By Gary Perilloux
Frank Spain knows cars and television like few others.
The electrical engineer brought television to Tupelo in 1956 after rising through the ranks of a network career. As for the automobile, his interest was borne of practical necessity even closer to home.
“Actually this collecting thing began in the early 70s,” said Spain, whose auto collection was appraised at $6 million in the last year. ” I had a wife that had had an MG when she was a girl, so I got her one. And the thing ran reasonably well, but the paint and the interior were atrocious. And I’m tearing this thing apart and reworking it, and she’s jumping up and down wanting to drive it.”
His original $7,000 investment swelled to $15,000 with restoration.
“And if I held a gun to somebody’s head I might could have gotten $10,000 for it,” Spain said with a laugh. “So I decided that this was not what you could call a terribly intelligent financial transaction.”
Inspired by a 600-car collection amassed by casino mogul Bill Harrah in Reno, Nev., Spain began acquiring classic cars in earnest in the early 1980s. A corporate acquisition after Harrah’s death scattered most of the prized casino autos to the four winds. Spain bought a dozen of Harrah’s vehicles and vowed to prevent a dismantling of his own collection.
Using such sources as Hemming’s Motor News, he continued with British makes Lagonda, Bentley, Alvis and Rolls and moved onto such unusual models as a 1948 Tucker – one of 51 made – and a 1907 Ford Model R Runabout, the car that catapulted Henry Ford from failure as a maker of expensive cars to roaring success on the assembly line.
Raised in Tupelo, Spain wants the world to experience a living history of the automobile, from its birth in the late 19th century to its first flirtation with fuel cell cars in the 21st century.
When the $11 million, 120,000-square-foot Tupelo Automobile Museum opens in mid-2002, Spain will unveil a vivid testimony to mankind’s most popular mode of long-distance transportation.
In it will be a replica of what’s considered to be the first automobile, a three-wheel 1886 Benz motorized carriage. The newest auto in the 150-car collection – a 1994 Dodge Viper – cost more than $50,000 and has never been driven. A 1939 Cadillac Fleetwood Limousine that advertises its V-12 engine on the chrome hubcaps of its whitewall tires is valued at more than $100,000.
The collection includes one of the final cars bought by Elvis Presley, a 1976 Lincoln Mark IV that comes complete with the $13,386.69 check the King of Rock n Roll wrote to pay for it. Others include a black-and-brass 1982 Chevy Corvette custom-built for Liberace and the studio-built car that headlined 1965’s “The Great Race” with Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn. His 1921 Wasp is one of two in existence.
A personal favorite of Spain’s is a restored 1948 Jaguar that he says retains “the absolutely classic look before the war” with big headlights, a long hood and convertible top, called a drophead by the British.
The Daily Journal spoke to Spain recently about his plans for the museum.
DAILY JOURNAL: You’ve talked about gathering the cars here in Tupelo. How long did you have the idea of forming a museum?
SPAIN: That was kind of an evolving thing. It certainly was no idea to begin with and it probably wasn’t an idea even in the mid-’80s. But at some point in time I stopped and looked at all these things and said, What are you doing here?’ And this was also after Bill Harrah’s collection got dispersed to the four winds. And for whatever reason, I was intrigued by really old cars. And I would think that half of the collection is before the Second World War. And it was also very surprising to me that there’s hardly anything new under the sun.
Everyone thinks that Chevrolet’s first V-8 (engine) was from 1955, I think it was. No. We’ve got a V-8 from 1918. Automatic transmissions are not all that new. The way you went about it is somewhat new. A couple of Owens Magnetics have a 6-cylinder … engine, but the engine isn’t connected to the wheels in any way. It drives a generator and the generator goes through a switching system and that’s what the automatic transmission is. It’s a switching system so that you can tie various and sundry coils in the generator to various and sundry coils in the motor. But it’s a very, very smooth system. But for whatever reason, they didn’t make it. They lasted about three years.
There’s just all kinds of strange things like that.”
DAILY JOURNAL: At this point what’s your best guess for an opening?
SPAIN: About a year. Again, it’s like redoing the (TV) studio, it’s like everything else. I have a ballpark time frame but it is not something that is adhered to totally and completely because it’s far better to do it right the first time. If it takes another month, who cares? You want it right, not cobbled together just to meet a deadline. And I don’t know why that it is, but when you’re my age things like that don’t seem to bother you but when you’re 20 years old if you can’t get it done in 10 minutes then … (laughs).
DAILY JOURNAL: What’s the inside of your building going to be like? I’ve heard there may be a restaurant, an area to view the cars under restoration and a map collection.
SPAIN: Exactly. There will be some antique maps and some antique electronics equipment, radios largely. But they’re not the main thrust of it. … We will have a stanchion in front of every car with a recorded message for each of them. When you push a button, it will tell you what you’re looking at – who made it, where and when. People listen better than they read. And we’ll have an area with an old-fashioned garage where a car is taken apart. We’ll have an Elvis car.
DAILY JOURNAL: Will you have a concession area or restaurant?
SPAIN: It won’t be up and going when we first open the automotive museum but it will come along later on. It will be in the northwest corner.
DAILY JOURNAL: How far back do the maps go?
SPAIN: There are a couple after 1700 but most of them are the 1400s, 1500s, 1600s.
DAILY JOURNAL: Is that something you picked up as a hobby quite some time ago?
SPAIN: Yes. Quite some time ago, too. There’s about 500 in that collection.
DAILY JOURNAL: Are they maps of North America, topography?
SPAIN: Everything in the world. There are probably 100 of them of world maps from the very first maps that were ever produced in the 1400s. And then, of course, there are the continents and the various countries. Unless you’re really a map freak, there’s more maps there than you’re going to care to look at. (Laughs.)
DAILY JOURNAL: What’s the restoration area going to be like?
SPAIN: There’s going to be a whole bunch of stalls there to put the cars in. And the reason for that is that being old like they are you just can’t go to NAPA and get the stuff you need. You search the world literally for some of the some stuff. And some of the stuff you can’t find, you literally either do it yourself or else find somebody to make it for you. So generally speaking, it is not at all unusual to have a car in restoration for a year to two years.
And you need to be working on two or three at a time so that while you’re waiting for something to show up for A you can work on B or C.
DAILY JOURNAL: What do you think the museum is going to mean to Tupelo?
SPAIN: You’re getting into an area now where I do not have much expertise. And I do have some concern about (attendance). But I do know this: There are a flock of museums around the country, but apart from a very few they’ve all turned into merely high-priced used-car auction sites. Most all of them have an auction once or twice a year and they’re selling 50s and 60s cars, which young folks think they’re antiques but they’re nothing. The degree of change from say 1950 to now has not been that great. Air conditioning is more prevalent now than it was but it was even around then. But the gigantic change was from the late 1800s to about the late 30s. Those years were where the majority of the developments and improvements came about.”
DAILY JOURNAL: What’s the admission going to cost?
SPAIN: Somewhere around $10.
DAILY JOURNAL: The automobile and the broadcast medium were two of the biggest phenomena of the 20th century. Is it coincidence that you gravitated toward both?
SPAIN: I was always intrigued by mechanical – and to whatever degree electrical existed – when I was a kid. Those sorts of things, yes. I went all through school here and graduated from Mississippi State. I went to work for NBC in Washington when they were just building their first television station outside of New York. And we did such things as at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon we’d get a service call from some shop that had just sold a television set, saying Please put the transmitter on the air with a test pattern so I can align the thing.’ We’d say, Oh sure, no problem.’
DAILY JOURNAL: When you add something newer to the museum, do you know what it will be?
SPAIN: There are about a dozen cars I need to put in there. And these cars are readily available. The only reason why they aren’t in there now is you have a finite amount of money and you want to get the things that are rare and one of a kind. For instance, there’s not a Thunderbird in there. I need a Thunderbird, but they’re on every corner. You don’t have to worry about that.
There’s a three-wheel Morgan trike as they call them, English again. It’s got a V-engine that sits out in front, in front of God and everybody. I need one of those just for the oddity of it. A Chrysler Town and Country woody – that sort of thing. But all those things are readily available.
DAILY JOURNAL: When you add cars a generation or two down the line, will that be a foundation board decision?
SPAIN: Well, within 10 years you’re going to have fuel cell cars. That’s going to be a whole major shift in the fundamental way that automotive transportation is done. Obviously, we’ll follow that carefully because that is the single biggest change in automobiles. From day one, the only replica automobile in there is a copy of Karl Benz’s 1886 three-wheeled, gasoline-powered trike. From there until about 1910, there were all kinds of folks proposing cars powered with gasoline, with electricity and with steam. And it was only until about 1910 that the majority of everyone threw in the sponge and went with gas. The guy who came up with the 8-track tape deck spent a pile of money trying to get steam cars up and going again in the 60s and just never got it done.
Daily Journal: What’s unique about the car you drive?
SPAIN: It’s a 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280 3.5 with a V-8 engine. That’s the only car I know of that every day is worth more than it was yesterday.