Northeast Classic Car Museum Celebrates 20 Years

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 09/2017
  • posted in: Great Garages

Cars and community are often closely connected, piston to rod, rim to tire, driver to car.

With 170-plus cars displayed, the Northeast Classic Car Museum (NECCM), 24 Rexford Street, is the largest car museum in that region of the United States. Celebrating 20 years, NECCM is in Norwich, the Chenango County seat, close to Binghamton, Syracuse, Utica, Cooperstown and Oneonta in northern New York. For those who know only the Empire State through New York City, this area is a revelation of rolling hills, lakes, forests and inviting small towns.

With classics from 1899−1989, the museum holds the collection of local businessman, George E. Staley, and the largest assemblage of Franklin automobiles in the world. The Franklin Automobile Company manufactured the cars from 1902 to 1934 in Syracuse.

Visitors also enjoy cars of the pre-war era as well as those from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, vintage fashions and WWI and WWII airplane engines.

Believed to have been derived from the Oneida, Land of the Bull Thistle (a flower), Chenango County began in 1788 when the land was purchased from the Oneida Indians, explains Audrey Robinson, director of Communications and Tourism for Commerce Chenango in Norwich.

Many of the early settlers were dairy farmers but soon other businesses started. Here the Maydole Hammer factory in the 1800s created the ball-peen hammer, and the county is also the home of products such as Pepto-Bismol, Chloraseptic and Borden’s Evaporated Milk and the nation’s best-selling Greek yogurt, Chobani, she says.

Many prominent companies were headquartered in the city through the 1980s and 1990s. But scenarios such as buy-outs, out-sourcing, shut-downs and corporate moves to larger cities changed that, eliminating thousands of good jobs and $54 million dollars in annual payroll.

These economic challenges got the museum rolling, explains Robert ‘Bob’ Jeffrey, executive director of the museum. A group of citizens met to plan the future, led by businessman Staley. “They envisioned a museum that would be a major tourist destination, thereby enhancing the county’s tourism initiative, which would facilitate economic activity and growth,” he says.

In May 1997, the Northeast Classic Car Museum opened in one building with 50-plus classic cars displayed. Today, with the collection tripled, the museum comprises five connected buildings, once home to prominent Norwich-based companies, and continues to upgrade its appearance and invest in the neighborhood. 

“We’re dedicated to the collection, preservation and exhibition of vehicles related to the evolution of transportation, in particular, the role of the automobile and its impact on American culture,” Jeffrey says.

“It’s also our mission to impact positively on the local economy and promote the region by bringing visitors to the area,” he adds.

To help ensure this, he and staff offer a new exhibit annually, including “Red Lights and Sirens,” “Nifty Fifties,” “Built for Speed: Race Cars from Days Gone By,” and this past May, “Open Road, Open Sky: A Collection of Convertibles & Motorcycles.”

Their coordinated efforts have worked. In 2015 the NECCM welcomed 14,357 visitors and in 2016 a record 16,297.

Robinson, Jeffrey and city of Norwich invited us in to see the cars and enjoy the community success:

•1928 Franklin Airman Series, Model 12A –– The seven-passenger sedan is powered by a six-cylinder air-cooled engine, outputting 46 horsepower. The factory price was pricey: $2,980 on the eve of The Great Depression.

Introduced this year, Franklin’s Airman Series, honored the famous aviator and devoted Franklin driver, Charles Lindbergh, who had made the first trans-Atlantic flight the year before piloting “The Spirit of St. Louis.” He appeared in advertising for the series.

“Why are Lindbergh, Acosta, Byrd, and a host of the leading air pilots so enthusiastic about air-cooled motors?” one ad asked. “Evidently, they know there is less to go wrong, fewer moving parts, no water to boil or freeze, no radiator and jackets to burst, and no pumps to fail.”

Try that in the scorching desert of Arizona.

•1929 Duesenberg Model J Holbrook Town Sedan –– This “All-Weather Cabriolet” is one of only two of this model made and is the lone survivor and one of just three Deusys bodied by the Holbrook Company known in existence, according to coachbuilt.com. The chassis number is 2138; the engine is 115.

Among its innovations: An under-the-hood pump automatically lubricates chassis every 60 miles.

Duesenberg’s are only for the wealthy now and were from the get-go: The factory ticket for just the chassis was $8,500, and the coach would fetch another $7,000 to $10,000.

In the fall of 1926, E. L. Cord, president of Auburn Automobile Company, acquired the Duesenberg Company, announcing, so notes the museum:

“The purchase of the Duesenberg factory is the culmination of my plans to offer the world an automobile of undisputed rank; in fact, the finest thing on four wheels. Duesenberg cars will be strictly custom built, with the owners selecting their own body-maker, body style, and colors. The price will probably be $18,000, no matter what model, from racer to limousine.

“We will give the buyer a 120 mile-an-hour speed if desired. Naturally, the production of this type of automobile, which carries a warranty of 15 years, will be limited and we are taking orders.”

“The only other Holbrook Duesenberg of this style was purchased as a used car for $75 by a farmer,” Jeffrey says. “He took the body off and threw it into a ravine, where it eventually rusted away. The chassis was driven around the farm, almost as a toy, until it, too, was totally ruined.”

Oh, my.

•1930 Packard Model 745, “Deluxe Eight” –– On loan from James Staley, this Roadster model has a 385-cubic-inch eight-cylinder, producing 106 horses, with a four-speed transmission, new this year from the luxury automaker. The car weighs 4,695 pounds on a wheelbase of 145 inches. The price from the Detroit factory was a robust $4,585.

For Packard, numbers designate year and model, so the “7” indicates a 1930 and the “45” the 145-inch wheelbase.

The 745 was the largest and most expensive Packard offered, and total sales are estimated at about 1,700 in all body styles. This Roadster model here may have been the lowest number in sales, Jeffrey says.

Disc wheels were standard, but this example had the optional wire wheels, which cost a lot of money then: $90. But you got standard dual-mounted spare tires, twin glove boxes, adjustable driver’s seat and an adjustable steering wheel.

•The Calliope –– Mounted on a 1936 Chevrolet RD Stakerack Truck is a calliope, a musical instrument producing sound by sending air through a large whistle, originally from locomotives. The truck carries the original 194-cubic-inch six-cylinder “Stovebolt” engine used by Chevrolet from 1929 to 1954.

The calliope is typically very loud; there is no way to vary tone or loudness. “The only variations possible are timing and/ or duration of the notes,” Jeffrey says.

In the steam age, they were on riverboats and in circuses. Compressed air produced by electric air compressors were later used to operate calliopes, and air-driven calliopes were trademarked as Calliaphones.

“Calliopes may be played at a keyboard or mechanically, in a manner similar to a player piano, and use a pre-punched roll for songs,” he says.

In Norwich, and the surrounding area, this one leads the parades and introduces the NECCM cars that follow, he adds. “We play lots of Christmas and patriotic music.”

•1937 Cord Model 812 Sportsman –– In 1931, the last L-29 left the assembly line, and everyone assumed that it was the end of the marque, Jeffrey says. Four years later, though, Cord introduced the new Model 810 with its revolutionary-styled Moderne “coffin nose.”

Originally designed as a “baby Duesenberg,” the Sportsman eventually became a Cord, featuring a wheelbase of 132 inches. This Model 812 Cord has the same Lycoming engine as the previous year, though a supercharger did become available, which boosted the horsepower to 170 and added 40 percent to price. This car was $3,619.

“One of the last Cords, this automobile with its supercharged engine, front wheel drive, retractable headlights and modern styling could surely be considered ‘ahead of its time,’” Jeffrey says.

•1959 DeSoto FireFlite Sportsman –– The FireFlite was DeSoto’s top-of-the-line offering. Standard equipment on this model included a V-8, automatic transmission, front and rear bumper guards, electric clock, color sweep molding, windshield washer and a “modern” swivel driver’s seat. Factory price was $3,831.

Mr. & Mrs. Robert Murdock, Remsen, New York, donated this car to the museum. “The Murdocks owned a 1959 DeSoto when their children were young that always held fond memories for them,” Jeffrey explains. “When they had a chance to purchase this car in 1994, it was in very poor condition, but has now been completely restored to its original beauty.”

DeSoto was a solid marque, “Built to Last,” but would only be produced through 1961.

For more information, see classiccarmuseum.org, connect at facebook.com/NECCMuseum and call 607.334.2886. See more about the area at chenangony.org. Chenango County has many fine hotels and bed and breakfasts. In nearby Cooperstown, site of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, The Otesaga Resort Hotel is a regular AAA Four Diamond Award winner.

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