It started as a hobby for an auto enthusiast, and eventually grew into an impressive collection of the world’s most famous automobiles, and the historic artifacts that tell their stories. Travel inside Historic Auto Attractions, Rockton, Ill.
Hundreds of auto museums across the country feature antique, classic and unique vehicles. Coast-to-coast, they run the gamut, from historical to current, practical to novelty, most popular to one-of-a-kind.
Some focus on makes, like the National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, and the Hostetler’s Hudson Auto Museum in Shipshewana, Ind. Others highlight types, such as the Penske Racing Museum in Phoenix, the National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum in Afton, Okla., and Rusty’s TV & Movie Car Museum in Jackson, Tenn.
But people in the Rockford area don’t need to map out a cross-country trip to see cars like these. They just need to head to Historic Auto Attractions, right off Rockton Road in Roscoe, Ill. Here, in a 36,000-square-foot custom building, is one of the most eclectic and impressive collections around.
There’s the 1956 Cadillac Secret Service car that was directly behind John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Emperor Hirohito’s 1935 Packard limo. Adolph Hitler’s six-wheeled, 1939 Mercedes staff car. Evita Peron’s 1950 Rolls Royce. A 1929 Chandler two-seater Indy race car. Tom Sneva’s 1977 Indy car, the first to break the 200 mph barrier at Indianapolis Speedway. The 1964 Ford Galaxy police cruiser from “The Andy Griffith Show,” signed by cast members. A DeLorean from the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” And that’s just a quick sampling.
It’s the brainchild of local entrepreneur Wayne Lensing, who owns and operates Lefthander Chassis in Roscoe, which builds and manufactures chassis for short-track racing. The company also distributes parts for all types of race cars, supported by a network of dealers across the United States. Lensing, also a licensed pilot, has raced professionally; in 2007, his son, Dan, who now races the Lefthander house car, finished third in the National Short Track Championships at Rockford Speedway.
It was during the course of building his nationally successful business that Lensing happened upon what would become his avocation. “I’d fly my plane around the country, to watch the various races our customers were in,” he says. “While I was in an area, I’d look for museums to visit, with cars in them, especially ones with historical ties – ones that had been owned by someone great or used in a significant event or place. Those gave me such a special feeling. Soon, my girlfriend and I started going to museums all over the country, and I made notes on my likes and dislikes of each. It looked as if this was to be my next vision in life.”
In 1990, Lensing visited the famed Auto Collection, housed in the fifth floor parking garage of the Imperial Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. Among this amazing assemblage of cars were many that had been owned by world leaders and businesspeople; the hotel’s owner, Ralph Englestead, had sent people all over the world to search for them.
“It was the most fantastic museum I had ever seen, not for the way the cars were displayed – they were just all lined up, with no specific order, no explanation – but for the cars I saw,” Lensing says. “I was in total envy of his collection. I would have cut off toes and fingers to own such vehicles. But I just didn’t have the finances.”
So Lensing continued to build his racing business, all the while visiting car museums, taking notes and dreaming of the galleries he would create if he ever got the chance. That chance came in 1999, when he learned that Englestead was terminally ill and making arrangements to sell his collection.
“I flew to Las Vegas immediately,” he says. “The sellers and I put together a price package on 14 cars: those belonging to presidents Truman, Eisenhower, [Franklin] Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson; and to world leaders Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Himmler, Kruschev, Hirohito, the King of Siam and the Queen of England. When I returned home, I got a quote for a building and took the entire proposal to Blackhawk Bank in South Beloit. Thanks to their financing, my vision for the museum became a reality.”
Lensing erected his building across the street from Lefthander Chassis, on Metric Drive. “While we were putting up the museum, I was remembering the places I’d visited and all of the ideas I had,” he says. “I wanted to do it better than the others. I wanted people to get the same feeling I’d gotten in Vegas, when I had seen these cars and imagined their history. So I made each one tell its own story, by using special wallpaper to create murals with related pictures and text. We have a large-format printer at Lefthander Chassis, so we designed and printed the wallpaper ourselves. I studied books to get the correct feel for each display, sometimes taking weeks on just one. I felt as if I had a new purpose in life.”
Lensing’s Historic Auto Attractions opened on Memorial Day 2001, with an impressive turnout of visitors drawn in by local media coverage. It will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Memorial Day 2011, and the exhibits, collections and visitors continue to grow. Lensing joined the American Association of Museums, which led to him receiving listings from such prestigious auction houses as Sothebys, Christie’s, Guernsey’s and Heritage. This helped Lensing to grow his collection, and as he did, his reputation spread, allowing him to obtain some amazing artifacts.
This is one way that Lensing has set himself apart from other auto attractions. It’s not just cars and car memorabilia. Lensing wanted his museum to create a more meaningful experience for visitors. So, even with the amount of energy he puts into tracking down the autos, he puts as much – or even more – into gathering ancillaries that complement them.
“The JFK collection we have is the largest in the world,” Lensing says. “Robert White was fascinated by President Kennedy, and at one time, his was the largest museum on Kennedy, in Tampa, Fla. When he passed away, his collection went up for auction, and we purchased a good share of it.” Along with the Secret Service car, Lensing also has the ambulance that transported Lee Harvey Oswald to the hospital after he was shot by Jack Ruby. While the actual Lincoln Continental in which Kennedy rode is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., Lensing has the same model, in the same color, in position ahead of the Secret Service car, complete with wax figures of passengers Jack and Jackie. The wallpaper display of Dealey Plaza surrounding the two vehicles came not just from history books, but from Lensing’s own camera.
“None of the books I found had images of the overpass, to show where the car was headed,” he explains. “So I finally just flew to Dallas and took my own pictures. The grassy knoll image [on the museum mural] is pixilated because it’s historical, taken in 1963 and scanned from a book. I couldn’t photograph that myself, because it looks totally different now. But the overpass hasn’t changed, and that image is so sharp because it’s mine. It gives a sense of what it was like from inside the car.”
He also obtained numerous personal effects and artifacts: all of the items from JFK’s desk in the Oval Office at the time of his assassination; the flag draped over JFK’s casket when he lay in state in the East Room; clothing belonging to both Kennedy and wife Jackie, including more than 20 outfits and gowns out of the 300 designed for the First Lady by Oleg Cassini.
Many of the items are compelling, especially to those who remember where they were when they heard the news; who watched in horror as Oswald was gunned down on live television; who cried over the televised images of Jackie, Caroline and John-John, standing on the steps of the Capitol Building as the solemn funeral procession passed by. On display at Historic Auto Attractions is an artifact from that iconic tableau: the hat and veil worn by Jackie.
Several of these personal items came directly from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s personal secretary. She came into possession of them when, just hours after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, she received orders to clear the Oval Office immediately of anything that belonged to Kennedy. She held onto them for several decades, before Robert White acquired them from her.
Lincoln was in the Dallas motorcade that day, two cars behind the President, and followed Kennedy’s parade car to the hospital. There, Jackie handed her bloody gloves to Lincoln, who stuffed them into her purse, causing blood to transfer to other items. Also on display in Roscoe is that purse; an envelope, addressed to Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, stained with JFK’s blood; and the eyeglasses Lincoln was wearing that day.
Lensing points to a well-recognized photo of Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One. “See that head and those glasses, right between LBJ and Jackie?” he asks. “That’s Evelyn Lincoln, and you can see that these are the same glasses.”
There’s more. Lensing has the window that was next to the one Oswald shot from in the Texas School Book Depository, a section of the fence from the grassy knoll, and the jacket and shoes worn by Ruby when he shot Oswald. He even has the mail-order catalog Oswald used to buy the assassination gun, from Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago, addressed to Oswald under a known alias.
Other exhibits and their connected items illustrate Lensing’s determination to convey an experience through his cars. In “Gangsterland” is a 1932 Studebaker, used as a getaway car by John Dillinger during a bank robbery in Indiana. Memorabilia and his “Wanted” posters adorn the walls. Also on display are several of Dillinger’s guns, from when he was a young boy up to his death; the police pistol that fired the fatal shot; Dillinger’s death mask – typical gangster stuff. But there’s also a vintage movie poster for the 1934 film “Manhattan Melodrama,” starring William Powell, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, and the actual suit worn by Gable in the film.
“Dillinger was killed coming out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago, betrayed by his date, the Lady in Red,” Lensing explains. “The movie they saw that night was ‘Manhattan Melodrama.’ So I thought this was a great addition.”
It is these kinds of connections that make this more than a car museum. In the Lincoln Room, a wax figure of Abraham Lincoln sits pensively in the center, surrounded by items that reflect his life and death. There’s a brick from the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office in Springfield, Ill., along with several legal documents signed by Lincoln, Esq., and his chair from the railcar he rode in as President. There are six handles from Lincoln’s casket; Mary Todd Lincoln’s mourning skirt; one of the coins placed on Lincoln’s eyes after his death; the leather flag carrier and the flag used by Smith Stemmel, Lincoln’s personal bodyguard and standard bearer. Wherever the President went, the standard bearer bore the flag. The story is taken further, to the execution of the conspirators: There are the manacles used on Lewis Powell, and a bloodied bandage taken from Mary Surratt’s hand after she was hanged.
Among the sights in the “Famous Cars and Stars” section are autos owned by Conway Twitty, Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley; boots owned by Patsy Cline; two white Elvis jumpsuits, one fat and one skinny; a piece of the Porsche Spyder that James Dean crashed and died in; two Dean wax figures dressed in costumes worn by the star in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”
Over the years, Lensing purchased wax figures from attractions that closed, and custom-ordered others from an artisan in Los Angeles. It was that artist who called Lensing’s attention to more than 300 figures up for sale in Norfolk, Va., from the estate of a man who had run several wax museums in places like Las Vegas and Branson, Mo.
“I bought them all,” Lensing says. “They were stored in warehouses, all dusty and in pieces, heads in some boxes, arms and legs in others. There was no cataloguing or organization. I’m still working on getting them all cleaned up and put together. Then I need to plan out exhibits and displays.”
Among the figures he’s reassembled: Indira Gandhi, Yasir Arafat and the Ayatollah Khomeini; Ernest Hemingway, Hans Christian Andersen and Salvador Dali; Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and both George Bushes. Back in a store room, Lensing plucks from a shelf a male head with long blond hair and a beard. “Doesn’t this remind you of Jesus?” he asks. “I’ve got an entire set of wax figures from ‘The Last Supper,’ and I’d like to set it up and bring in that historic era and the Christianity movement.”
On display in “Wild West Americana” are figures of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the cast of the television show “Bonanza” and James Arness, aka Matt Dillon from “Gunsmoke.” Lensing also has the complete costume Arness wore in that role; a cowboy hat owned by Wayne and one owned by Tom Mix; and Buffalo Bill Cody’s beaded deerskin jacket. Historical artifacts include a Winchester rifle used by Chief Spotted Elk at the Battle of Little Big Horn and other antique guns; an 1860 horse-drawn hearse and a motorized 1906 Oriental Buckboard.
There are hundreds of pieces of furniture, lamps and clocks from the White House; the entire living room set from the TV series “Sanford & Son,” along with a 1950 Mercury pickup from the show; the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” station wagon; the “Ghostbusters” ambulance; two Earnhardt driving suits; a car and driving suit on loan from local racer Danica Patrick; a Mercury space capsule training module and an Apollo capsule training module on loan from NASA.
And the collection continues to grow. Back at the front of the museum, Lensing can’t resist opening some packages that have arrived. One contains the dress worn by James Garfield’s widow at his funeral. “I’d really like to get more period dresses and do some kind of exhibit around the First Ladies,” he says.
The other cartons contain additions for his Wild West exhibit: two hubs from a wagon that belonged to a member of the Donner Party, an ill-fated group of pioneers who headed west from Springfield, Ill., in 1846. They were stranded for four months in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by a winter storm, and the survivors eventually resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Lensing examines the letters of authenticity before packing everything back up.
All of the exhibits are distinct and separate, but the museum is full, and Lensing would like to expand and delineate things even more. “I want to make the building three times as big,” he says with an expansive wave of his arms. “I really want to have an area just for the U.S. presidents. Right now, Lincoln is by himself, and the rest are grouped with World Leaders. I’d like to add a basement and make that all just speed stuff. I’d really like to create a replica of the Oval Office, so that when people in Rockford leave here, they feel like they just visited the White House.”
Lensing seems an unlikely museum curator. He admits he wasn’t much of a history buff before starting Historic Auto Attractions. Graduating from high school in Iowa in 1966, he was what we nowadays call a gearhead.
“I was like most boys that grew up in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says with a mischievous grin. “We loved our cars all of the time and our girlfriends in the evening time. It was the era of hot rod music, The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, and I loved fast cars – the faster the better. We didn’t want nice cars. We wanted clunkers that we could mess around with and fix up. And then we’d go tearing down gravel roads and dirt roads like maniacs. One time, a group of friends and I decided to have a contest to see who could take a 90-degree turn the fastest. We all made it through at 45, 55, 65, until we got to 75, when the car jumped the ditch and rolled violently. No one got hurt, but looking back, it’s astounding that I got through the ’60s alive. I was a real wild child. I only race on tracks now.”
In 1968, Lensing went to work at the Chrysler plant in Belvidere and attended his first race at Rockford Speedway the following summer. The car-loving speed junkie was hooked.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna build myself one of those hobby stock cars,’” Lensing recalls. “So, some friends and I found a 1958 Chevy convertible, and two weeks later, we were at the track. The very first race we entered, we won. It was the biggest rush of my life, crossing that finish line first. The following year, we won the championship. Then we moved up to the late-model series and raced at tracks throughout the Midwest and as far south as Florida. Up through 1981, we won three track championships at Rockford Speedway, and over 100 feature wins around the area.”
During this time, other racers began asking Lensing to work on their cars and make them faster. Shortly, he was building entire cars for other drivers, working at Chrysler from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then toiling in his garage until 2 a.m., grabbing a couple hours of sleep and heading to his shift at the plant. Finally, in 1984, after 16 years, Lensing quit Chrysler to devote himself full-time to his own business.
“That meant a lot of 18-hour days, but today, Lefthander Chassis employs 35 people,” Lensing says. “It’s enabled me to get my museum going.”
Always a perfectionist, Lensing says he mingles anonymously with the museum’s visitors and listens to their comments, to see what works and what needs improvement. Most of what he hears is positive.
“It’s a good feeling to see people enjoying themselves,” Lensing says. “I don’t make money with the museum. In fact, it costs me money. But it’s not about the money. I’d like to make this a place people will travel distances to visit, where schools come to supplement education, with a theater and snack room, where people can enjoy themselves for the entire day. It would be good for local hotels, restaurants and businesses, too. If I can build a legacy and leave something behind that makes people happy, I’ll have the feeling that I accomplished something in life.” ❚