‘Whoa! Is that a Ferrari 275 GTB? No, it can’t be… waaiiit a minute, that IS a Ferrari 275 GTB!’ These were pretty much the startled thoughts that went through my head as I walked down Van Ness Avenue, in San Francisco, and caught sight of a sinuous flash of red through a street-facing window. I had been taking a stroll a few blocks from my uncle’s apartment, in order to get to a large guitar store where I intended to while away a few hours, when I stumbled upon the Ferrari… and, as it turned out, a treasure trove of other magnificent cars.
The Academy of Art University, in San Francisco, is a well known institution, and apart from training people to become artists, designers, photographers and so on, it also happens to have a tremendous collection of vintage and classic cars, which is thankfully open to the public. As soon as I spotted the gleaming cars, I rushed to the entrance, only to be politely told that visiting hours were 11am to 1pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays – and it was 2pm on a Monday. Right then and there, I made a reservation to come back the next day; the $10 entrance fee seemed like a bargain, especially since it went to charity.
It was a bargain – I would happily have paid twice the amount to take a look at the collection. The 275 GTB was, of course, spectacular – a car capable of 240 kph back in the 1960s was nothing short of mind boggling, and not for nothing is it regarded as one of the all-time great cars, in any class. However, even the 275 GTB was overshadowed by the collection of Duesenbergs in the museum; I had never seen a Dusie in the flesh until then, and my hair literally stood on end when I was confronted by them.
Of particular significance was a 1935 SJ Murphy Convertible Coupe, with body work by Walter M Murphy, of which only 36 were made, and which was once owned by William Randolph Hearst, among other owners – at a cost of over $20,000 with coachwork, it was an astonishingly expensive car (you could buy forty Ford Model 40s for that money!), and with 320 hp from a Lycoming Straight Eight, it was capable of well over 200 kph. Duesenbergs have always been right up there in my pantheon of great cars, and to see this one and the others, all in absolute concours condition, was a privilege indeed.
This being an American museum, it was only natural that a large number of the cars there were from that country. Packards, Lincolns, Buicks, Cords, Fords, Cadillacs – all these legendary brands and more were present in full regalia. There was an absolutely stunning Packard 12 LeBaron Sport Phaeton, widely considered the most beautiful Packard of all, with coachwork by the renowned Alexis DeSaknoffsky; power came from a silken V12 putting out 160 hp.
Another eye opener was the Marmon V16 Convertible Sedan, a marque I had never heard of. Established by Howard Marmon, a prodigy who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, the firm made small numbers of expensive, high quality cars. The V16, whose first owner was John Paul Getty, is one of only six such surviving cars in the world – amazing stuff!
One car that immediately struck my eye was a Willys-Knight Great Six Plaid-Side Roadster, another automobile I had no clue about. What was unique about these cars was their door panel plaid patterns, in dual colours, which proved an instant hit when the car was introduced at the New York Auto Show in 1929. The car also had an unusual (for the time) sleeve-valve six cylinder engine; sleeve valves were expensive to produce, and most manufacturers simply went with cheaper and noisier poppet valves.
Perhaps the jewel in the collection was the enormous Daimler P.1.50 Vee Front Royal Limousine, the only surviving one of its kind. At a massive 21 feet in length and seven feet in height, and weighing in at an incredible 3772 kg, it’s more bus than car – but what a bus! Powered by the famed Double Six, a 60-degree sleeve valve V12 engine, this car was one of 12 built to the huge specifications, and was painstakingly restored over a period of two years. It’s an astounding car; indeed, every car in the museum (and there are a few Indian Chiefs and Harleys as well) looks better than new, as if they’re just waiting for people to come in, put down the money and drive off into the sunset. If you’re in the area, do go and take a look. Also check out www.academyautomuseum.org for a glimpse at the entire collection.