum of American History's "America on the Move" exhibit. The rest of the postwar collection (13 road cars, nine race cars) sits under archival covers in this top-secret treasure trove.

Research

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the 23rd issue of Motor Trend Classic.


1948 Tucker Sedan

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC Number 39 of the 51 Tucker Sedans built, this 11,721-mile example was transferred to the NMAH by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which had it seized in a 1992 narcotics investigation. Repainted and reupholstered, the futuristic rear-engine sedan boasts an air-cooled 334-cu-in, 166-hp aluminum flat-six helicopter engine; an electrically selected vacuum-actuated manual transmission; fully independent suspension; a padded dash; a center headlight that turns with the front wheels; and a padded "crash chamber" ahead of the passenger seat that the passenger could duck into in the event of a collision.


1953 Glasspar G2

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC Donated to the Smithsonian in 1996 by a private collector, this G2 was produced by California-based Glasspar. The idea was born in 1949 when William Tritt offered to design a European-flavored fiberglass sports car body for a hot rod a friend was building around a Willys chassis. The marriage of the Glasspar body and customer-provided chassis and driveline became the formula for Glasspar sales. About 100 G2 bodies (and one factory race car) were made. Tritt significantly refined FRP techniques and was consulted by GM prior to its production of the fiberglass Corvette in 1953.


1964 Chrysler Turbine Car

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC The NMAH’s Turbine Car is number 45 of the 50 production units built between 1962 and 1964. (There were also five prototypes.) Styled by Ghia and powered by Chrysler’s proprietary 130-hp turbine engine, the coupe could run on diesel, gasoline, kerosene, JP-4 jet fuel, vegetable oil—even tequila. Some 203 people test-drove the Turbines between 1963 and 1966, including four men in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area who drove this car, after which most Turbines were reclaimed and destroyed. Poor fuel economy and emissions killed production. Only nine remain. Chrysler donated this example to the museum in 1967.


1977 Chevrolet Vega Hatchback

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC A Vega? We’re not sure why either, but it was donated to the NMAH by Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer, who’d also given the museum their 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix Convertible. Initially heralded for engineering innovation, the Vega’s reputation was torpedoed by quality and reliability problems, and 1977 marked the last year of production. Some 300 changes for 1976 greatly improved the car, but not enough. The Vega tarnished Chevrolet’s image and was emblematic of the problems many American manufacturers faced in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s reason enough for its inclusion here.


1997 EV1

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC The EV1 marks a controversial chapter in modern automobile history. Based on the 1990 Impact concept car, the lease-only, Saturn-retailed, plastic-skinned aluminum coupe was the first modern attempt at bringing a viable electric car to market. Powered by a 137-hp three-phase AC induction motor with first a lead-acid and later a lithium-ion battery pack, 1117 EV1s were built between 1996 and 1999, none of which earned a commercially viable profit. GM pulled the plug in 2003, repossessing and crushing all but about 40 cars. The Smithsonian’s first-gen example is said to be the only one fully intact.


1967 STP Turbocar

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC The Ken Wallis-designed, Andy Granatelli-backed STP-Paxton Turbocar caused a sensation at Indy in 1967 and nearly won the race with Parnelli Jones at the wheel. Propelled by an ST6B-62 gas turbine, the 1450-pound Turbocar produced 540 hp and qualified sixth for the 500 at 166.075 mph. Granatelli's side-by-side driver/turbine configuration added Ferguson four-wheel drive to help the smooth jet engine's tremendous torque pull well out of the corners. Jones led the majority of the race, but fell out with just eight miles to go when a transmission bearing failed. A.J. Foyt took the lead and won.


1984 200th-Win #43 STP Pontiac Grand Prix

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC Ex-Transportation Collection curator William Withuhn brought several racing cars into the NMAH collection in the 1980s, including Richard Petty's 200th-win 1984 Pontiac Grand Prix stock car. Petty drove the 700-hp-plus Pontiac to victory at the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on July 4, 1984, besting Cale Yarborough by little more than a foot as the caution flag flew on lap 157 of the 160-lap race. It was the seven-time champion's final victory, won in front of President Ronald Reagan, the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race. Car and team owner Mike Curb donated the Pontiac to the NMAH in late 1984.


1979 Budweiser Rocket

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC The Budweiser Rocket claimed to be the first car to break the sound barrier on land, achieving 739 mph at Edwards Air Force Base on December 17, 1979, as measured by radar tracking and in-car accelerometer readings. Launched as Project S.O.S. (Speed of Sound) by Hollywood stuntman and director Hal Needham, the Rocket was designed by LSR and drag racing car builder Bill Fredrick. The three-wheeler was powered by both a liquid/solid fuel rocket and an AIM-9 sidewinder missile engine. Because neither the FIA nor FIM certification was present to certify the run, Thrust SSC’s 1997 run holds the official record.

Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC© Provided by MotorTrend Garaj Mahal The Smithsonian Washington DC
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