I play a little game during night drives. I try to identify the make, model, and year of cars by the shape of their taillights or headlights alone. I’m pretty good. See, I have an Asperger’s-like obsession with cars and I’m rarely stumped. So when most of the cars at an auto museum absolutely confound me, I know it’s good. And thus, the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, Ca., is good.
The Blackhawk Museum is tucked in the foothills of Mt. Diablo, technically in Danville, just south of the upscale community of Blackhawk. It was built in ’88 and has 70,000-square-feet of gallery space. The place may be small, but it’s crammed with a stunning, bizarro collection of contraptions. On average, it houses about 90 cars, most on loan to the museum from private collectors.
And it’s quite a collection, spanning automotive history from the early teens right up through the Malaise. But enough talk, let’s take a look at some of these rides.
1931 Packard Model 745
This red-and-sliver behemoth has classic coachwork by revered designer Raymond Detrich, who said, “I want to be to the automobile what the architect is to the building.” And it’s like a rolling building with barrel sides, acres of hood, and a gigantic trunk hanging off the rear bumper. But the elaborate chrome articulating driving lights really caught my eye. Check out the complex cable setup to move them in concert with the steering wheel. The Model 745 packed the legendary 384 c.i. L-head straight eight good for 120 horsepower.
The Pegaso’s concoction of crazy curves makes your head hurt, but it’s enticing nonetheless. The car was built by the government-owned Empresa Nacional de Automocamiones S.A. from 1951 to 1957. It’s a true sports car with a 2.8-liter DOHC V-8 that puts out 250 horsepower. Priced between $15,000 and $35,000, it was one of the most expensive cars in the world. Only 56 of them have survived the ravages of time.
Industrialist Stanley H. Arnolt made loads of cash selling lubricant and parts to the military during WWII. With his newfound wealth, he partnered with British boutique car shop Bristol and Bertone to create Arnolt-Bristol roadsters and coupes. The catfish-like roadsters were powered by BMW-derived straight sixes, rode on British chassis, and had Italian bodywork. According to the placard, this one is rocking a Corvette V-8. The little car is stunning in person, muscular and dainty at the same time.
Lagonda was founded by Wilbur Gunn, a mechanic from Ohio who moved to England in 1897. By the time this drophead coupe was made, the company had been bought by the Brits and W. O. Bentley himself was in charge of design and engineering. It carries all of Bentley’s engineering breakthroughs: an OHC V-12, independent front suspension, hydraulic brakes, and outboard rear springs. It’s also drop-dead gorgeous.
1937 Cadillac V-16
This Cadillac is big. The kind of big that wrecks your sense of scale. When you see an aircraft carrier, your brain does a little summersault. Things that big aren’t supposed to float. This Cadillac is like that. Things this big aren’t supposed to drive. Specifically, this convertible is more than 22 feet long. Its coach-built body was commissioned by wealthy Swiss playboy Philippe Barraud. It has a 452 c.i. V-16. And it was built during the Great Depression.
This Duesenberg Model SJ has custom coachwork by Bohman and Schwartz of Pasadena and it certainly looks like it should be carting a quartet of Hollywood stars. The droptop’s supercharged straight eight puts out 320 horsepower, almost twice as much power as contemporary luxury cars.
1955 Dodge Firebomb
Chrysler couldn’t get away with a name like “Firebomb” today, but in 1955 it was the perfect name for this Ghia-designed droptop. And unlike most show cars, this one actually went into production. Detroit magnate Eugene Casaroll purchased the design and production rights from Chrysler and made the car under the name Dual-Ghia between 1956 and 1958. The cars ran 315 c.i. hemis and rode on Chrysler chassis. Famous Dual-Ghia owners included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Richard Nixon.
This angry French front-wheel-drive coupe was built by Angelo and Paul Albert Bucciali in 1930. It’s powered by an American Continental inline eight. While impressive, it’s nothing compared to the brothers’ Double Huit, a front-wheel-drive monster powered by two straight eight engines mounted side by side.
This Caddy was made long before velvet jumpsuits, platform shoes with goldfish in them, and pimp hats, but Super Fly would feel right at home in it anyway. It was bodied by famous French coach builder Jacques Saoutchik and at one time cruised the streets of Hollywood. It was eventually sold to a modest Midwesterner who bought the coupe for his wife. Her favorite color was purple.
In the ’50s, Alfa Romeo wanted to cheat the wind. Legendary designers Franco Scaglione and Nuccio Bertone designed a series of hyper-streamlined concept cars dubbed BAT (Berlinetta Aerodynamica Technica) between 1953 and 1955. Blackhawk has all three of them, the BAT 5, 7, and 9 cars. They are absolutely gorgeous—meticulously formed shapes that invoke sleek and slippery creatures like the manta ray or tiger shark. They’re worth the price of admission alone.