San Diego Auto Museum — California Dreaming

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 12/2012
  • posted in: Great Garages

Here’s another reason to fire up the Little Deuce Coupe and visit the coast.

Founded in 1988 in historic Balboa Park, the San Diego Automotive Museum, 2080 Pan American Plaza, offers automotive fans both a permanent collection as well as specialty exhibits.

The museum permanently displays approximately 35 cars and 25 motorcycles, and about 45 cars are in the museum’s restoration and storage facility.

In its 25 years, SDAM has presented more than 100 of changing exhibits that exemplify its theme of “Cars and Society . . . the Impact of the Automobile on Our Culture.” From woodies to lowriders, the exhibits offer 16 or more cars to the 100,000 visitors who visit each year.

“Half the museum is always changing and the other half remains static. That keeps the mixture of cars and stories rich, inventive and attractive,” says Paula L. Brandes, executive director for the museum, a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit overseen by a governing board of directors.

The museum also offers special lectures and presentations and educational programs for schools in the San Diego area. A member of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, SDAM participates in Family Days in the park and is a large presence in community events around the county, she says. Once a year, the museum presents The Greatest Show on Turf, a car show done in collaboration with the Car Club Council of Greater San Diego.

The museum is open daily, 10 a.m.– 5 p.m., and closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. All San Diego residents may visit for free the fourth Tuesday of every month.

Paula invited us in to see the collection recently and talked about some of the cars and cycles:

•Louie Mattar’s Fabulous $75,000 Car — “This is the museum’s Mona Lisa. Louie Mattar, from San Diego, adapted his wife’s new 1947 Cadillac for distance/endurance driving.  The car is equipped with a telephone, television, stove, refrigerator, sink, washing machine, stove, ironing board, shower, full bar, hookah pipe, tape recorder, water fountain and more.

“His first trip was from San Diego to New York City and back without ever shutting off the engine or stopping forward motion. He could change tires while the car was moving: Kid you not. This is by far our most popular car on the floor. It has been at the museum for almost 15 years, on loan from his family.”

•1928 Studebaker — “It’s unrestored and our barn find. It was donated to the museum about five years ago by a local doctor whose 11 children drove it around their acreage for years. The car was literally stored in a horse barn for 40 years until the museum dragged it out. 

“We recreated a ‘barn’ and installed the car. It is the most compelling exhibit we have. It is the best conversation starter, and nobody ever messes with it. It is sacred.”

•1931 Cadillac V-16 — “This was a 31-year restoration. It was discovered in a field in Virginia where it had rusted away for years after being cut up and used as a tractor to haul hay. A gentleman from San Diego realized what it was and bought it for a few dollars. He was involved in the restoration project and is pleased to have it on display here. It is valued at almost $1 million. On indefinite loan.”

•1967 Austin Taxi — “It was once owned by Frank Sinatra.  The car is amazing, but the story of Frank is even better.  Apparently, while living in Vegas, Frank would dress up like a chauffeur and pick up the Rat Pack at the airport. Nobody ever recognized him as they drove up and down the strip. I am not sure how long the museum has even had this car or how we came to own it. It’s one of our little mysteries, but all museums have mysteries.”

•The Tango — “We have a prototype on the floor, and some say this is the future of electric vehicles. The prototype was made in Washington State and has a horsepower equivalent of 805 ponies; this car smokes a Ferrari in 0–60. Driver and passengers sit tandem. The car is designed to drive two cars per lane on the freeway. 

“Ours is really unique because of the original paint job by pop artist Romero Britto from Brazil. Car is worth about $150,000. Paint job is worth another $850,000. It’s another million-dollar miracle that shows us where car design may be headed. It’s on indefinite loan.”

And some others:

•1967 Datsun Fair Lady — “The Model 1600 Roadster was modeled after MG and MGB. The ‘Fair Lady’ moniker most likely hurt sales.”

•1909 International Harvester — “The oldest car in the museum collection.”

•1953 Jaguar XK120 — “Completely restored by museum volunteers in our restoration facility.”

•1946 Solar Midget Racer — “Conceived by an engineer from Solar Turbines, a San-Diego business; 112 kits were made.”

•1914 Indian Motorcycle — “On loan, the ‘Big Twin’ is noted for its sidecar.”

•1963 Maserati Sebring — “One of the larger cars Maserati produced to compete with the four-seat market.”

•Plank Road — “Often called the Old Plank Road, which ran across the desert from Yuma, Ariz., to Holtville, Calif. It was used from 1912–1927 and became Highway 80. The exhibit contains real planks from the road and oral histories by people whose relatives traveled the road as well as a 1914 Model T Ford.”

For more information, see or call 619.231.2886.

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