The Antique Auto Museum was located just 15 miles west of St. Louis, Mo., in the heartland of 1950s America and in the hearts of American hobbysists.
The museum was the dream of Lowell Frei (pronounced “fry”), a member of the Horseless Carriage Club of America. His passion was obtaining interesting and rare vehicles for public display. Frei was influential in convincing members of a major car club in the area to adjust their bylaws and incorporate so that the club could own property. In the minds of club members, what Lowell Frei had created as a museum may one day be operated by the club.
There was immense passion for the old car hobby among early collectors following World War II. Many such collectors were seen “as nuts,” old timers recall. What else would they be called in the polite language of the 1950s? The term seemed to fit, since this group of people spent long hours and money on cars that never would be valuable, John Q. Public rationalized. But time proved early hobbyists to be visionary rather than nutty.
Among those with the biggest dreams for the hobby were collectors who accumulated a large number of vintage cars and stored them in facilities open to viewing. Call them museums. Admission was often modest, perhaps 25 or 50 cents per adult. Cars were not usually restored to near-perfect condition as today, but they made presentable impressions and drew visitors by word of mouth and through modest advertising. Often a billboard here or there along traveled routes pointed the way.
Frei announced he had 50 vehicles in what had been a dairy barn. He took over the facility, adapted it as needed, and pictured it in hobby magazines. Two substantial buildings and four silos marked the open landscape, and he noted his specialty in gas, electric, and steam automobiles.
Exact location was at Clayton Road and Kehrs Mill Road in Ballwin, Mo., between Highway 66 and Highway 40. With two major routes nearby, Frei hoped to succeed. He certainly had the will and drive. You’ll find that in any person who strives for success.
But costs catch up with a percentage of collectors who dream too big or over-expand too quickly. Frei had an overhead on his property and had sunk a considerable amount of dollars into his cars. By 1959, he was offering cars for sale.
It is a real reflection on the hobby to examine the makes and prices offered by the museum at that time. A Studebaker electric was priced at $3,000 in 1959. That was near the price of a well-outfitted new Chevrolet. Also priced at $3,000 were a Hupp roadster, a tulip-bodied, one-cylinder Cadillac, a Columbus electric, and a Cole seven-passenger touring. There were more expensive cars. Priced about as much as a high-end Buick was a Lincoln roadster at $4,500. A Moon White Prince phaeton carried a $3,500 tag. A rare, made-in-St. Louis Ruxton (one of the first front-wheel-drive cars in America) was offered to new owners at $5,000. And towering in price above all lesser offerings were two cars at $6,000 (the price of a new Cadillac). One was a Stanley steamer, the other a Dorris seven-passenger touring, made locally.
There were bargains far below those hefty prices. At prices nearly every car hobbyist could afford in 1959 were a $600 Ford roadster, an $800 Franklin sedan, a $600 Maxwell touring, an $800 Chevrolet 490 roadster, a $600 Pierce-Arrow two-door, a $200 Nash coupe, and a $200 Diana, plus a $100 Star touring.
To chase away tire kickers who merely wanted to gawk at cars, Frei set down the law as owner of the museum. “Because it takes about two hours to show this large collection, a charge of $5 will be made for my time and applied to any purchase over $25 to separate the sightseers from the buyers,” he noted. Viewing was by appointment. It was stated that 80 cars were for sale.
That had dwindled from 40 restored and 60 unrestored cars a few months before. Some prices dropped, too. An Auburn sedan had been priced at $450, but was lowered to $300. A Model S Ford was priced at $2,500 in late 1959. A Kissel Chummy roadster was up for $1,200.
Frei was somewhat flexible, even though he was watching his dream collection come apart. That’s a hard thing for any museum owner to see when each vehicle becomes a figurative member of your family. A Detroit Electric dropped from $900 to $600, even though Frei noted, “1,000 miles on speedometer — I think this is right.”
The dream of a St. Louis car museum did not die with the passing of Frei’s operation. In the 1990s, Joe Scott and his family opened the St. Louis Car Museum, where cars of various collectors were displayed; some were even offered for sale. A converted bowling alley was nicely appointed with carpet, new lighting, and snappy décor befitting an old car business. Organizers believed St. Louis was long overdue for such an operation.
Located at 1575 Woodson Road just five minutes from the St. Louis International Airport and near major intersections and highways, car clubs set the location as the destination for tours, special events, and shows. For a few dollars, visitors could see more than 150 cars from the early 1900s up to the 1970s in a climate-controlled setting. This offered car owners the opportunity to store their prized vehicles in warmth throughout cold winters and in a safe, protected environment. Lowell Frei probably would have loved the museum!
The museum was advertised as covering 55,000 square feet on five acres of land with ample outdoor parking for visitors. Entertainers like Jay Leno were known to visit when in town.
“Our collection is constantly changing, so you never know what you might find — from roadsters to town cars, convertibles to coupes, and running boards to rumble seats,” noted one museum official.
Besides storage and consignment sales, the museum also offered detailing in a special shop on the premises and appraising. A gift shop sold auto-related items, clothing, model cars, and literature.
After about six years, the museum was revamped into what is now called the St. Louis Antique Mall & Car Museum within the same location. About 40 antique, Classic, and special-interest cars grace the main floor while 100 display cases and 300 sales booths for antiques and collectibles now share the site.
It takes work to keep a museum open seven days a week, but the operators are determined.
The type of cars on display and for sale at the location are often superb. In recent months, a 1934 Packard dual-windshield phaeton was there, along with a 1936 Cadillac Series 85 V-12 convertible. At one time, two 1936 V-12 Packards were at the museum location, one a convertible sedan, the other a coupe roadster. A 1948 Chrysler Town & Country convertible, a fresh nut-and-bolt restoration, was on display. More recent cars have included a 1950 Packard sedan, a 1954 Jaguar XK120 roadster, a 1959 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer D-500, a 1967 Corvette, a 1968 Shelby GT 500KR convertible, and a 1979 Excalibur phaeton.
Prices on cars for sale have risen considerably since the days of Lowell Frei’s museum, but so has just about everything else in life. Now museum cars on consignment may be priced from $7,500 to more than $180,000, although many offerings are priced below $30,000.
Museums attract the general public and serve a marvelous function in bringing old car history to light. This is especially true for younger generations who might never see a Diana or Kissel unless they see them in a museum.
Old car owners can support local car museums several ways. Clubs can adopt a museum and offer volunteer help. Perhaps a club can assist with the restoration of a car to be displayed. Maybe a club will choose to set up an annual auction or other fund-raising event to benefit the museum. Clubs can use museum sites as their headquarters, if space allows and arrangements can be approved.
Individual car collectors can support a local museum by offering to display their vintage vehicles, especially ones with an interesting history or local connection. Or they may serve as resource and reference experts for the museum in one of its restorations. Donations can also be made. If there is a lead on a particular car the museum wants for display, hobbyists can help locate it. And when the museum needs to make room for rarer cars in its collection, individuals can offer to buy some of those cars being thinned from the collection.
Old car museums are a wonderful element in our hobby.