The big, rare and beautiful at the Forney Museum


One of the special features this summer at the Forney Museum of
Transporation in Denver, Colo., is Amelia Earhart’s 1923 Kissel Gold Bug.

What do Amelia Earhart’s 1923 Kissel Gold Bug, Denver’s only surviving cable car and a nearly 1,200,000-lb. steam locomotive nicknamed “Big Boy” have in common? If you’ve been around the hobby for any length of time, you likely know it’s the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, Colo., where all three reside.

With the coming of the summer season, the Forney Museum is in high gear. Although a year-round operation, the museum has added a few bells and whistles for the season in an attempt to attract more local residents and visitors to its amazing collection of transportation history. Included is the annual “Big Boy Day,” now expanded to a two-day “Big Boy Weekend,” a special treat for Father’s Day.

Christof Kheim is the museum’s director and principle caretaker for the 140,000 square feet of museum space. “We have well over 500 artifacts,” he said. “Of that, there are approximately 150 cars and trucks and many other varied forms of transportation.” The variety includes a slew of buggies, bicycles, motorcycles, aircraft, fire engines and some pretty rare and exotic cars.

The oldest piece in the museum is an all-wood bicycle that dates to 1817: a French Draisienne. It’s an interesting contraption. Sans pedals, gears or a chain, it is designed to be walked up hill, then ridden down.

The oldest car in the building is a steam-powered 1899 Locomobile dos-a-dos. 

The largest piece on display, of course, is the Union Pacific “Big Boy” #4005, (one of only eight surviving) billed as the largest articulated steam locomotive in the world. It keeps company with two cabooses, three other locomotives, a Rio Grande dining car, three coach cars, a rotary snow plow and a rail crane.

The 1911 Hudson Model 33, on permanent display at the museum, is
keeping company with a special exhibit of Hudsons through July 31.

Kheim’s comment that the Forney Museum “has some pretty significant pieces” is an understatement. There are five Kissel Kars, a Staver (one of only six known to exist), a Winton Six, a Metz, a one-of-a-kind six-wheeled Hispano Suiza, a Brewster, a Nyberg (the only example known) and the list goes on. (See www.forneymuseum.org for a more comprehensive listing.)

The museum was started by J.D. Forney, founder of Forney Industries, still a family-run business operating out of Fort Collins, Colo.

“Mr. Forney was the inventor of the Instant Heat Soldering Iron in about 1932,” Kheim explained. “Then the company went on to produce the first portable farm welders, which could run on regular household current. It was the only welding equipment at the time that was approved for operation on the rural electric lines.”

But Forney was a workaholic and his wife Rachel and son Jack thought he needed a hobby. They decided to go looking for a 1921 Kissel — the kind J.D. had courted Rachel in. “So, in 1955, they acquired a 1921 Kissel touring and gave it to J.D. That was the first car which started the process; a car which remains a part of the collection to this day,” Kheim said.

The vast sales force that worked throughout the United States and Canada for Forney knew their bosses’ interest in vehicles of all kinds and began finding them for him. “They would go out into the country selling welders and see farmers or ranchers who had an old surrey, buggy or other vehicle in the barn, and if the farmer didn’t have the money to buy the welder, sometimes they would even trade for what was in the barn,” Kheim said.

It wasn’t long before J.D. had more vehicles than he could store in the collection’s original location in Ft. Collins, and as word of the collection spread, showing off the collection became too difficult. Forney eventally joined forces with a local physician, Dr. James Arneill, a rail and antique car buff himself, and created the museum to solve the problem, incorporating it as a non-profit entity in 1961. After moving several times, it landed in 2000 at its present location — a renovated food distribution warehouse. As a long-standing 501(c)(3)nonprofit organization, the museum has no direct tie to or funding from the Forney Industries company and survives solely on donations and admissions.

Kheim admitted it’s been a tough time for the museum business, which means finding creative ways to attract attention. The facility is now located at the intersection of I-25 and I-70 just north of downtown Denver, accessible and visible, but still surprisingly invisible to many potential visitors. Getting people excited about history and making them aware of the museum’s existence is a constant challenge for Kheim, the only full-time employee, plus five part-time staff members and a few devoted volunteers.

“One of the things we’ve recently begun doing is inviting different car clubs to get involved and to bring in temporary, rotating displays,” Kheim said. On display now through July 31 — with the help of local collectors — are Hudsons from 1912-’54, and the 54-piece Timme Motorcyle Collection featuring Indians, Hondas and others, through Sept. 15. Past contributor displays have been devoted to Packards and Studebakers and numerous others themes are planned for the future.

The displays incorporate vehicles from the Forney Museum, but are primarily those owned by local collectors and hobbyists. “It benefits both the museum and the old car hobby to have these visiting displays.  Cars and related memorabilia, which one would not normally see, are here for the public to enjoy, and it also gives folks a reason to visit the Forney Museum again and again,” Kheim said.
To help care for the unique fleet, the museum has an adopt-a-car program. One of the first to be adopted was a 1930 Ford Model A roadster formerly driven by the late Rachel Forney, J.D.’s wife. “It was adopted by the Model A Ford Club of Colorado.  They’re doing a full restoration,” said Kheim. Their progress has been amazing, too. “Within two hours one Saturday [club members] had [the roadster] running and were driving around the parking lot,” Kheim added. “On another Saturday, they rewired the car within a very short time.”

At press time, the body had been taken off the frame and the club was in the process of repairing it and prepping it for paint. 

There is also a monthly “Dust-N-Shine” program at the museum, where a different hobby club takes on the unending task of keeping the displays clean. 

Kheim is prone to hit the road with Forney Museum vehicles, taking select cars from the museum fleet to show off in local parades and other events such as the recent AAA Glidden Tour Revival held in Colorado, where he piloted a rare, 1932 Plymouth PB roadster through the mountains. Such voyages remind car lovers to drop by the museum regularly to see parts of the existing collections and the many visiting exhibits.

In addition to many great cars, the Forney Museum of Transportation
has a collection of historical photos, such as this one from the Earhart display.

To draw attention to the Earhart Gold Bug, nicknamed the “Yellow Peril” because of Earhart’s fondness for speed, Kheim hopes to take it to the Old Car Festival for pre-1932 cars at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, Mich., Sept. 10-12. The gathering will be a major reunion of Kissel Gold Bugs. “The car has not been roadworthy for the last 30-plus years,” Kheim said. “I’m hoping we get donations or sponsors to get the car running and fund the trip so we can take it to the reunion.  Of course, such a rare vehicle will be trailered, thanks to the help of volunteers. It is only 1 of 42 Gold Bugs registered with the Kissel Club and probably one of the more famous ones.”

Kheim said the only time the Gold Bug has been out of the museum in the last 10 years was when it was taken to the Denver premier of the 2009 movie, “Amelia.” The car was one of J.D. Forney’s favorites and was driven by him often during his lifetime. 

The museum also hosts third-party activities to draw attention to the facility, opening its doors to a wide variety of community functions, such as high school proms, wedding receptions, meetings and other activities, which its meeting room and exhibit space can accommodate. The museum’s event space is in the center of the museum exhibits, making for a wonderfully unique venue for special occasions. The entire museum can also be rented for an event. 

Additionally, the Forney hosts its own fund-raising events. There is an annual sock hop and car show, a Halloween Fall Fest for kids, craft and art shows, transporation lectures, special senior offers and other events throughout the year.

The Forney Museum of Transportation, 4303 Brighton Blvd., is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.forneymuseum.org, or call 303-297-1113.

Hard-to-find cars, such as this 1912 Metz roadster, are easy to find
at the Forney Museum of Transporation.

Photos courtesy of Forney Museum of Transporation and David Barth, www.forneyarchive.com


The best source for great, early American cars:

Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, 3rd edition
By Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark, Jr.

The only book with detailed histories behind the 5,000
automobiles built from 1805-1942, most illustrated
with period photographs.

More Resources For Car Collectors:

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