LINCOLN, Neb. – Two weeks ago this morning, 56 area gearheads assembled in a Wichita parking lot at 6 a.m., climbed aboard a big blue tour bus and headed north for a rendezvous with automotive history.
The group was headed for the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed, a magnificent assemblage of racing cars, engines and auto artifacts displayed in a three-story, 150,000 square-foot purpose-built building.
The idea for the trip to “Speedy Bill” Smith’s showplace had begun when a bunch of car guys were sitting around talking about places every geared would like to visit, said Ernie Nelson.
“I had stopped here before with my wife and even she loved it,” Nelson said of the museum located on the grounds of Speedway Motors, one of the oldest speed shops in the country.
“When we first started talking about it, we thought we could do it with a couple of Suburbans. But the list grew to where we needed a 24-passenger bus, and finally we wound up with 56 people wanting to go and four more on a waiting list,” he said.
The museum is the result of more than six decades of collecting by Speedy Bill and his late wife, Joyce. The facility is run by a full-time staff of five people, aided by several volunteers, who directed the Wichita group into a room where lunch was served, surrounded by classic cars ranging from a little Crosley pickup to a Shelby Series 1 sports car.
The museum is normally not open to the public on Saturdays, so we had the place to ourselves. We split up into small groups and wandered from one amazing display to another. There were vintage Indy 500 racing cars everywhere, hundreds of racing engines and more than 1,000 antique pedal cars displayed, some in “barn find” condition, others lovingly restored. Joyce Smith had her collection of cookie jars and vintage tin lunch boxes on display, as well as lots of taxi cab memorabilia that she collected.
Tin toys and model cars filled case after case of display cabinets and there were scooters, Soap Box Derby cars and a portion of a board track used to race old glow-plug cars along metal rails.
This assemblage of grizzled old car guys walked through the museum shaking their heads and repeating, “Amazing … just amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Things like a DOHC Studebaker Indy car racing engine. “I had never even heard of this,” said Duane Saum, a Wichita engine-building expert.
On one floor sat the 5 millionth Model T Ford ever produced, rediscovered in near-perfect condition in 1992. Edsel Ford’s ultra-rare 6-cylinder powered boat-tailed speedster sits nearby.
It was a unique opportunity to see some of the rarest automotive artifacts preserved and protected in one place. As the Wichita tour group posed for photos before boarding the bus for the trip home, many of us had a new check mark to put on our private bucket list.