Depending on how you’re counting, officials with the America On Wheels museum have either been waiting three years, or 18 years, for their dream of a shiny new transportation museum to actually materialize. Either way, the wait has been plenty long, and now it’s almost over.
On April 7, at 9 a.m., the doors on the new museum and educational center will open for the first time, officially becoming one of the centerpieces of an ambitious downtown waterfront revitalization project in historic Allentown, Pa. The official groundbreaking for the 43,000-square foot project was held April 29, 2005, but the seeds of the dream germinated in 1989 when Jack Curcio, a former CEO at Mack Trucks, Inc., started thinking seriously about someday finding a way to bring an automotive museum to the Lehigh Valley.
“Jack always, in his heart, loved museums and thought that it would be important to bring one to Allentown,” said Linda Merkel, executive director of the museum. “He got involved with Allentown’s economic development group, and he’s been involved in it for about 18 years, which is a story in itself.”
Curcio is now the president of the AOW Board of Directors, and the end result of his vision will be more than a showcase for shiny old machines. The facility will be set up to house a variety of community events, and will include a library, mini theater, classroom and orientation room. Of course, the main attractions will be the vehicles, and there will be plenty to see. About 65 cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles will fill the two floors, including an impressive array of great American muscle cars that will make up the first temporary exhibit. The more permanent galleries will showcase Mack vehicles — Mack Trucks headquarters is located in Allentown — and a technology exhibit tracing the major American transportation innovations over the years, as well as future possibilities, such as hydrogen fuel.
“I think it’s going to be a real gathering place that will allow great flexibility for anyone that comes,” Merkel said. “When they walk through the building, there will be a story told.”
Merkel noted that the building construction itself is nearly complete. The carpeting is down and everything is painted. Now, it’s just a matter of getting the vehicles into the building and finishing all of the work on the displays that will tell the stories.
“We’ve started moving vehicles in, so we’re doing very well. We’re right on schedule,” she said. “We’re all revved up. Construction is near completion and things are going very well.
“Right now all that’s really left is the fabrication of the exhibits. Everything we planned is coming to life. (The exhibits) were built off-site in New York at Empire Exhibits … Now everything is coming together and we are going to have one gorgeous museum.”
Initial visitors will get to see everything from classic muscle cars like the 1967 Shelby GT and 1970 Hemi ’Cuda, to prewar Mack dump trucks, classic race cars, antique motorcycles, rocket-powered barstools and racing lawn mowers.
One of the museum’s main attractions will be the Mack company archives, which now has a permanent new home. Those archives have required some special accommodations.
“We’ve had to secure the flooring to make sure we can sustain the weight,” said Merkel with a laugh. “Everything is in big fireproof cabinets, which are extremely important, and extremely heavy.”
The museum will rest on a well-known piece of real estate in the Lehigh Valley and be part of a big revitalization effort in Allentown. The site formerly housed the Arbogast & Bastian meat packing plant, and the Lehigh Valley Transit Co. Because of the previous use of the land, there have been plenty of environmental hurdles along the way, in addition to the many funding and planning challenges that come with such an undertaking.
“The funding started with state grants and help from various senators from Pennsylvania,” said Merkel. “We are kicking off our capital campaign now, to help with the actual operation of the museum.
“It’s been quite an experience. I never thought I’d ever be involved with something like this!”
For more information on the new America On Wheels Museum, visit the museum’s Web site at www.americaonwheels.org.