A Century of History at the Tupelo Automobile Museum in Mississippi

Written by Jason Barnette
Posted on August 15, 2018

It was like walking through the showroom of a local car dealership, but instead of each car on display representing a different model each car here represented a different decade. All the cars looked just as shiny as the day they rolled off the assembly floor. I wanted to look everywhere at once, but then one particular car caught my full attention.

Note: This is the second of a three-part series about my adventures in Tupelo, Mississippi. You can read A Tupelo Story, Part I and then come back tomorrow to read A Tupelo Story, Part III.

Just two hours earlier I pulled up at the Tupelo Automobile Museum as nonchalantly as I would the grocery store. The nondescript metal warehouse didn’t have many cars in the large parking lot. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect inside, but figured this would be a good way to start my second day in Tupelo.

The entrance to the museum was much the same as any other; glass doors leading into a gift shop chocked full of clothing, mugs, and trinkets, and a friendly lady standing at a counter ready to collect my $10 admission fee. But that is where the ordinary ended. Everything changed the moment I walked through the wooden doors into the warehouse beyond.

Lanterns to see the way at night on the 1904 White Model D.

I had never seen so many vintage vehicles collected in one place. Pristine vintage vehicles. The shiny floors and high vaulted ceilings gave the museum the feel of a showroom, but this was an entirely different kind of show. It was like taking a walk through the history of automobiles.

Just inside the entryway was a 1904 White Model D. Four gas lanterns were attached to give some visibility at night, albeit not much. The narrow wheels with a dozen spokes looked more like a wagon wheel. Just beside it was a 1908 Firestone Columbus. It didn’t have a windshield or steering wheel. The l-shaped awning over the two-seat bench and large multi-spoke wheels made this look more like a horse drawn carriage than a motor vehicle. These were some of the oldest models I found on display.

I couldn’t help but laugh at it all. I walked around the museum the first time paying attention to nothing but the tires. At first there were narrow, tall, and had a dozen wooden spokes. Gradually they became wider and shorter. The spokes disappeared in favor of a solid hub. Chrome hub caps were the trend for a few decades. After a few more decades of steel they eventually upgraded to alloy.

TOP: Funny sign that was probably very real in the beginning of motorized vehicles. BOTTOM: If I could own any vintage car today (despite my favorite further down) it would be the 1929 Duesenberg.

The 120,000 square foot warehouse features over a hundred cars spanning over a century of automobile history. The tours are self-guided and you can stay as long as you like once you’ve forked over the small admission price. Small signs label each year and model of the vehicles; press the red button on the speakers to hear a little history of each model as you saunter by.

I was mesmerized by the collection that was slowly brought together by Frank Spain. Spain, a native of Tupelo, along with museum curator Max Berryhill, traveled all across the country in search of each car on display. In 2002 the museum opened and the very next year it was designated the official State of Mississippi Automobile Museum. But really after visiting places like the Virginia Museum of Transportation and the National Corvette Museum, the Tupelo Automobile Museum should be the official national museum of the history of cars.

The 1994 Dodge Viper Roadster, in this particular vibrant red paint, was my favorite car from my childhood.

I had been there for two hours, walking in circles, admiring the history of the cars, when I came around a corner and spotted that one car I had always wanted: the 1994 Dodge Viper Roadster. While all my friends in middle school were arguing over Mustangs, Chargers, and Camaros, all I wanted was the Viper. I didn’t care about the power or performance of the car, I just loved the sleek design of the two-seater, the removable top, and the low profile. This was the closest I’d ever been to the old model Viper and suddenly I felt a surge of envy that Spain had found this car, restored it, and had it among his collection.

Before I left I noticed another childhood icon, the 1981 DeLorean DMC, a car that infamously disappear at 88mph. On my way out Jane Spain, the widow of Frank and executive director of the museum, made sure to point out the dark blue 1958 Toyopet Crown Deluxe sitting by the door. It’s the only one left in existence and fits perfectly at home at this amazing automobile museum.

Continue the story with A Tupelo Story, Part III.

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