Two Pennsylvania car museums that pleasantly surprise.
In the automotive museum world, Philadelphia is for many synonymous with the famed collection of Dr. Frederick Simeone; however, a few miles out, two other outstanding museums are also worth visiting in Pennsylvania.
About 45-minutes north of Philadelphia, the America on wheels Museum sits unassumingly on the outskirts of Allentown. I arrived a few minutes after opening time on a quiet Saturday morning and rush inside to escape the arctic cold front that has kept the entire East Coast in its grip for days now. Happily inside I am swiftly welcomed by a gracious cashier/souvenir store host with the prophetic words I have heard a hundred times : “oh I have been to Belgium”, as she laughs and admits it was only a two hour layover at the airport before giving me a quick overview of the museum’s three main galleries.
The only other people inside the museum are a group of women photographers who seem to be on a course assignment, as I hear one of them ask the instructor about bracketing and the use of flash. I make my way upstairs to give the photographers their privacy and am immediately impressed by the small, yet wonderful collection of American survival cars; such as a 1918 Hudson Limo, a 1954 Chevrolet Corvette or a 1934 Studebaker President Coupe.
After a good 40 minutes, I make my way downstairs to the North gallery, which hosts an eclectic mix of vehicles, including an odd Prius and a custom-made Stealth Trike. Further down in the South Gallery, a collection of pedal cars is juxtaposed against various racing cars, while around the corner a section is dedicated to Philadelphia’s very own Mack Trucks. The photography group has made its way out by now and the quiet morning allows me to take my time to admire the 75 vehicles and circle back to a few of them for a second look.
I depart from Allentown just after noon time and head towards the chocolate capital of the USA: Hersey. Located just a mile and a half from ‘that other Hershey museum’, the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum puts on a great overview of automobile and motorcycle nostalgia, as visitors get immersed in visually pleasing dioramas and displays. Celebrating a record breaking year in 2017, the AACA museum seems to be on a winning streak, and it is clear to see why: attention for detail, interactive exhibits and a welcoming team of volunteers.
With cars displayed by era, the scenes change from rural America to the industrial age to racing and transportation history, each meticulously set up to please both adults and kids. Two of the first cars to encounter are the only surviving 1909 Zimmerman Surrey touring model and a 1930 DeSoto CF, a family heirloom that sat in a garage until donated to the museum.
Paying homage to America’s driving culture, the route 66 display is part of the permanent collection, as is the Tucker’s exhibit, which tells the story of Preston Tucker’s fame and demise as an American automobile maker. Only 51 Tucker’s were built, making it one of the rarest cars around.
With a complete bus collection, the AACA caters to more than just automobile enthusiasts, and highlights the hay-days of America’s need for domestic exploration and migration. Not surprisingly, a ‘mobile’ diner, technically an early-age version of today’s food truck, brought back memories of yesteryear and added to the overall automotive history. For motorcycle fans, one could admire the usual Honda, Harley Davidson, Triumph and BMW, but something unique was the 1919 Briggs and Stratton Flyer. Currently based out of Milwaukee, the Briggs and Stratton corporation purchased the rights to the Smith Motor Wheel buckboard, and rebranded it to bear their own name. At the same time they increased it from 1 to 2 horsepower and added a flywheel magneto.
As I made my way towards the exit, I couldn’t help think about the many wonderful vehicles on display and that I could have easily spend more time here, but after an enjoyable day, it was time to head back to Philly, but not before a quick refueling stop at Hershey Chocolate World. Tomorrow the Simeone Museum is on the agenda in what is likely to be yet another adventure filled with automative beauty, elegance and speed, and hopefully fewer calories.
America on Wheels is located in Allentown, PA
Hours: closed Monday/Tuesday in winter and Monday in Summer
Visit: plan about 1.5-2 hours
AACA Museum is located in Hershey, PA
Hours: open daily from 9-5pm
Visit: plan about 2-3 hours