They waited a long time outside on a sunny but chilly late fall morning to be among the first to see the impressive collection of automobiles inside the big new building in Downtown Tupelo.
They weren’t disappointed.
More than 200 were on hand on December 7, 2002, for the ribbon cutting and opening of the Tupelo Automobile Museum. The facility features more than 100 classic automobiles belonging to Tupelo businessman Frank Spain. When the day was done, more than 600 people had seen what some in the know consider the second greatest automobile collection in the United States.
Those who ventured to the museum on opening day came from both near and far.
Jamie Nash, with his stepson, T.J. Prater, drove from Booneville to be among the first to experience the museum. Nash said Prater’s love for muscle cars was the force behind their trip.
“He’s into old cars, especially mid-’60s, early ’70s — Chevelles, Camaros — and they’ve got a few of them down here,” Nash said.
“I like a lot of the Corvettes, and the Trans Am,” Prater said. When asked what it was about these cars that he liked, his answer was simple: “Speed.”
It didn’t take long for Corinth resident Vikki Barrett to spot a vehicle she wanted to take home: a 1929 Packard that originally sold for $5,000.
“It’s a Packard, and my father-in-law is restoring a Packard,” she said.
Her father-in-law, Hank Barrett, has been for several years restoring a 1937 115C Packard that belonged to his grandfather.
The senior Hank Barrett and his wife, Barbara, of Farmington, and their son and daughter-in-law, Hank and Vikki Barret, of Corinth, came down with friends David and Lynn Price to see Spain’s collection.
Young and old alike will undoubtedly find something they’ll like among the vehicles on display.
Eddie Betts, of Tupelo, isn’t an auto enthusiast, but her son, Drakius, is.
“I’m not familiar with all these,” Drakius said, pointing to the older classics. He’s more familiar with the cars from the 1970s. That didn’t keep him from falling in love with a 1929 Duesenberg.
Word of the museum’s opening traveled far.
Malcolm O’Callaghan, of Fredericksburg, Va., was in Tupelo visiting family, and earlier had learned about the museum’s opening through The Lee County Courier newspaper. O’Callaghan found he had a special attachment to the museum. His uncle, J.B. Burleson, used to work for George Ruff Buick Olds (Now Blackmon Buick Olds) in Tupelo. The large neon Buick and Oldsmobile signs that now hang in the museum were fixtures on the North Gloster Street dealership for decades.
Aside from the cars, O’Callaghan also really liked the hundreds of signs posted around the museum. He said the signs evoked memories of riding around Tupelo with his grandparents and seeing the old signs of oil companies that have long since been lost to time.
“It’s a lot better than I expected,” O’Callaghan said. “It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be. Living up around [Washington] D.C., we’ve got the Smithsonian [museums], but nothing like this.”
How it came to be
Tupelo businessman Frank Spain, with longtime friend and business associate Max Berryhill, compiled the collection of antique and collectors automobiles. After years of collecting cars from literally all over North America, Spain decided to bring his collection under one roof. Orlando, Fla., was the leading location for Spain’s planned museum simply because of the tourist traffic, but Spain said he chose to put the museum in Tupelo because of how much this community had given to him through the years.
Spain, who owns WTVA, WLOV and WKDH television stations in Tupelo, and WMDN Television in Meridian, lauded Berryhill and other officials for their help in making Tupelo Automobile Museum not only a possibility but also a dream come true. During opening day ribbon cutting ceremonies, Spain said the museum would not have been as grand as it is if it had not been for the work of all involved.
The Tupelo Automobile Museum is a part of Fairpark District, the city’s major effort to redevelop the old fairgrounds and revitalize the downtown area with a mixture of residential, commercial, government and entertainment facilities. The museum is the second major development in Fairpark District to be completed. The first was the new City Hall building, constructed just south of Main Street, which opened in February 2002. Local developers are in the process of building more commercial and residential space in Fairpark District.
For a long time, many of the cars in Spain’s collection were gathered in the old Rosato Clothing warehouse on East Main Street, in front of the new City Hall. The inside of the Rosato building had been painted and lighted and Spain was nearly ready to facelift the outside of the building to open it as an auto museum when former Tupelo mayor Glenn McCullough Jr. approached him with the information that the city had made a deal with the county to take over the 20 or so acres that comprised the former fairgrounds.
When McCullough and city officials got the $67 million bond issue for the fairgrounds redevelopment, they figured in to this amount the funds it would take to make the present museum a possibility.
Through a great deal of legal work, the public-private “municipal leaseback” that led to the creation of the museum has been worth it in many ways, Spain said.
“I’m really surprised how much better these cars look here than across the street [at the old Rosato warehouse],” Spain said.
In addition to the improved look of the cars, the entire deal gives Spain the security of knowing his collection, which took 20 years to compile, will not be broken up.
Spain has created a non-profit educational foundation that now owns the cars. The reason for this is, Spain said, so the collection will stay intact in Tupelo for good. Spain said he didn’t want to see his collection broken up the way the massive Harrah’s Museum collection was.
“Max and I went to the three auctions Holiday Inns conducted after they bought Harrah’s Museum,” Spain said. “You couldn’t put his collection back together with all the money in the world. That is not going to happen here. This is here now, and it will be here in perpetuity.”
The museum is located at 1 Otis Boulevard, across from BancorpSouth Center in Tupelo, near the intersection of U.S. Highway 45 and East Main Street. Of the 120,000 square feet of space inside, 75,000 square feet are dedicated to display space, while the remaining 45,000 square feet include restoration space, a souvenir shop and meeting rooms.
The museum’s entire cost, including the building, parking lot, and the restored automobiles, was $11,096,000. The collection of automobiles, which is more than half of the cost, is valued at more than $6 million.
Speaking of the automobiles, the collection consists of give or take 15 cars for each decade from which automobiles have been produced, through the 1980s.
“There’s a gap between 1940 and 1950,” Spain said. “We only have six or so cars for the simple reason that for four years during [World War II] there were none produced.”
Automobiles in the collection include a 1948 Tucker Torpedo, one of only 51 cars made by Preston Tucker (and the subject of an early 1990s movie by the same name), a 1909 Glide, a 1994 Dodge Viper, a 1939 Cadillac Fleetwood Limousine, a 1907 Ford Model R Runabout, a brass and black 1982 Chevrolet Corvette custom built for Liberace, an 1899 Knox, a 1929 Duesenberg, three Hispano Suizas, five Packards, and a replica of an 1886 Benz motorized carriage, considered by many to be the first automobile.
Also on display is one of the last cars bought by Elvis Presley, a 1976 Lincoln Mark IV. Along with the car is the check for $13,389.69 Presley wrote to pay for it.
“We’ve got room for probably another 10 or 15 cars in here,” museum curator Berryhill said. They also have 40 to 50 more unrestored cars in storage at the museum that will eventually be restored and put on display. “This collection will never be static. We’re going to be buying a few and selling a few. We’ve got some that we’ve got extras of, and I’m sure we’ll find something we want worse than what we have in here.
“There are some that will be here forever, like the Tucker,” Berryhill said. He also said one that would remain in the collection permanently is a 1948 Jaguar, Spain’s favorite car in the collection.
“It has all of the elements of the classic car, except it was built after the war,” Spain said. “It is basically the same car that Jaguar built before the war, except that this one has no wood in the body, or none to speak of; it’s all metal. And, it’s a three-position drophead — as the English call a convertible. It just has the look.”
Mayor Larry Otis is pleased with the museum in many ways. “This is a great partnership between Mr. Spain and the City of Tupelo,” Otis said, “and I feel certain that the museum will become one of Mississippi’s best tourist attractions as well as serving as a vital anchor to our Fairpark District project.”
Spain is pleased, too.
“This is a dream come true,” Spain said. “I hope people from all over the country will find their way to Tupelo to enjoy this museum which traces the development of the automobile.”