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Two museums turn a seaside haven into a car lover's dream
The 1948 Tucker 48 at the Audrain Automobile Museum in Newport, R.I., on June 8, 2020. The museum reopened on June 8, after shutdowns due to the coronavirus. Tony Luong/The New York Times.

by Jim Motavalli

NEWPORT, RI (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Only a few miles separate two auto museums in Rhode Island, but the experiences they offer are quite different.

Each museum reopened June 8 after shutdowns due to the coronavirus, and visitors were (with some limitations) again walking into the 1903 Florentine Renaissance building that houses the Audrain Automobile Museum in downtown Newport and traveling to Gunther K. Buerman’s Newport Car Museum in nearby Portsmouth.

The gregarious, always bow-tied Donald Osborne, Audrain’s chief executive since November, is well-known in the collector community, not only as an experienced appraiser but also as a master of ceremonies and grand marshal at many concours events. (Osborne, a trained opera singer, can also open the proceedings with the national anthem.) And he’s a TV presenter on “Jay Leno’s Garage” and “What’s My Car Worth?”

In his office, on the second floor of a 1903 building where Brooks Brothers was an early tenant, Osborne showed off his large toy car collection and talked about his previous work as a consultant to the museum’s car-collecting founders: Nicholas Schorsch, William Kahane and Michael Weil. In that capacity, he helped plan last year’s Audrain Concours and Motor Week, patterned after annual events around the world.

“It was phenomenal, beyond our expectations,” Osborne said. “We had nearly 70,000 people over the four days, and they came from all over the country and, directly or indirectly, spent $20 million to benefit local businesses.” The 2020 event is canceled, but it is planned to return in September 2021.

Osborne said he was pleased to see a diverse crowd in March at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida, an event he helped judge just before the coronavirus forced shutdowns nationwide. “I’m seeing a steady stream of emails from young Black enthusiasts who want to get involved in the car hobby,” he said.

Audrain under Osborne is both fast-moving — changing exhibits often — and outwardly directed, with multiple efforts to involve not only the local community but also the larger online world. The latter were especially useful while the museum was closed because, among other things, Osborne gave YouTube tours of the latest exhibit, “Shining Bright,” a history of auto lighting.

That exhibit will be up only until Aug. 9, and it will be replaced Aug. 15 by “From the Racetrack to the Opera: Marques That Did It All.” The reason Audrain needs to rotate shows quickly is that the exhibit space can host only about 20 cars, just a fraction of the collection (which includes a very rare Tucker). Starting Nov. 21, Osborne will be able to showcase his model collection in a show called “Small Wonders: Mini, Micro, Pedal and Toy Cars.”

Many of the museum’s events — gala parties, concours exhibits, new car debuts, a children’s pedal car race, seminars, regular Cars and Coffee gatherings — are held at historical sites around Newport. These have included Fort Adams State Park (home of the town’s annual jazz and folk festivals), the Rough Point mansion once owned by Doris Duke, the 60-room Belcourt (designed for banking heir Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1894) and the Vanderbilt family’s Breakers cottage, where the 2019 Audrain Concours was held.

Newport is not usually thought of as an automotive town, but it has some history. Willie K. Vanderbilt II raced his Daimler Phoenix (a $10,000 purchase) around Ocean Drive at the turn of the 20th century, and when that earned some neighborhood blowback he and his friends organized an actual race, held at the Aquidneck Park horse racing track in Newport on Sept. 6, 1900. John Jacob Astor was a participant. From those humble beginnings grew the Vanderbilt Cup events on Long Island, which awarded the first significant trophy in American auto racing.

Leno, the television host and car collector, bought a home in Newport in 2017 and was a presence during Motor Week last year. A fan of both museums, he said Newport had the makings of a prominent car destination, citing its Vanderbilt history, ability to attract a well-heeled clientele to events and hidden garage treasures.

“It’s a tourist town and the kind of place where Bobby Darin’s ’65 Cadillac or something like that is likely to turn up,” Leno said. “There’s old money there, as there is in Pebble Beach.”

Vanderbilt’s old Daimler is now a part of Mercedes-Benz’s collection in Germany, but the Audrain’s 1925 Model T Ford Touring was part of the lighting exhibit. Osborne pointed out the electric lights framing the windshield. Designed to look like the carriage lamps that were fresh in the memory of many buyers, they were perhaps the austere Model T’s only design flourish.

“This car demonstrates reliable electric lighting in a family car that cost only $295 in 1925,” Osborne said. (That’s about $4,300 in today’s dollars.)

Nearby was a 1937 Bentley 4 1/4-liter roadster with a body by Carlton Carriage, displaying huge French-made Marchal headlamps.

“They went from barely being able to see via acetylene gas lighting to, as cars got faster, having almost too much light with big lamps like these,” Osborne said.

He pointed out that U.S. legislation in the 1960s killed the gorgeous covered headlights seen on the E-Type Jaguar and contemporary Ferraris.

Leno said Osborne was “the perfect guy” to head Audrain because “he enjoys and knows the history, and he moves in the right circles.” On TV, he added, they are the odd couple.

“I’m the sloppy one, and he wears the bow ties,” Leno said.

The Newport Car Museum, which opened in 2017, comprises the 75-plus cars that make up Buerman’s extensive personal collection. He is a retired corporate lawyer, the chairman and founder of American Rock Salt, and a summer resident of Newport.

The 114,000-square-foot museum is a former engineering center and Patriot missile factory, and it’s adjacent to a campus operated by military contractor Raytheon. Inside the industrial-looking building is a wonderland, with six galleries celebrating American muscle (including Shelby cars and Corvettes), finned 1950s treasures and European exotics.

Buerman is an avid sailor, which explains the appeal of Newport. “I owned 20% of the cars I have now, and I said to my wife that we were spending so much time sailing that I should either sell the cars or open a museum,” he said. “She loved the museum idea, so it’s all her fault.”

The cars are very accessible, without ropes or other barriers. They were bought fully restored and appear immaculate. The collection keeps evolving because Buerman is still buying — there are many recent automotive dream machines, including a 2019 Corvette ZR1, a 2001 BMW Z8, a 2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R coupe and a 2018 Porsche 911 GT2 RS Weissach Edition.

Buerman, who was born in Germany, is a fan of postwar automotive design, and that’s why the cars are presented in unmodified form.

“The restomods are interesting because they make it easier for some wonderful period cars to be driven,” he said. “But the originals are what these kinetic artists designed, and I like to leave them in that form.” He pointed to some striking original design features, like the self-winding Benrus clock in the steering-wheel hub of his 1957 Chrysler 300C convertible.

The cars mostly stay put, but the museum involves the public by inviting auto shows and car club meetings to use its meeting space and large parking lot, and by offering free access to its eight Playseat driving simulators.

“I tell people if they wreck the cars I will fix them in our virtual body shop,” Buerman said.

On the second weekend of every month, the cars’ hoods go up for engine displays.

The museum would not have been possible without the magical de-icing properties of rock salt. “I was a successful corporate lawyer, but not that successful,” Buerman said. He added that as a salt supplier he felt a “moral obligation” to preserve his cars “because I rusted out so many of their relatives.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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