DTW’s correspondent visits a museum and finds his perception challenged.
Before I start on any negatives and disappointments let me make it clear that the Louwman Museum at Den Haag in the Netherlands is one of the best car museums in the World, possibly the best. Obviously that opinion is subjective and so is the collection, generally the choice of one family. For instance if you’re looking for BMWs, a single pre-war 328 represents many people’s favoured marque, but at least one DTW contributor would be pleased to find three Lloyd cars on show. The collection tapers out as we get later into the last century and production cars of the 21st Century are illustrated by just a cutaway Prius. But in terms of giving a general overview of the earlier history of the motor car, one that entertains, intrigues and informs by mixing in a good amount of both the quirky and the outstanding, it would be very hard to beat.
That said, though I have read about a lot, I’ve not visited that many car museums. My reasons for not visiting car museums are twofold. First, as I’ve mentioned here before, I tend to come across such places on holiday and my partner has no interest at all in cars. Second, yes, I could be less tolerant of her obvious boredom after more than ten minutes in any motor museum except that, in all honesty I find them unsatisfying myself.
As a kid I visited the Montagu Motor Museum (now the National Motor Museum) a couple of times with my Mum, as well as the Science Museum in London. In the early 1980s, I went to the Schlumpf Collection (now the Cité de l’Automobile) in Mulhouse. In the late 90s I went to the Haynes International Motor Museum at Sparkford. In 2011 I visited the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile in Turin. In 2014 I visited the Porsche Automuseum Helmut Pfeifhofer in Gmünd, Austria. I think that just about covers it, though I see that my current frequency is one every three years.
When I visited the Schlumpf collection I knew far more about (then) contemporary cars than old ones. By the time I visited Louwman this year it was the other way round. There are some other Museums I’d like to visit – the Tatra Museum at Kopřivnice and the Mullin Museum in California spring to mind but, generally, I’m happy to look at cars in photos. Not that I don’t want to see them in the metal, I really do, but I might make the corollary of a wildlife lover who doesn’t like visiting zoos. For me, cars in museums are out of context. They are whales stranded on the beach. They are a film star sitting over half a pint of lager in the corner of a pub. It’s not that I’m not prepared to settle for second best, cars just make little sense to me, standing still, devoid of occupants, viewed in a big room behind ropes.
The current home of the collection is a large, handsome, purpose-built place over three floors, opened in 2010, although the collection itself stretches back to 1934. It’s as good a showcase as one could hope for yet I was still frustrated. My own, totally impractical, museum would display each car within its own 18 metre diameter circle allowing you to view it from any angle, both distance and close-up. I’d probably add a glass floor for viewing from below and, maybe, a large overhead mirror to view from above. The doors would be unlocked, the keys in the ignition and the attendant would guide me out onto the road once I’d settled in and started the engine.
Back in the real world, in the Louwman simple ropes separate most the cars from the visitors. This means that you can get very close to many of the cars but, correspondingly, that you often can’t stand as far back as you might wish. Also, probably to conserve the interiors, windows are kept closed, so it’s usually difficult to view the insides clearly because of reflections. Interiors are very important to me and, although the Louwman is obviously aware of this and offers photos of the driver’s position alongside the written description of many exhibits, it just isn’t the same.
Really I’m content with what I have but, were the Exotic Old Car Fairy to come to me and grant one wish, regardless of cost, it would probably be a Bentley Continental R Type Mulliner fastback. Should they be really indulgent and offer me three wishes, then the Bentley would be put to one side and it would be a Mercedes 600 (short wheelbase), an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 (I might not push my luck and be too specific about coachbuilder) and a Lamborghini 350GT (though I’d settle for a 400GT). Of these four vehicles, so close to my acquisitive heart, I have seen the first three in various forms, but I had never actually seen the Lamborghini.
The Louwman has some method to it but it takes a while to grasp, which I actually quite like, since turning a corner might surprise. Along the end of one room of primarily one-off coachbuilt Italians was a silver behemoth that made the Docker Golden Zebra Daimler on display in a previous room seem understated. The 1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, bodied by Vignale in 1955, doubtless pleased its owner, Joseph Maschuch, especially when he was using the onboard WC as a champagne cooler, but it seemed to have missed the point of a Rolls-Royce altogether. That said, it certainly had presence of a sort. Not like the car positioned in front of it, the one that was getting in the way of my attempts to get a full framed photo of the Rolls. Somewhere, on the periphery, there was some nondescript dark blue thing. As I walked away, I turned to take one last incredulous look at the Rolls then noticed the dark blue Lamborghini, a 350GT with, probably period, 400GT modifications. Hugely desirable to me, and something that would be an endless pleasure to see on the street, whether parked in London or Antibes, in this context it had become invisible.
So, yes, maybe car museums are best for exhibiting freaks, not for something you’d actually want to own or drive.