America On Wheels


By Frederick Jerant

Americans are crazy about things with wheels. It doesn’t matter whether they have two, four, six or more, or whether they’re used for fun or profit – we love to fire ‘em up and hit the road.

And America On Wheels (AOW), a 43,000 sq. ft. museum in Allentown, is chock-full of historic bicycles, automobiles, trucks and other vehicles that have fueled our passion.

But their original concept was quite different.

In 1974, Zenon C. R. Hansen, former Chairman/CEO of Mack Trucks, envisioned a museum dedicated to the contributions of highway vehicles to our country’s history. But as new planning committee members came on board, “the concept expanded to include all kinds of wheeled transportation,” says Linda Merkel, AOW’s executive director.

The museum’s mission, she says, is to preserve the history of transportation and to educate visitors about on the far-reaching impact of the modern transportation industry on our nation.

Initial funding for the project came in 1986 from a $3 million grant from the American Truck Foundation. It was supported by a $7 million grant from the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program, $5 million from the Transportation Enhancement Act of the 21st Century, and $500,000 from various foundations, local government agencies, corporations and individuals.

Open since 2008, the museum operates with a four-person staff, a board of directors, advisory committee and over 60 volunteers. It attracts auto and truck enthusiasts, educators, event planners, regional businesses and scholars from the Lehigh Valley and beyond.

At the main entrance, you’ll find super-streamlined “show cars” from the 1950s. Although they never were intended for mass production, they often influenced the appearance of future consumer vehicles.

The lobby/corridor gallery features everything from hot rods to unique personal transportation, and an array of interactive exhibits.

Mack Trucks’ influence permeates the South gallery. Of special interest is the 1918 model AC truck. British troops in World War I admired the AC’s tenacious ability to grind through just about anything as it delivered battlefield supplies – and the blunt-nosed design reminded them of their beloved English bulldogs. In fact, that’s where the nickname comes from!

In the north gallery, you’ll see many of America’s automotive “firsts” – one of the first American cars ever made, an early electric car (not exactly a new idea, is it?), and the first type of car to result from mass-production techniques, among others.

The museum also features mini-exhibits that appear for six weeks at a time. A recent one displayed notable homemade cars from the history of the Soapbox Derby – including some local entrants!

Nearly all of the vehicles are “loaners,” and the museum changes its displays regularly. The current crop contains some real stunners:

• The only 1984 Corvette produced in 1983. The ’84 model was completely redesigned, and “It was a gift to Zora Arkus-Duntov, revered as ‘the father of the Corvette’,” Merkel says.

• An 1890s vintage Nadig. “It was the first American automobile,” Merkel says, “and it was produced in Allentown, just about three blocks from here.” According to one source, one local business owner wanted the car off the streets during daytime, to avoid scaring horses!

• A 1933 Hupmobile, one of just five known to exist.

• A 1912 four-cylinder Little (named for its builder, Bill Little), the first car to display the legendary Chevrolet marque.

And although most museums have an air of reverential silence, the vibe at AOW is anything but that.

“We’re emerging as an event destination,” Merkel says. “Businesses and other groups can rent the entire museum or its two meeting rooms, for as many as 600 guests.”

One of the newest highlights is the Hub Cap Café, which replicates a hip eatery from the ‘50s. Kittens and cats can dig its egg creams, hot dogs, beverages, ice cream and salads (all served on actual hubcaps!), blast some real gone sounds from the antique jukebox or just stay cool.

And on December 3, the museum will host its premiere fund-raising event, the “Moonlight Memories Gala.” Its “American Bandstand” theme will include a Dick Clark look-alike, a gathering of veteran Bandstand dancers, and a groovy dance concert by the Large Flowerheads.

Any car fancier in the Valley will agree – America On Wheels offers unlimited smiles-per-gallon.

America On Wheels is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM to 5 PM, and Sunday, noon to 5 PM. Last ticket sale is 3:45 PM each day. For more information, visit americaonwheels.org, or contact the museum at 610.432.4200.

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