The Northeast Classic Car Museum in Norwich offers a trip down memory lane for car buffs, featuring 175 cars. Plus: can’t-miss car shows happening in the region over the summer.
By Mary Beth Roach
For those classic car enthusiasts and history buffs looking for a day trip and a trip down memory lane — get your motor running and take a ride to the Northeast Classic Car Museum, in Norwich.
The facility boasts 175 cars and trucks, dating from 1899 to 1981; vintage motorcycles; and an extensive Franklin Car display with close to 30 vehicles, all spread across five buildings and 90,000-square-feet.
Adding to the atmosphere, mannequins are scattered about the museum dressed in era-appropriate attire, all done by a representative from the Chenango County Historical Society. Helping to keep the museum and its pieces in pristine condition are approximately 50 volunteers, who, executive director Robert Jeffrey said, log more than 8,400 hours a year.
The appeal of the museum, according to Jeffrey, isn’t only that it offers a trip back in time, but it shows an appreciation of the art and style of cars through the years, as well. One might suggest that it spotlights the great ingenuity and innovation over the century.
As an educational facility, Jeffrey said, it is set up according to a timeline, starting with what would be considered horseless carriages, winding through the pre- and post-war collections and the pony cars. Every turn will surely elicit choruses of “wows” from visitors.
Along the way, patrons can enjoy what the museum calls the largest Franklin Car display. The Syracuse-based company produced vehicles from 1902 through 1934. A good number of the Franklin cars on display came from area native, George Staley, whose collection was the inspiration for the museum. In this section, too, is a panel that gives the background on Staley, a native of Chenango County, who served as a representative for an aviation company assigned to military bases during World War II and later became an entrepreneur, and how his love of cars and aircraft engines led to this museum.
In the 1990s, Norwich was starting to lose some of its large companies and civic leaders were looking for ideas to help bolster the area’s economy with tourism. A phone call to then-Chenango County planner Dick L’Hommedieu and subsequent work by the county would turn one idea into reality.
As Jeffrey recounted the story: A former Syracuse resident who had moved to California called and was inquiring about a large car collection stored in several red barns on the family farm in the town of Lincklaen, about 30 miles from Norwich. Since L’Hommedieu had resided in Lincklaen, he knew of the barns, but had never heard about the collection. He visited the farm, owned by the Staley family and was impressed. L’Hommedieu thought it would make a great museum. So he approached the cars’ owner, George Staley, who at that time was running a business at the MacArthur Field on Long Island with several other men. Although he had been approached by other offers, Staley would agree to Norwich’s proposal and in 1997 The Northeast Classic Car Museum — home of the George Staley Collection was created.
Among the gems collected at the museum are the oldest piece, a 1899 Leggett, the only known surviving Leggett-built horseless carriage; a 1916 Studebaker; a 1921 Holmes, a 1929 Duesenberg Holbrook All-Weather Cabriolet, the only one of this model left today; a ’31 Cadillac; a ‘31 Pierce Arrow; and a 1938 Bantam Roadster, said to have inspired Donald Duck’s car in many of the Disney cartoons; to name just a few.
The Pony Car display, “with a little bit of muscle” Jeffrey said, is sure to invoke memories — a 1957 Mercury, a 69 Dodge Charger Daytona, the ’69 Pontiac Firebird and the ’72 Plymouth, perhaps, and the museum’s newest vehicle — a 1981 DeLorean.
Thirty vintage motorcycles are on display, featuring a 1905 Excelsior; a 1924 Henderson Deluxe, which has been in the History Channel’s Great Race; a 1948 Indian Chief and a 1965 Triumph Bonneville Chopper.
Vehicles are also loaned to the museum by other car owners and enthusiasts, several from the Central New York area. The donors’ names are all included on placards next to each vehicle, with an impressive amount of in-depth historical details.
Several other unique pieces on display, including a 1914 O-We-Go cyclecar, from a short-lived fad in the early 1900s; a Ward Baking Truck, with its Franklin engine, from the former Ward Baking Company in Syracuse; an example of a Chenango Camp Trailer, which were built in Norwich from the 1920s through the mid-‘50s, and according to a vintage ad onsite, cost only $375 and could be popped up into a triangular, tent-like shape in just 30 seconds; and an example of one of the first tilt steering wheels, called a “fat man’s wheel,” that tilts down.
A special exhibit, “Cars Made in New York State,” is described as a “tribute to the companies and individuals who designed and built the foundation” for today’s automobile industry. Over the years, more than 200 different makes of cars were made in the state.
With another nod to history and Staley, who also had a passion for aviation, there are several vintage aircraft engines. One example is a 12-cylinder Franklin engine, designed for an experimental twin-engine, radio-controlled drone bomber, which could carry 2,000 pounds of explosives. The Army canceled the program, so it was never put into mass production. Only five of these engines are known to exist.
Other features in the museum also speak to the area’s history, including one that honors the companies that had once operated out of the museum building — the Norwich Wire Works, the Ireland Machine and Foundry Co., Bennett Fireplace Company and then Bennett-Ireland.
To plan a visit to the museum:
Address: 24 Rexford St., Norwich
Phone: (607) 334-2886
Admission: $12 for adults; $5 for students (aged 6-18); younger than 6: free. Members are free. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Sunday.
Parking: There is a lot directly across Rexford Street and one around the corner on State Street.
Accessibility: the museum is situated all on one floor and is wheelchair accessible. Because of the size of the facility, a full tour can be tiring for some, so motorized scooters and a wheelchair are available for free on a first-come, first-served basis.
Bus tours are welcome and guided tours can be arranged with a call ahead to the facility.
Please note, in order to protect visitors’ safety and safeguard the vehicles, patrons are not allowed to touch the vehicles, cross any of the chains or go behind any barriers.
For more information, visit www.classiccarmuseum.org
Photo: The Northeast Classic Car Museum features 175 cars and trucks from 1899 to 1981, including the 1957 Mercury Hardtop