Blackhawk Automotive Museum: Soaring Car Passion

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 10/2013
  • posted in: Great Garages

Next time you’re in San Francisco, offer your friends the rumble seat and slip into first gear for the Blackhawk Automotive Museum, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Founded in 1982 through the partnership of benefactor Ken Behring and the museum’s president of the board, Don Williams (“You worry about the quality, I’ll worry about the money,” Behring said to Williams), the now-100,000-square-foot multi-level museum opened August 1988 in Danville, beneath landmark Mt. Diablo 30 miles east of San Francisco.

Open year round Wednesday through Sunday, the privately funded 501(c)3 museum showcases automotive treasures that blend art, technology, culture and history by means of changing exhibitions, educational lectures and family programs. The museum is also one of approximately 100 affiliate museums of the Smithsonian Institution.

Beyond the ruby and pink granite and copper-colored glass façade are two levels of automotive galleries and a mezzanine between. The approximately 90 cars shown, from the museum’s full collection, are presented as art pieces –– jewels –– against black polished-granite floors and dark fabric walls, with exhibit lighting.

Behring and Williams once visited a jewelry store in Paris and marveled at the pin-spotted gems and decided that the Blackhawk was to resemble such a boutique setting, with the cars, bearing various finishes, materials and chrome, as the custom-cut diamonds. “Their mission has remained: to showcase these cars as artworks,” says Tim McGrane, the museum’s recently appointed executive director.

The upper gallery shows automotive coachwork and craftsmanship from the 1920s and 1930s, including Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza and Bugatti, some displayed from the opening, others since acquired. These include a 1930 Packard Model 745 Deluxe Eight –– one of several the museum owns of the famed American marque. The first car, in fact, Behring sold when he was just starting his automotive career, working as the dealership’s salesman and janitor, was a Packard 745 Drophead Coupe Phaeton.

The lower gallery features more contemporary automobiles, including vintage European sports and race cars, such as Ferraris and Aston Martins, as well as those extraordinary concept and prototype cars from the 1950s, including the always crowd-pleasing trio of Alfa Romeo BAT (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) cars designed by Franco Scaglione of Turin’s Carrozzeria Bertone, first shown together at the 1989 Pebble Beach Concours.

Another prominent area is The Wheelchair Foundation Gallery, the display component of The Wheelchair Foundation, formed by Ken Behring in 2000 to provide mobility to those in need. Here its global work is displayed, including names of participating organizations and individuals on the Donor Wall.

For 10 years, the Foundation has provided more than 900,000 wheelchairs worldwide. This year, the museum began its Wheels for Wheelchairs program, which asks the classic car community and automotive industry to support the effort through a car donation program.

“From his many travels, Mr. Behring saw a need, especially for those in challenged areas of the world,” says McGrane, a car enthusiast since his youth. “He saw the foundation as a way to contribute to the local and world community.”

Williams and McGrane hosted Highline Autos recently to view this masterpiece collection. Here are a few selections, which McGrane agonized to make from such a distinguished group:

•1961 Aston Martin DB4 GTZ Zagato Coupe –– Only 19 Zagato-coached DB4s were built, and the Blackhawk claims two of them. Rival Touring coached the other production DB4 GTs; that must be a story in itself. All of the ultra-light Zagato cars featured a 314-bhp twin-cam six and a four-speed by AM owner David Brown, who had made his fortune in manufacturing gear boxes and tractors.

Many of the Zagato Astons, like this one in California Sage Green, were raced successfully in the mid ‘60s by privateers. Williams acquired this Zagato AM for the museum from a private international collector. Many consider the 153-mph Zagatos the prize Astons of them all, although DB5-devotee 007 might disagree.

•1938 Bugatti Type 57SC, Vanden Plas Roadster –– The 57SCs offered a 3.3-liter straight eight twin cam, designed by Jean Bugatti, son of company founder Ettore. Only 710 57SCs were built, and this is a one-off example with its coachwork. It produced a solid 230 bph with its supercharger, substantially up from the standard 140 bph. Top speed was a formidable 120 mph.

One of a number of premiere coachbuilders for Bugatti, Vanden Plas began building horse carriages in 1870 in Brussels. The company also had shops in Paris and Antwerp and first appeared in name in England when Métallurgique  cars were imported with Vanden Plas coachwork in 1906. The first Vanden Plas company in England was established in 1913.

•1924 Hispano-Suiza H6C Nieuport ‘Tulipwood’ Torpedo –– André Dubonnet inherited the aperitif company fortune from his father. A successful biplane fighter pilot and devotee of the engines made for them by the Spanish, Swiss and French firm, he commissioned Hispano-Suiza to build this one-off Boattail for the 1924 Targa Florio.

“He wanted it built of tulipwood to be light and fast,” McGrane says. It was, placing sixth. The car had been in storage in London when it re-appeared in 1950. In the 1980s, Williams brought it to the States and then to the 1986 Pebble Beach Concours, where it won the Alec Ulmann Trophy for most significant Hispano-Suiza.

Marc Birkigt, a Swiss-born engineer, founded H-S in Barcelona in 1904, making the highly regarded airplane engines. The H6B was introduced at the Paris Salon in 1919 and was standard setting: for style, structure and performance. The H6Cs featured larger engines than the standard inline six cylinders in the standard models. Just 264 H6Cs were made against the 2,200 H6Bs.

•1937 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Long Tail Special Roadster –– This Sindelfingen-coached 540K was delivered to Mitropa Motors in New York City, where it sold for a crisp $12,000. The museum acquired it from Coloradan Reginald Sinclair, a former fighter pilot. The “K” is for “compressor,” or supercharger, a designation still evident in M-B models.

“They were mechanically unrivalled cars with extraordinary tolerances,” says McGrane, referencing the times the cars were produced and the political importance of creating products of the highest standards. “Simply exquisite, stylish motorcars.”

•1956 Jaguar D-Type Roadster –– The aluminum two-seater was built for racing with its inline six-cylinder twin cam and a four-speed manual transmission. They could do 180 mph: fast even today. Only a few were delivered, such as this original red version, as fin-tails.

The D-Type was produced from 1955 through 1957. The racing history was outstanding: A Jag almost won Le Mans in 1954, then made sure 1955 through 1957.

Four Jags grace the museum, including a 1937 SS 100, a model produced from 1936 through 1939; the coincidental, controversial model name was dropped after the war.

•1930 Bentley Speed Six Corsica Coupe –– This car is one of just two Corsica-bodied Speed Six’s. Bentley made 545 6 ½-liter models from 1926 through 1930, with 182 Speed Six models, which were powered by a large straight-six overhead cam engine. The performance Six model was offered first in 1928, and it was W.O. Bentley’s favorite.

The car won on the track and the roadway: five first-place finishes and four second places in major races between 1929 and 1930, including Le Mans 1929 and 1930, with the finishing time of 75.8 mph for the second victory.

Three brothers-in-law, Charles Henry Stammers, Joseph and Robert Lee, with Albert Wood, founded the Corsica coachbuilding company in London near King’s Cross, also building quality sports-style coaches for Bugattis, Mercedes and Rolls-Royce during the 1930s.

This magnificent Corsica-bodied Speed Six was first delivered to the famed Jack Barclay Rolls Royce in London and was then sent on Sept. 30, 1930, to the new owner, J.W. Bealey. The Blackhawk Museum also has a 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Corsica Four-Place Open Tourer in its collection.

This Speed Six participated in Bentley’s 50th Anniversary Reunion at Le Mans in 1980 as well as appeared next to the famed “Blue Train” at the 1985 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

•1911 Rolls-Royce 40/50 Silver Ghost Lawton Tourer –– J.A. Lawton & Co. was one of the many firms that transitioned from carriages to horseless carriages, opening in 1870.

The 40/50, so named for the model and horsepower of the engine, is an inline six-cylinder with side valves. Built as can be expected to the high standards of Henry Royce and C.S. Rolls, the car was heavy –– up to 5,000 pounds –– but also hardy and dependable. McGrane: “The Rolls has a particular attraction for me because of my English background.”

Cheers to the iconic Rolls and to all of the Blackhawk masterpieces.

For more information on the museum, please visit

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