The Lane Motor Museum: Weird, Wonderful

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 27, 2016

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE—No, the Lane Motor Museum does not have a rhinestone-spangled Cadillac that belonged to George Jones, or Minnie Pearl’s pickup truck. What it does have is the most unusual collection of little-known, obscure and just-plain wacky cars in the world.

A push-me-pull-you in real life. Lane created this replica of a Citroen 2CV that could drive in either direction. (Jim Motavalli photo)What, never heard of a Goggomobil, Peel Trident, McQuay-Norris Streamliner, Martin Stationette or a Helicron? What if I told you that the Helicron, from 1932, was propelled by a massive front-mounted propeller? Or that the Peel, with a claustrophobia-inducing plastic bubble top and room for two, is arguably the world’s smallest car? Such is the hands-on world of the Lane Motor Museum that I actually got to drive the 50-cc Peel. And a lot of other oddities besides.

Fun with the Lane's Peel Trident--is this the world's smallest car? Ripley's thinks so! (Jim Motavalli photo)Lane’s Macchine Italiane, a tribute to driving Italian style, opened this week, and with that came an invitation to drive some of the collection’s cars, including some stars of the exhibit. Incidentally, the nearby Frist Center for the Visual Arts is simultaneously offering Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance, 1945-1975, and you get discounts if you go see both.

Japanese cars aren't neglected at the Lane--every oddball example is on show! Dig the 1991 Nissan Figaro in the foreground. (Jim Motavalli photo)We convoyed the old cars to Smith Springs Park—which featured a lake to test drive the two amphibious cars. What, I didn’t mention them? They were a 1964 German-made Amphicar and a 1994 French-made Hobbycar.

Proprietor Jeff Lane, in a characteristic enjoying-life pose, driving his pedal canoe. (Jim Motavalli photo)Museum owner Jeff Lane told me he bought the Amphicar years ago, and it was the funkier of the two on offer. “I said I wanted the scruffier one because I wanted to use it in the water. He was horrified that I was actually going to get it wet.” But hands-on, or “lake on” in this case, is the museum’s credo.

The 1982 Hobbycar Passport--You can lead a car to water but can you make it swim? (Jim Motavalli photo)There’s nothing odder than driving a car into the water—and having it swim! The Amphicar “I Brake for Fish,” said the bumper sticker) was a blast on the high seas; the front wheels become primitive rudders, and the steering wheel keeps an even keel. The Hobbycar was technically more impressive, but also not as much fun—steering is via a tiny joystick.

The prop-driven 1932 Helicron scared everybody in France--so it was promptly put into storage. (Jim Motavalli photo)Back on land, it was time to sample the star cars, which were enjoying a bright, Southern Italy-style spring day. I drove to the park in a gentlemen’s sedan, a 1962 Alfa-Romeo 2600 Berlina. With its column-mounted four-speed and patterned cloth upholstery, this was no boulevardier but a car for Milano executives. I loved its formal style.

Jeff Lane masterminded a replica of Buckminster Fuller's famous Dymaxion car. It's the only driving example in the world. (Jim Motavalli photo)A 1977 Alfa Alfetta lacked the Berlina’s style, but made up for it with gutsy road manners. Winning the fun-to-drive Olympics for the day (and the plaudits of my fellow journalists) was a 1991 Lancia Delta HF Integrale, with a five-speed and a turbocharged two-liter engine. These cars are boxy and unprepossessing, but they were rally champions in their day—and love to be driven hard to a maximum of 134 mph. Zero to 60 comes up in six seconds. Our car lost its starter late in the day, but that didn’t take it off the road—we just kept it running.

One of many Fiat 500s in the Lane collection. Earlier versions are behind. The Fiats star in the museum's Macchine Italiane exhibit, which opened this week. (Jim Motavalli photo)Lane told me he loves the tiny lump that is the famous-in-Europe Fiat 500, and we had three of them to check out—including the brilliant Multipla (some say the world’s first minivan) and an ultra-rare Giardiniera pickup truck. I drove the latter to the nearby Dollar General store, and when I came out it had gathered a crowd. “That’s the smallest car I ever saw,” a cashier told me. I told them it had a “twin-turbo Corvette engine.” They half believed me.

The 1946 Hewson Rocket--one of many unique cars in the collection. It was to have sold for $1,000, but only the one was built. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Multipla features comfortable fold-down seating for six in a very compact space. It reminded me of my Honda Fit, with its “magic” seats. All the 500s were fun to drive, with the 500-cc engine accessed via a floor-mounted four speed. Stirring the gears was satisfying, and the engine made a mouse-that-roared attempt to be intimidating. If it strained to reach 50 mph, well that’s just part of the fun.

The 1951 Hoffman is completely asymmetrical--like a refugee from Bizarro World. Handling was...interesting. (Jim Motavalli photo)By far the most impressive car available that day was a 1976 Lamborghini Urraco, and everyone wanted a chance at the wheel. I’d actually driven a Lambo before—the Keno brothers’ Miura S—and found the experience similar, especially the heavy clutch and ultra-precise steering. Even with a weak gearbox, the bright red car was a Playboy fantasy come to life.

The Lane's Czech-produced Tatra collection is vast. This is a 1947 T-87 Saloon. (Jim Motavalli photo)Back at the museum, we drove some more workmanlike Italians, including a Piaggio Ape P501, one of the motorcycle-based three-wheeled trucks that became ubiquitous in the Third World. Steering and acceleration—such as it is—is via scooter handlebars.

Escaped from a cartoon? No, it's the 1934 McQuay-Norris Streamliner! (Jim Motavalli photo)A variation on the theme was the 1974 Ferrario Lucertola 500, a six-wheeled utility truck that Lane told me was built especially for vineyard owners. It was easy to drive, with automatic transmission, but vineyard owners—isn’t that a pretty small target group? Perhaps not in Italy.

Lane with his six-wheel 1974 Ferrario Lucertola 500--the market was vineyard owners. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Lane collection has 450 cars, only 150 of which are on display at any one time. That means there are 300 cars in the cavernous basement, and I spent a happy two hours down there.

Electric cars? Sure. I spied the ill-fated plastic-bodied Th!nk from Norway, the similarly doomed Henney Kilowatt (based on the 1960s Renault Dauphine), a Subaru ElectraVan (mounted on what appeared to be a homemade Citroen car hauler), and a recent Mia Electric from France, with sliding doors and unique three-person seating.

The ill-fated (and plastic-bodied) Norwegian Th!nk electric car. (Jim Motavalli photo)Who could ignore the charms of the Double Bubble Bio-Diesel Trouble, a 1980 “rocket car” based on a period VW Rabbit diesel? A cute Crosley CC4 pickup truck from 1948 sat next to a Citroen SM that Lane shared on a drive across Europe with racing legend Denise McCluggage (who signed the glovebox).

My unusual ride for the visit to Nashville--a 2007 Renault Megane. Ever seen one? (Jim Motavalli photo)The awe-inspiring is routine at the Lane. The one and only Hewson Rocket, built in 1946 by Coachcraft LTD with a skin of polished aluminum, sat gleaming after a sensitive restoration. The plan was to sell the Ford flathead-powered cars for $1,000 but as so often happens the money ran out, and only the one car was built.

A tiny portion of a huge collection of minuscule microcars. (Jim Motavalli photo)Somewhat less promising was another one-off—the 1951 Hoffman from Germany. Like a car from Bizarro World, the Hoffman’s proportions are more than slightly wrong, and a note proclaims, “The extreme front track width combined with an ultra-short wheelbase [gives] major straight line instability.”

LAne's LARC--with nine-foot tires--spent 21 days on the Intercoastal Waterway. If you visit the bicycle and motorcycle collection, a TV monitor—and a nearby window—tell the story of the museum’s ex-Army 1959 LARC-LX. It’s a humungous amphibian, capable of carrying 60 tons, and powered by no less than four Detroit Diesel motors (one for each nine-foot wheel).

The 1950 Martin Stationette was the product of one man's singular vision for future commuting. Suspension was disdained. (Jim Motavalli photo)The LARC was at rest in Florida, and the Lane had it tugboated for 21 days up the Intercoastal Waterway to Nashville in 2005. From there the huge beast (with Lane at the wheel, but unable to see oncoming traffic) was trundled through the streets undercover of night. It took three hours to go six miles, and used 10 gallons of diesel fuel per mile.

The one and only Saab 96 roadster--hand built in the factory. (Jim Motavalli photo)The LARC made it to the museum without incident and now sits out back, but it started and moved once a year as a thrill for visiting schoolchildren. That window I mentioned? That’s for gazing on the LARC’s magnificence from the safety of the museum. Here's a look inside the museum's basement on video:



And here's a closer look at that crazy Peel Trident:



 

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