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Cover Story August 9th, 2007

  Untitled Document
Private Collections


Jan Wagner If you know where to look, incredible auto collections can be found all over Southern California. I'm not just referring to auto museums that are open to the public, as wonderful as they are. No, I'm talking about the private collections that most people are not even aware of, and even fewer get to see. Each collection is uniquely different.

As a member of the Motor Press Guild, I get invited to visit some of these private collections. While there I take plenty of photographs of what I see to show you in AutoMatters.

They are hidden in plain sight, right under our noses, often behind slab-sided warehouses in industrial parks. You could very well be working right next door to one and not know it, except when a large group of invited guests all show up for a special tour of the place or when the vehicles are brought out for exercise.

I may not tell you where it is but Jay Leno's automobile collection is in one of those industrial parks. You could easily drive past it without noticing anything special.

I had the special privilege of visiting it a couple of years ago, thanks to my membership in the Motor Press Guild. Jay Leno himself personally gave us an entertaining guided tour and answered our questions.

Like those in so many of the private automobile collections that I've seen, these vehicles were not hands-off, silent monuments to what they once were. He keeps his vehicles in operating condition, which Jay demonstrated as he started up and drove a few of them. He was grinning like a kid playing with favorite toys.

He was certainly a gracious host but, more than that, Jay seemed to be a genuinely nice car guy - in spite of his fame and fortune. While there are certainly rare, extremely valuable and historically significant automobiles in his collection, it also includes cars that you and I could easily afford - and he drives them in public.

When I asked him to, he posed for a picture in front of one of them. It was a Miata that had very special meaning to him.

On another outing with the Motor Press Guild I visited the Astor Classics Event Center. It, too, was in an industrial park. Its Web site describes it as a "Living Automotive & Communication Museum." Inside there were really three museums in one. The collections are referred to as "living" because the automobiles and other assorted devices that are on display there actually work.

This collection is named for Art Astor. He has a background in broadcasting, as do I and also Lyle Davis, the publisher of the newspaper that you are reading. At the time of our visit, Art's automobile collection included about 270 vehicles. They ranged from highly collectible classics to what you and I would consider daily drivers.

Vintage gas pumps, period furniture, signs, artwork, and more were interspersed with the automobiles.

With my background as a writer/producer of television commercials, it should not come as a surprise that I found the communications museum at least as interesting as the automotive museum. This private collection included antique broadcast microphones, telephones dating back to 1882 and rare, early TV sets.

photoThere were many radios on display, as well as phonographs. The TV sets dated all the way back to the very beginnings of television. Seeing one in particular brought back fond childhood memories of my family's old tube-type, black & white TV set, with its beautiful wooden cabinet and fluted wooden columns that bordered a large, fabric- and wood-covered speaker. Those TV sets were very different from today's mass produced, metal and plastic, electronic marvels.

I remembered that color TV was introduced in Alberta, where I grew up, in 1966 (Canada got color TV later than the U.S. did). We did not get a color set right away, so I went to a friend's house to watch such shows as "The Monkees" and "The Iron Horse" - " in living color" (do you remember the earlier versions of the NBC peacock?). It is difficult to comprehend how technologically advanced we have become in just over 40 years. Now we take so much for granted.

The third museum within a museum was dedicated to a marvelous collection of beautifully restored console and table model radios, in full operating condition.

Although this is a private collection, you can enjoy much of it online at:

The third private collection in this grand tour was located in - you guessed it, yet another warehouse in an industrial park. We had no idea what was waiting for us as we piled into our own interesting collection of vehicles. Well, maybe not all of them were our own. I could believe that one of us owned a vintage Ferrari, but a new Maybach? We followed map directions to the private collection's secret location.

Our hosts were Gerhard and Rosemarie Schnuerer. Many of the vehicles in their private collection were German military vehicles from WWII. It was one thing watching similar vehicles on TV many years ago, but these were not two dimensional images on TV screens. They were fully functional, off-road capable, military vehicles.

It was fun patrolling Southern California streets in a 1944 Volkswagen Schwimmwagen (amphibious vehicle).

The curbs and their landscaping provided Gerhard with a convenient and excellent opportunity to demonstrate some of his vehicles. I took a ride on what looked like a cross between a motorcycle and a tank, while it towed a trailer. The trailer was probably not the best place to be. It was pulled so quickly that it launched way up into the air when its tires ran over the curbs.

As much fun as it was sitting in the main vehicle and watching the expressions of the people who were riding in the trailer and flying through the air, it was far from the best ride of the day. That distinction went to what was, and will probably always remain, by far the rarest vehicle I'd ever ridden in - and perhaps seen.

Built for the British Royal Family, their 1895 Benz Landaulet/Coupe is one of only two in the entire world. It resembles a horse-drawn carriage, but without the team of horses.


Jan Wagner & a tire on the 1895 Benz

The driver sits outside, like on a stage coach. All but one of the passengers ride inside, facing each other. That is where I sat during my ride. Power is provided by an 8 hp water-cooled engine.

Each so-called tire was really not what I'd consider to be a tire at all. A thin band of hard rubber surrounded the circumference of each wooden-spoked wheel. The ride was rock-hard, even on our smooth paved roads. I can only imagine what the ride would have felt like had the road been rough.

All too soon it was time for us to leave this private collection, our hosts and these incredible automobiles behind. However, the good news is that this is actually not the end, but rather the beginning of what we hope will be a long and interesting journey that we take together, every week inside The Paper.


1945 NSU Kettenkrad gets its trailer airborne

You may have noticed already that the name of the column is AutoMatters. Through words and its original, award-winning color photography, AutoMatters covers a broad variety of automotive subjects. Columns have included new vehicle reviews, racing (NASCAR, Champ Car World Series, IndyCar, autocrossing, historic auto racing at Monterey and Coronado, and CORR off-road racing), travel and road trips (local, regional, national and international), automotive product reviews (audio, navigation systems and tires), auto-related issues (traffic, the price of fuel, vehicle service and alternative energy), interviews, new vehicle auto shows (Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Orange County), major new product shows (the SEMA Show and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas), classic car shows (from local shows to those at the Art Center College of Design and Pebble Beach), track days, special events (including auto and parts manufacturers’ ‘ride & drives’), car club activities, Press previews of new vehicles, the latest automotive technology (plug-in hybrids and hydrogen-powered vehicles) and even auto-themed movie reviews. Whew! It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve already covered all of that and more.

My credentials include full journalist memberships in the Motor Press Guild, the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association and Nikon Professional Services.

Explore the column archives at Also, I encourage you to share your car, truck, road trip, car art, vacations, racing, car movies, famous people, driving and other automobile-related stories by sending them to:

Drive safely and do join me again next time.

Copyright © 2007 Jan R. Wagner - #146-191-230 AutoMatters


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