Bill Harrah’s legacy in pictures

National Automobile Museum honors Bill Harrah’s legacy

1927 Miller 91 and 1931 Bugatti Royale Coupe deVille photographed in 1975.

“In the Harrah culture, there were organizational standards for all aspects of daily operations throughout departments to ensure the best business practices…the days of Bill Harrah are now rooted in history,” said Jackie Frady, executive director of the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev. Her comments appeared in the organization’s September 2011 edition of Precious Metal, courtesy of The Harrah Automobile Foundation, 10 S. Lake St., Reno, NV 89501-1558 (Jackie Frady).

The 28-page magazine is a major salute to what would have been the 100th birthday of the man. Sadly, while in his 60s and at the peak of his collecting frenzy, he succumbed to an aneurism during surgery.

A pioneer in the gaming business, Harrah was addicted to gambling, but overcame that bout. Maybe collecting old cars was a curative. We may never know. However, there is no doubt that in his day, he was the leading collector with about 1,400 vehicles to his credit. These were not just any types of cars. There was a method to his collecting.

His collection was opened to the public in February 1962 “in Sparks, Nevada, with 325 cars…. Bill Harrah collected cars of which only one was built or only one remained in existence, the first and last of a series, and cars that had notable engineering features, history, or owners,” says the magazine. In less than 3-1/2 years, 250,000 people visited the collection.

The hobby was astounded when Harrah purchased the entire Winthrop Rockefeller collection in 1975 for a then-whopping $947,000. This included 68 motorized vehicles and three that were horse-drawn. One of the gems in the Harrah collection that had preceded the Rockefeller purchase was the 1908 Thomas Flyer that had won the 1908 New York to Paris Automobile Race and, due to the win, was credited to be “one of the most historically significant American cars.”

Those of us who watched the rise of Bill Harrah’s collection were shaken in 1980 when Holiday Inns obtained Harrah’s Hotels and Casinos, including the car collection. The magazine treats the succeeding years on a pleasant note, with the formation of the museum. This became reality thanks to “generous donations from the City of Reno Redevelopment Agency, the State of Nevada, and many individuals and organizations.” As such, Bill Harrah’s dream continues to grow.

If you can obtain a copy of the September edition of magazine, do it soon. It’s a keeper.

For details on the museum, go to or call 775-333-9300.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, some of Bill Harrah’s legacy. (Photos are from Rodman Bingham of Menlo Park, Calif., and are presented here through the courtesy of his wife, Marguerite, and their daughter, Patrice Offenhauser.)

Duesenberg and Pierce-Arrow phaetons, as photographed in 1964.

An unknown woman and the Duesenberg Model J phaeton as photographed in 1965.

The Duesenberg Weymann speedster (J-508) as photographed in 1965.

One of the 1933 Pierce Silver Arrow show cars as photographed in 1965.

The 1907 Thomas Flyer from the 1908 Great Race as photographed in 1965.

A 1925 or 1926 Ajax touring photographed in 1974.

Harrah's 1929 Packard phaeton photographed during a 1974 visit.

A 1952 Kaiser and ca-1904 Napier photographed in 1975.

1935 Auburn Speedster as photographed in 1975.

Harrah had many Pierces, including this 1929 Pierce-Arrow roadster photographed in 1975.

A 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K special roadster photographed in 1975.

A baby blue 1942 Packard Darrin photographed in 1975.

Harrah's 1929 Pierce-Arrow coupe photographed in 1975.

Harrah's 1911 Fiat Grand Prix car photographed in 1975.

A ca-1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet photographed in 1975.

A pair of 1933 Ford Cabriolets in Harrah's restoration shop in 1975.

The 1907 Thomas Flyer, as photographed in 1975.

One of several Duesenberg Model A cars from Harrah's collection, this one photographed in 1975.

A peek in Harrah's restoration shop in 1975.

A rare ca-1927 Franklin coupe, shown in a 1975 photograph.


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13 thoughts on “Bill Harrah’s legacy in pictures

  1. John Kelsey

    As Mr. Harrah and his wife came to see my parents. A quite and long relationship existed between them. My father and Mr. Harrah spent several pleasant hours going over the finer points of their respective passion of collecting and restoring vintage vehicles. Mr. Harrah was a true gentleman.


    i moryin lake tahs memoroe for 2 years and worked in construction and i went to reno many times and attended the sept auctions when bill was still aliveit its grateto see his mermory remembered thank you will hassan

  3. Milton S Hill

    My only visit to Harrah’s collection was in the summer of 1966, where we attended a car show at the high school football field and also toured the museum and restoration facility. It is one of the great memories I carry with me.

  4. Gaines Adcock

    I have visited the Harrah collection many, many times from 1968 through 2011. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Bill Harrah at a Reno Auto Show in the mid ’70s before his untimely death in 1978 at the Mayo Clinic. Bill Harrah was only 68 years old and was a great gentleman and true car collector. I attended all three of the big auctions that downsized his collection after his death. It was interesting to watch all the “high rollers” bidding against each other over some of his most expensive cars.

  5. Geoff WOOKEY

    I was never able to get to the US to see the best collection of old cars in the world, but have enjoyed seeing the pictures. Its a shame that the collection was broken up after he died as I’m sure some of those cars will not be seen very often by the present owners. Words can’t describe how beautiful those cars were, they are all purely classics.

  6. Bob Ripley Sr

    I had the pleasure of having a Future Mother-in-law, who gave me her ” LOOK MAGAZINE” of a month, I do not remember. It was around the 1957 to 1960 years, and contained a wonderful article about Bill Harrah’s collection and the CENTER FOLD was a very large photo looking down on an arrangement of so many Beautiful cars of his collection. ” I was HOOKED” ~ In later years, I enjoyed the opportunity to visit, with my wife, the BILL HARRAH Museum in Sparks Nevada, on February 28, 1984. I still have the General Admission Ticket Stub No. 419694. And the 3 Books that I purchased- (1)-the wonderful ” HARRAH’S Automobile Collection,” An Attraction of Harrah’s Hotels and Casinos, Reno and Lake Tahoe, Nevada” — 32 pages of so many sharpe, colored, photos and written description of each Auto. — (2) “Harrah’s Automobile Collection Special Edition,” Coyright 1975, with the same Very High Quality Photos, and Description of each Auto, also attached, is the “Harrah’s Auto Collection Automobile Listing” , containg an alphabetical listing of cars in HARRAH’S Automobile Collection, along with descriptive data including Make, Year, Model, Number of Cylinders, Horsepower, Body Style, and Body Builder if custom or special body. Also listing motorcycles, boats, airplanes, and Miscellaneous — (3) I also purchased the “ROLLS~ ROYCE.IN AMERICA” by JOHN WEBB de CAMPI ( who we later met at a Rolls Royce Convention in Lancaster, Pa.)

  7. alyson matley

    I’ve been scouring the net for an article that gave some impression of the collection I saw with my dad in the late 60s and early 70s. Thank you for this great article and the photos. Its hard to describe the scope and size of that collection to most people these days. What an amazing introduction to a lifetime obsession!

  8. Terry Leal

    I saw this collection first with a friend in 1969 and then again with my wife in around 1973. It is a shame that a portion of this beautiful collection was sold.I have been a car nut for most of my life and visting this collection when it was still intact was surely a highlight which I will never forget.

  9. Richard_W

    I grew up in Sparks, not far from the collection and my grandfather worked for Mr Harrah. I later worked at the estate with my grandfather, when he became caretaker. Went to the collection frequently. I’ve been into cars since childhood, when grandpa would take me to the Harrah swap meets to look for parts for his projects. Was really sad when he passed away during an operation he was expected to recover from. After they sold the club (and the collection with it) collection he built for so many years, it was split up and went to bidders around the world. What remains is a tiny fraction of what it once was….

  10. SSyzdek

    I visited the collection several times in the 1970’s and 1980’s up until the cars were sold. A coworker of mine bought a 1955 or 1956 Ford when they were selling all the cars. I helped him adjust the valves so that it would be drive-able. I remember that the collection was so crowded that you could not get good photos of the cars. I have to search for the photos that I took at the collection. Good memories. The Bugatti Royale’s were very memorable.I think I have seen five of them at various museums.

  11. pdlock

    I visited the Sparks location in 1980…it’s true; there were so many cars jammed in that you couldn’t get a good picture. I have many shots I took that day. In 2000, I visited the abbreviated collection that remains in Reno and saw a few cars that I shot 30 years earlier. What fond memories! A smaller but delightful collection is on display at the Northeast Classic Car Museum in Norwich, NY…..don’t miss it if you’re in the area. These collections will create memories that will last you a lifetime. I still remember walking across the parking lot in Sparks so long ago…knowing I was privileged to see something that others would regret missing out on.


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