FAIRBANKS -- A vast number of antique cars have found their home in the unlikely locale of Fairbanks.
Opened in 2009, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum bills itself as a world-class car collection nestled in the Interior community. Museum manager Willy Vinton said visitors are “absolutely blown away” by the collection. But the museum still struggles to get people to walk through the doors, owner Tim Cerny said in early July.
‘A home in a remote place’
The museum is concealed among the Wedgewood Resort’s 27 acres in a warehouse-type building. Finding it takes a little work. One drives through several parking lots, chasing signs that point toward the museum, to get there.
Inside, dozens of cars are on display, spaced out evenly in the windowless museum. Garage doors on the front and back entrances allow the cars to come and go. During the summer months, the museum parades the cars around the Wedgewood’s property for visitors, Cerny said.
Cerny, president of Fountainhead Development Inc., is proud of the collection he has compiled in the Interior community: “You sort of have to pinch yourself, you know, and go, ‘This car is in Fairbanks, Alaska.’ ”
“These cars have found a home in a remote place,” Cerny said.
The museum follows a historical timeline starting in the late 1800s. The oldest car in the collection, an 1898 Hays Motor Vehicle -- the only vehicle of its kind ever built -- starts the tour. A hulking 1936 yellow Packard completes it.
The collection includes seven cars that are the only known vehicles of their kind left in existence.
“Each car we have adds something technological to what was happening in the automobile industry,” Cerny said. From horseless carriages to steam-driven cars to electric cars, nearly all of the vehicles are fully operational, Cerny said. Sometimes such restorations take years to complete, he added.
Along the museum’s walls, blown-up black and white historical Alaska images follow the timeline, and antique fashions are displayed in between the cars.
Vinton pointed to a display of hats from the turn of the 20th century. The hats are decorated elaborately, not just with feathers but with actual stuffed birds, Vinton explained.
“In a nine-month period in London alone, they used almost a quarter-million birds,” Vinton said. He explained that the detrimental fashion trend spurred the creation of the Audubon Society.
Providing such historical context is one of the museum’s founding principles, Cerny said. With historian Nancy DeWitt on staff, the museum is constantly trying to update its knowledge of early 20th century history, especially in relation to Alaska, Cerny said.
‘He had never seen a car before’
One car stands out amid the gleaming automobiles. Sitting on a raised platform, Alaska’s first-ever car is on display, a makeshift vehicle with chipped red paint and crooked tires that was constructed in 1905 by Skagway resident Bobby Sheldon.
“He had never seen a car before in his life,” Vinton said. “So he built this from stories and pictures he had seen.”
Sheldon built the car with hopes that his mechanical prowess would capture the heart of a young woman. Sheldon didn’t end up winning her over, Vinton said, but he earned his place in history.
The entire car was constructed with reused materials, Vinton said. The seats were fashioned from two bar stools, the engine fished out of a sunken boat in the Skagway harbor.
The car is on permanent loan from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and is one of the few that the Fountainhead Auto Museum doesn’t take out on the streets during summer months.
‘People were so excited about it’
Although the museum boasts an impressive collection, it’s always searching for the next big find, Cerny said. Vinton flies around the country regularly, attending auctions and checking out private collections.
Cerny has spent years hunting down the vehicles. He’s meticulously arranged the museum’s lighting to reflect the “true color” of the vehicles, he said. He wasn’t sure of the total worth of all the cars in the museum, noting that prices can vary greatly at auction. His closest estimate of the collection's’ value was millions of dollars.
The cheapest vehicle the museum has purchased was a 1908 Brush for $18,000. The car belonged to actress Gilda Gray, who was known as the “shimmy queen,” Vinton said.
“It you ever drove the car, you’d understand where she learned to do the shimmy,” he laughed.
The most expensive car in the collection is an 1933 Auburn Boattail Speedster, purchased for roughly $475,000, Vinton said.
Cerny said he is most interested in vehicles hailing from the early stages of the emerging industry.
“People were so excited about it, not unlike the Internet today,” Cerny said. “It was an interesting time.”
Thousands of car manufacturers were experimenting with technologies before the 1930s, he said. A select few, such as the Ford Motor Co., emerged as today’s car manufacturers, while others made only a few vehicles before walking away bankrupt.
Cerny said that once people walk in the door, “we have them.” Yet the museum sometimes struggles to attract visitors. Without advertising, he said, some just aren’t aware that it exists. Word of mouth has helped, he said, noting that the museum is the top-rated attraction in the Interior community on the popular website Trip Advisor.
During summer months, the museum is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. During the winter (starting Sept. 15), the museum is open Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $10 for ages 13 and up. Children ages 6-12 get in for $5, and children 5 and under are admitted free.