“You want to do what?!” That sentiment, I suspect, is by far the most predictable one anybody might expect from a long-suffering wife, were her husband to declare, “Honey, I’m going to open an auto museum.”
“You want to do what?!”
I would like to have been in the vicinity when Jeff Lane made his own similar declaration of independenceonly to have wife Susan reply, “What a great idea. When can we start?”
Installed within the bright, ample space of the onetime Sunbeam Bakery at 702 Murfreesboro Road, Lane Motor Museum is no half-baked idea. Open since October 2003, it is, rather, an immense, maple-floored play gym for a modern generation that has grown up on intimate terms with the automobile and, consequently, has jaded itself to the genius and creativity required to put wheels in motion with a driver in control.
Jeff and Susan Lane, whether by intention or by serendipity, have assembled under one roof what looks to be a dizzying collection of more than 100 exotic cars and trucks but what is, in fact, a fascinating thought experiment. For the most part, the Lane collection consists of European models of immediate postwar (i.e., 1950s) to OPEC (i.e., 1970s) vintage. The oldest model on display, howevera Citroên 5CV “Trefle”dates to 1924; and the most recenta Smart Car, by Mercedes-Benzis a 2003 model. There are, moreover, almost two dozen motorcycles, ranging from a Fuji Rabbit Scooter to a Yamaha WR250 “trials” bike.
The Japanese make an appearance in the guise, primarily, of very early attempts by Subaru and Toyota in the 1960s to divine North American tastes so alien from their own. It remains a mystery to ponder what convinced Subaru that a three-quarter-scale knockoff of Volkswagen’s minibus was what Americans craved. Its 360cc motor, after all, makes only 25 horsepower. Was it assumed that nobody in LSD-laced 1967 was likely to notice?
Mystery pervades the Lane collection. Even for automotive enthusiasts, the European provenance of most vehicles on display stymies recognition. When America was driving giant 1957 Chevy Bel Airs, Europeans were putting about in BMW Isetta 300s and Messerschmitt KR200s. “Tiny” is too big a word for these cars. The Isetta, in particular, sports a single door that opens over the front bumper; its profile resembles a smushed muffin perched on casters.
Buffs might assume that a visit to Lane Motor Museum is all about copping glimpses of famous supercars. To an extent, they won’t be disappointed: The ’75 Maserati Bora is an automotive embodiment of la Cóte d’Azur; the ’73 Jensen Interceptor appears to have driven straight over from a James Bond set; the ’81 Caterham (a.k.a. Lotus Super 7) looks simultaneously thrilling and suicidal with tubular cockpit and open wheels.
It’s essential to note, however, that the premise of the Lane collection has little to do with glorifying the supercars of the super rich. It has more to do with documenting the evolution of the vehicles we take so carelessly for granted today. The Lanes have done this by exhibiting cars of the European hoi polloius regular Pierres and Paulasfrom the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Half a world away, the motor vehicle evolved so entirely differently from what Americans recognize and want that Europe might as well be an automotive Galapagos Island where U.S. drivers are concerned.
This is why non-aficionados may well “get” the Lane collection better than diehard enthusiasts might do. The Lane collection represents a continuum of seemingly wild experimentation, where every vehicle represents another unpredictable mutation of the principles of internal combustion and gearing. Take Citroên’s 2CV “Sahara,” for example. Back in ’62, why not put one motor over the front wheels and another over the rear wheels to come up with rudimentary four-wheel-drive?
Earlier yetduring wartime Czechoslovakia, no lessHans Ledwinka was devising luxury sedans with large-displacement air-cooled engines at the rear. Keeping the engines cool required sophisticated aerodynamics, with the result that the 1947 Tatra T-87 resembles nothing so much as an “aeroplane,” complete with massive tailfin. After the war, Ledwinka was imprisoned for a time by the Allies. An ambitious disciple, by the name of Ferdinand Porsche, embarked upon his road to fame and fortune designing sports cars with, eventually, “large-displacement air-cooled engines at the rear.” Go figure.
At the other end of the spectrumthe truck end, that isItaly was, literally, breaking ground in off-roading with the toady looking ’65 Ferves Ranger; whereas the Lucertola concern modified 1964 Fiat 500 running gear into a six-wheeler, dubbed Lucertola 500. The Germans, ever resourceful, took a crack in 1974 at designing the Faun Kraka so that it would fold in half for parachute drops into combat zones. The British, apparently, had other needs; and to meet them, they only required three wheels for a rudimentary pickup, the ’75 Reliant TW9 Ant.
Jeff Lane, an engineer by trade and training, with a Vanderbilt University pedigree, has approached car collecting the way a lepidopterist approaches butterflies. “I’m always looking for examples of the different ways to propel things,” he admits. On display, then, are piston motors, Wankel rotaries, four-strokes, two-strokes, diesels and electro-petro hybrids. There are even a propeller-driven “runabout windwagon”powered by a 1929 Harley-Davidson motorcycle engineand a 1964 Amphicar for land and sea excursions.
Lane’s self-appointed mission, it seems, is to collect and chronicle the different ways people have devised to get from one place to the next; and he’s determined to do so before history bypasses all of these vehicular permutations. Once a visitor has had the opportunity of visiting this unusual motor museum, there’s no passing Lane without pondering what’s next in the evolution of the automobile.