A Dream Garage Come True
By Roger Boylan
No, not my dream garage (which you can find here in three installments: the Standards, the Sportives, and the Utilities) – Dick Burdick’s. Burdick, the 80-year-old founder of San Marcos, Texas-based Thermon Co., worldwide manufacturer of heating cables, tank insulation, and such, has been collecting cars since the 1980s. Most of the 250 or so he now owns reside in the 28-year-old Central Texas Museum of Automotive History in Rosanky, Texas, near Bastrop, but as of July 11th of this year the remaining 60 or so can be seen at another car museum, Dick’s Classic Garage in San Marcos. The museum is a striking building from the outside, incorporating Art Deco accents to evoke the heyday of drive-ins and extravagant automotive design. Inside, its 43,000 square-foot exhibit space is an agreeable place to walk around in, brightly lighted, like an artist’s studio, and logically laid out.
My wife and I visited the museum on its second day of operations. First; a brief discussion with the door staff as to whether the distinguished Autosavant correspondent deserved to be spared the somewhat-stiff weekend fee of $12 per adult resulted in a 20% discount being granted me, upon presentation of a slightly dog-eared Autosavant business card. A good time was then had by both of us. In truth, I was pleasantly surprised, or perhaps I’ve developed a tendency to underestimate the potential of San Marcos, in whose rather barren cultural landscape this museum is a welcome bloom. Most of the exhibits are displayed in chronological order from 1929 until 1959, with a slight cultural bias to the ’50s evident not only in the architecture but also in the discreet background music and the decor, featuring diner-style red-and-white tables and chairs and a (non-functioning) Coke machine advertising Cokes for 10 cents each (no doubt a reasonable price in 1954).
First of the classics to greet the visitor in the lobby is a mint-condition 1948 Tucker, No. 48 of the 51 made during the company’s brief one-year lifetime. Its odometer reading is less than a mile; this must be the only car in the museum not taken out by Dick Burdick for the occasional spin. (He believes in driving his cars, not just admiring them.) But the Tucker is an first and foremost an artifact, and a memorial to the much-maligned Preston Tucker, another automotive dreamer, like Burdick. A flat-screen TV on the wall plays the 1988 Jeff Bridges movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream. It was a good movie, as I recall, but failed to catch on with the public, much like Tucker’s cars. That, too, was unfair, but Tucker has had his posthumous revenge; the name once synonymous with failure is now a byword for daring, innovation, style, and safety.
But commercial failure was the subtext of many of the grandest automobile sagas, some of which are told here. The jaw-dropping 1934 Duesenberg Model J, for instance, around the corner from the Tucker, is one of the most magnificent automobiles ever built, hand-crafted by a French coachmaker; but magnificence didn’t guarantee longevity in the Depression. Duesenberg, Auburn, and Cord, that tripartite union of American dream cars (all three marques represented in Dick’s Garage), were dead and gone by the 1940s. The Duesy succeeded only as a symbol of brash opulence, belonging to the Great Gatsby clan of nouveau riche social climbers, like the 1934 car’s actual former owner, an American-born Italian countess-by-marriage. The advantage for the museum-goer is that the few survivors, relieved of the burden of everyday automotive expectations and commercial success, can now be seen for the works of art they are.
Competing with the Michelangelo-class of Duesenbergs and Cords in Burdick’s museum are the Norman Rockwells of Mr. and Mrs. America’s daily drivers, including a 1948 Dodge pickup, endearing and slightly cartoonish in gleaming fire-engine red; a beautiful black 1954 Buick Skylark, another inspired and inspiring model name later affixed to an ignominious clunker; a 1942 Ford Super, one of the last turned out in civilian factories; and one of my personal favorites, an absolutely gorgeous 1954 Studebaker Starlight coupe-which, now that I think about it, is quite definitely in the Michelangelo class.
But that’s the great thing about this museum. Like far grander museums, it manages to cover the spectrum of its subject, from the banal to the glorious. And as we admire the daring and original designs of cars of the past, and note their kinship with the domestic design of such things as appliances and furniture, we come a little closer to our own past and marvel at what a foreign country it really is.
Dick’s Classic Garage, at 120 Stagecoach Trail, San Marcos, TX 78666, is open six days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and Saturday, from 12 noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, and closed on Tuesday. Admission on weekdays is $10 for adults and $5 for children; Saturday and Sunday admission is $12 for adults and $5 for children. Children under 5 are free.
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