It was in Newport, Rhode Island, that summertime resident William Vanderbilt and his buddies first raced their new motorcars, though only for a couple of seasons before Mr. Vanderbilt took the competition for his Cup to New York and other venues. And when they weren’t racing cars, the Gilded Age group drove some of the finest coachbuilt vehicles to and from their Newport mansions.
Preserving not only Newport’s automotive history but its historic vehicles is part of the mission of the young but impressive Audrain Automobile Museum, which is just down the block from the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Newport’s historic Bellevue Avenue.
Through the end of June, the cars on display at the Audrain certainly would appeal to modern tennis stars. The exhibition is called “Speed Machines” and features Ferraris, including an ex-Michael Schumacher F1 racer, exotic Porsches, the Le Ciel Californien Bugatti Veyron, a Ford GT, a Lamborghini Aventador, some high-speed motorcycles, and Shelby’s Cooper Monaco King Cobra.
Six collectors contributed to the display, including museum founders Nick Schorsch, William Kahane and Michael Weil.
Schorsch, founder of the investment firm American Realty Capital, bought a historic home on the Newport Cliff Walk and also the Audrain Building, which he planned to restore to its original 1902-3 glory with store fronts on the ground floor and his and other offices upstairs.
Schorsch not only collects cars but furniture and art, and he had lured David de Muzio, a 25-year curatorial veteran from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to oversee his growing collections. De Muzio’s career had been in fine art and furniture, but his father was “a Jag guy” and de Muzio’s first car was a 1966 Pontiac GTO.
Actually, it was de Muzio who first suggested a car museum to Schorsch. “He had just acquired a 1936 Packard Phaeton and I was lamenting that I wished he had a place to show his cars,” de Muzio said.
Schorsch liked the idea so much that within just days in the early summer of 2014, the work within the Audrain Building switched from storefronts to museum-quality exhibition space and the floor was reinforced to carry the weight of vehicles on display, though everything was done in keeping with the style of the building’s original architect, Bruce Price, whose work also included the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. The museum’s name comes from the building’s original owner, Adolf Audrain.
Because there is only 7,500 square feet of display space, the plan is to do three exhibitions a year, and to work with other facilities to expand the museum’s reach, de Muzio said. Speed Machines closes in late June. On July 1, Classic and Fantastic, a display of cars from the 1940s and ‘50s, opens, and the nearby Redwood Library, the oldest lending library in the country, will showcase original concept car illustrations from the Scharf collection.
Cars and coffee events are planned, and de Muzio is working on a future display of cars with Newport history since the museum has acquired a 1941 Cadillac limousine from the Vanderbilt family and the long-term loan of a 1940 Cadillac limousine from the Doris Duke estate.
The Audrain Automobile Museum is open daily, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. For more information, visit the museum website.
Photos by Larry Edsall