San Diego museum offers a dazzling car classroom

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The San Diego Automotive Museum is a transportation classroom easily enjoyed by everyone from knowledgable enthusiasts to visitors with only a passing interest in cars.

View photos: San Diego Museum

In October the museum’s Cars & Society permanent collection was joined by extraordinary examples in the special exhibit “Lead Sleds & Customs: Art for the Road.”

With nicknames like Big Orange, Cherry Bomb, Lonely Teardrops and Roadstar, the shaved, shortened, chopped, channeled and stripped cars — mostly post-World War II vintage — wore dazzling paint jobs, favored Chevy engines and showed what some imagination, talent and deep pockets can do.

Seeing was not always believing. What looked like the favored ’49-’51 Mercury turned out to be a 1951 Chevrolet Styleline in disguise. A real ’51 Merc was built in a Chevy Malibu frame. A ’41 Chevy coupe featured a kaleidoscopic colorful roof. A ’47 Mercury convertible coupe was transformed into a two-person roadster with Corvette engine.

Signs and a brochure helped guests deal with the names of procedures that could change an everyday coupe or sedan into a low-slung piece of theater on wheels.

Lead was favored by early customizers as a body filler. After cutting and shaving and removing items like chrome trim, door handles, outside mirrors and hood ornaments, the craftsmen poured melted lead into bodies, then filed and smoothed it for perfect exterior lines.

Completed customs were ground-huggers and often heavy. They were intended more for show than speed.

The museum is proud of the $75,000 early fifties Cadillac developed by San Diego businessman Louis Mattar. The car holds the world’s endurance non-stop record across the U.S., a round trip of 6,320 miles accomplished September 20-27, 19562 by three men driving in five-hour shifts.

The Mattar Cadillac was able to be refueled as it ran from fast-moving trucks at Kansas City, Mo., Camden, N.J. and Omaha, Neb. The 8,500-pound car holds 230 gallons of gas, 15 gallons of oil and 30 gallons of water.

In the museum the car is hitched to a small trailer. A shower head is also in the display to demonstrate the versatility of a car that was a home on wheels.

True to the progressive thinking associated with the Golden State, the automotive museum has displays and examples of alternative-fuel vehicles. There is a 1924 Ford Model T wagon retrofitted to burn hydrogen and a Solar kit car said to be one of about 110 built in the mid-1940s. The Solar Car Club bought the midget car on display in the museum and invested 2,500 volunteer hours restoring it.

There’s a vehicle with a Wankel rotary engine, a front-drive 1929 Cord Brougham and an early V-12-powered Cadillac.

An interesting history of early plank roads in California and the difficulties in maintaining these experimental one-lane byways covers part of a wall, not too far from a recently built prototype version of the 1915 Electriquette, a charming wicker electric-powered cart developed for San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition in 1915 by Clyde Osborn. Now attorney and entrepreneur Sandor Shapery intends to produce up to 100 modern Electriquettes in time for a centennial celebration in 2015.