Over the past century, Detroit has become synonymous with the idea of American cars, the Motor City hosting the Big Three as they emerged as the dominant forces in the US market. But in the automobile’s early days, the industry was far less centralized: thousands of small companies tried their hand at the car business before going bankrupt or becoming absorbed by a conglomerate like General Motors. In fact, over a hundred different automakers once called New York state home.
Both the Northeast Classic Car Museum—in Norwich, NY—and the Saratoga Automobile Museum—in Saratoga Springs, NY—provide an in-depth look into the history of New York’s automobile manufacturers, but each collection takes a unique spin at covering the Empire State’s overlooked automotive past.
If you’re interested in The Franklin Automobile Company, head to the Northeast Classic Car Museum. This nondescript warehouse in a town of just 6,000 people holds the largest collection of Franklins on display, ranging from the third car ever built by the Syracuse-based firm, a 1903 Runabout, to the last to roll off the line before the Great Depression dragged the company into insolvency. Franklin was an innovative brand, with one of the largest engineering budgets in the automotive world at the time. Every Franklin came with an air-cooled engine, beneficial in the early 1900s due to its simplicity, light weight, and reliability when compared to water-cooled motors.
Franklin also utilized its air-cooled engines as a marketing tactic, presenting one of the first Airman Series models to Charles Lindbergh in 1928. Lindbergh was the first person to fly nonstop from New York City to Paris and did so in the air-cooled Spirit of St. Louis, with Franklin capitalizing on this connection by enlisting the celebrity aviator as a spokesman. The Northeast Classic Car Museum’s 1934 Airman is the last known vehicle to emerge from the Franklin factory, but the actual 1928 car owned by Lindbergh can be found in the Saratoga Automobile Museum.
The Northeast Classic Car Museum also features several other NY-built cars, including a V12-powered 1938 Pierce-Arrow Town Car Limousine. This example was originally shown at the 1938 New York Auto Show and later sold into private hands. Interestingly, Pierce-Arrow’s V12s were so well made that after the company went defunct, firetruck builder Seagrave purchased the molds and designs and used them until 1981.
While the Saratoga Automobile Museum also includes several NY-made road cars, the institution focuses on motorsports, delving into New York’s rich but largely forgotten racing history. Information panels detail how William K. Vanderbilt II built the Long Island Motor Parkway, America’s first private toll road, in 1908 to host his Vanderbilt Cup, after a controversial crash in the 1906 race killed several spectators. While another fatal crash in 1910 ended the race’s presence on the Parkway, it returned in 1936 for two years as the George Vanderbilt Cup at Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, Long Island. Adjacent to the information placards sits the 1935 Maserati V8RI which ran at the 1936 and 1937 Cup races as well as the 1938 and 1939 Indy 500s. Despite its svelte bodywork and supercharged V8, the Maserati failed to finish both Cups and couldn’t manage to qualify for either Indy 500. Its 1937 DNF was the most disappointing, after reigning American racing champion Mauri Rose scythed his way from 16th on the grid to sixth before a universal-joint failure forced his retirement.
Both museums also have healthy collections of cars with no connection to New York state, with Northeast Classic Car Museum specializing in, you guessed it, classic cars, and the Saratoga Automobile Museum housing a variety of racing cars.
The former’s collection features dozens of intriguing and iconic pre-war classics. Two early electric pioneers sit near the entrance to the gallery: a 1910 Waverly Electric, which looks like a phone booth on wheels and had a range of 50 miles, and a 1914 Detroit Electric, which had an 80 mile range and was steered by a tiller. The 1910 Firestone-Columbus Model 7-A was the third model built by the Columbus Buggy Company, which operated on a Tesla-esque schedule where executives met daily to discuss improvements and immediately add them to the car rather than update their models on a yearly basis. One of the collection’s rarest vehicles is a 1929 Duesenberg “All-Weather Cabriolet” by Holbrook, the sole survivor out of just two ever made and which cost $8,500 for the chassis alone, before an additional $7,000-10,000 for the coachbuilt body. According to the museum, the other example was eventually purchased used for just $75 by a farmer who removed the body and allowed it to rust away at the bottom of a ravine while the chassis was driven around the farm until it was completely destroyed as well.
There’s also a sizable selection of post-war muscle, including the radical 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona. One of just 543 made, the Daytona was a homologation special created to appease NASCAR with an 18-inch steel nosecone and ridiculous 23.5-inch high rear wing. Nearby sits a pack of 1969 Chevy Super Sport models, all finished in Lemans Blue and packing hefty V8 power plants. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the museum’s 1951 Henry J, a sedan developed by the Kaiser-Frazier Corporation to be bare bones transportation, keeping costs down by removing the glove box, armrests, roll-down rear windows, and trunk lid—the trunk was accessed through a fold-down rear seat. But with entry-level Fords and Chevys of the time only $100 more, the Henry J remained a slow seller, despite an attempt to sell a rebadged version called the Allstate through Sears, and production ended in 1953.
The Saratoga Auto Museum’s racing collection is teeming with Indy 500 history. There’s a 1961 Cooper-Climax T54, driven by Jack Brabham as high as sixth in the 1961 race before finishing ninth due to tire wear. The Cooper-Climax is joined by a 1967 AAR Eagle, the brainchild of Dan Gurney and the only American-built car to win an F1 race, although this example achieved less impressive results, failing to qualify at two Indy 500s at the hands of Richie Ginther. Jumping forward a decade, a 1974 McLaren M16C/D, driven by David Hobbs to a fifth place at the 500, sits resplendent in its black-and-orange paintwork next to a 1975 McLaren M16E. The M16E, decked out with a Gatorade sponsorship, was piloted by Johnny Rutherford to second at the Indy 500, a win in Phoenix, and second place overall in the championship. A 1913 Isotta Fraschini Tipo IM, which ran as a factory entry in the 1913 and 1914 Indy 500s, looks absolutely massive next to its descendants.
Several successful endurance racers are featured as well, most notably a 1984 Porsche 962, wearing a striking orange, yellow, and white livery. This was the first customer 962, and it took three victories in the 1985 IMSA GT Championship with Dyson Racing. A 2009 Lola B09/86 which took multiple overall victories and won the 2011 American Le Mans Series is parked opposite the 962, hiding a 500-hp Mazda inline-four under its curvaceous bodywork, which produces up to 4,000 lbs of downforce.
Each museum houses dozens more incredible vehicles, and any enthusiast could get lost in these automotive heavens for hours, drinking in the classic sheetmetal and exploring the fascinating history. The Northeast Classic Car Collection and the Saratoga Automobile Museum are certainly well worth the visit.