The NB Center for American Automotive Heritage: Classic Clockwork
The collection assembled by Nicola Bulgari runs like no other.
Nicola Bulgari, the retired vice-chairman of the Italian luxury jewelry, watches and accessories brand, assembled a collection of 250–300 cars that are cared for in the United States and Italy. Approximately 180-plus cars are owned by and housed at The NB Center for American Automotive Heritage in Allentown, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Philadelphia.
Approximately 40 percent of the collection are Buicks, Bulgari’s marque of choice. Sub-collections include limousines from 1930 to the start of World War II, American cars from the Vatican garage and survivor cars that have never been restored.
“We are an international operation dedicated to the preservation of American cars with a focus on the mid-market cars of the industry hey-day between the 1920s and early 1960s,” says Jed Rapoport, ambassador for The NB Center. Keith Flickinger is the curator and manager.
Stewardship, craftsmanship and education are the focuses of the collection. The NB Center, for example, has restoration shops where students work with professionals to learn the craft. The NB Center is also key in supporting students of restoration and automotive history throughout the country.
And, as part of the mission to preserve the automotive heritage, The NB Center houses the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA), which among other responsibilities, manages the historical vehicle registry for the Department of the Interior, Rapoport explains.
On the-27-acre Allentown campus are 11 buildings with another one under construction. Five of these are for car storage and display, three are restoration shops, one is grounds maintenance and administration, another is the main event building and one is for storage.
The Lodge, the main event building at the center of the grounds, was assembled from the salvaged remains of two barns from the nearby farming community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The stone, wood beams, wood floors and doors are all repurposed materials.
A fully functional gas station using vintage pumps and fixtures is also on site.
“At the heart of the grounds was an old drive-in movie theater that has been restored and brought back to full functionality,” he explains, noting that the expansive grounds can accommodate car shows, concerts and even drive-in movie nights.
The facility, though, is not open to the public. Car-related groups and local non-profits can request use, but the grounds have been closed since the start of the pandemic. When it is open, the center does not typically charge for use of the facilities, he explains.
“I like to describe the facility as a living history center, with nearly two miles of roads internal to the property, and all cars are maintained in ready-to-drive condition, so our guests are frequently treated to rides or even the opportunity to drive cars.”
Italy Liberated, Classics are Celebrated
Childhood memories and the adult vision and passion of Bulgari let to the creation of The NB Center.
He was born at the beginning of World War II in Europe. “His childhood was dominated by the suffering of his country, his neighbors and the neighboring countries of Europe,” Rapoport explains. “The cruel occupation of Italy eventually gave way to the liberation and rebuilding of his beloved homeland.”
The great Italian automobile industry, exemplified by Fiat and Alfa Romeo, had to be rebuilt. At the same time, Italian government officials, Vatican City-officials and various military forces traveled the battered streets of Rome in American cars and military vehicles. “This imagery of American military personnel riding in to save the day in their American-made cars was reinforced in the immediate post-war period,” he says.
During this devastating time, he first saw a 1935 Buick 96S, the top-of-the-line long-wheelbase coupe and his favorite vehicle. “He still says he can close his eyes and see this car in Rome when he was a child and remember how he felt it was the most beautiful vehicle he ever beheld,” Rapoport says.
This vision and his financial success made him a passionate collector, beginning in his 20s. “When he came to America in the 1970s to develop his family’s jewelry business, his passion for collecting came with him,” Rapoport says.
In the ’90s, he considered the state of car collecting worldwide and how he could further it. He realized that his beloved everyman cars, especially mid-market varieties, were not being treated with the respect of being historically significant. They were far removed from what most people would encounter in publicly available displays, which were so often focused on high-market cars such as Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce and Duesenberg. Who was saving these cars, such as his beloved Buicks, purchased by the middle class of the 1920s through the 1960s?
He wanted car lovers to see these cars but also see them run. As a result, he envisioned a different kind of place, not a museum but a living history center with cars that are driven, shown, shared with collectors, historians and the interested public, Rapoport explains.
About 25 years ago, Bulgari met Flickinger, then owner of Precision Motor Cars, an auto body and restoration shop. The two men agreed to work together, with the latter eventually focusing on just the Bulgari collection. “What began with perhaps a dozen cars in the U.S. and at least that many in Italy in the mid-1990s quickly grew over the next decade into a world-class collection of over 100 hundred cars,” Rapoport says.
Bulgari began purchasing buildings and land around the Precision Motor Cars shop and the former Boulevard Drive-in Theater, in business from 1949 until 1985, when it became dormant, joining so many similar venues throughout the country. “We integrated it into the campus design and retained the original movie screen, restoring the capabilities of the drive-in theater experience with our state-of-the-art Christie HD projection and audio system,” Rapoport says.
Two Countries, One Vision of Automotive Excellence
When in native Italy, Bulgari divides time between Rome and Sarteano, about two hours outside of Rome in the southern part of Tuscany. In Rome are three urban-style underground garages for the cars, maintenance and restoration shop space and kitchens to prepare food for entertaining. “He still makes purchasing decisions, and, working with his advisors, these decisions are often put into context within the mission of The NB Center,” Rapoport says.
The American and Italian garages collaborate on restoration projects. Because the Rome garages do not have the extensive U.S. shop space, the cars in Italy are often dismantled in Rome and sent to Allentown where they are restored and sent back for installation. “It is not unusual to have five or six complete restorations underway at any given time between both countries and another 15-plus maintenance projects,” he says.
Not surprisingly, the inaugural event on the site was the 50th anniversary meet of the Buick Club of America in 2016. There were nearly 700 Buicks on display for three days. Since then the center has hosted the annual HVA history conference, many fund raisers for local organizations, car club tours and museum professionals from major museums who have come to see this unique facility.
“Careful consideration was given to planning the integration of buildings, both old and new, with each other and the overall site,” Rapoport explains. “No detail was too small. In creating a unified working and visitor experience, the planning has been likened to the planning for Disney World.”
Rapoport and Flickinger hosted us for a virtual tour of the NB Center.
•1935 Buick 96S –– The red ’35 Buick 96S coupe holds special place. This is the only known survivor of the 41 of these cars produced that year. “According to Mr. Bulgari, if he had to sell everything, this car would be the last to go,” Rapoport says. “As a child, he remembers the day he saw a ’35 Buick 96S and being taken aback by its beauty and majesty.”
•1934 Buick 98C Convertible Sedan ––The NB Center has a complete collection of all the body styles of 90 series 1934 Buicks. Of the total production, 138 were convertibles, and this Glacier Blue version is one of just six known to survive and may be the only example restored to original specifications. The car completed a total restoration in October 2015 at The NB Center, Rapoport says.
•1942 Desoto Deluxe S-10 Sedan –– All U.S. car production ended the first week of February 1942 with the shift to war manufacturing, so any car from this year is rare. Because of this, the NB Center has a sub-collection of 1942s.
This Navajo Brown-over-Palomino Beige Desoto is unique because the advanced styling includes flip-up headlights, smooth front end lines and back-lit clear plastic hood ornament, new for 1942. “Most other cars were warmed-over 1941s,” he explains.
•1933 Stutz DV-32 Monte Carlo –– The DV-32 Monte Carlo embodies the reputation of building luxury cars based on racing traditions. “The low, sleek sedan body was designed and constructed using the French Weymann body method of framing the body in wood and covering it with layers of cotton batting and a synthetic leather skin. This produced a very lightweight body but it required constant upkeep,” Rapoport explains.
To placate special customers, Stutz also made the same body in aluminum for low weight and maintenance. “How many is unknown, but this green-on-green sedan is one of only two known survivors with the aluminum body and it is the only one in private hands,” he says.
“Stutz struggled financially, but they produced cars with cutting-edge technology, luxury finishes and sometimes inspired designs, such as this car. That scrappy all-American story earned this car its inclusion in The NB Center collection.”
•1922 Oldsmobile Model 47-F Super Sport –– The red Olds is one of the first cars known as a Super Sport or SS, which General Motors used for decades on V-8-equipped Chevelles, Novas and Camaros. Oldsmobile produced just 21,499 cars in 1922; only 2,723 were the model 47 V8.
“This car is perhaps more notable for its astonishing state of preservation,” Rapoport explains. “That such an old car should survive with its paint, top and interior untouched and in such an excellent condition makes this a stand-out example of what proper preservation of vehicles is all about.”
•1937 Hupmobile model 618G “Aerodynamic” –– To stay competitive during the Great Depression, the small Hupp Motor Company contracted the great industrial designer Raymond Loewy to create the “Aerodynamic” line with their unique swept designs, integrated headlights and Art Deco influence.
Succumbing to the economy, the company stopped production in 1937 and closed two years later. This black car is one of two known coupes from 1937, and it is the only one in original preserved condition. The car had just 17,000 miles when it joined the collection; everything is as it left the factory, Rapoport says.
•1929 Willys-Knight series 66B sedan –– New York-born entrepreneur John North Willys opened his company in 1913, and shortly after that he licensed the rights to manufacture engines using the Knight innovative sleeve valve design.
Rapoport explains that Willys added Knight to the brand name to move up market, and this beige/brown-on-black sedan excellently represents the efforts in the low- to mid-priced niche. “This largely well-preserved original car is another example of how The NB Center seeks out the best surviving examples of unmolested cars to preserve for future generations,” he says.