HERSHEY – A steering wheel, four tires, an engine, a couple of seats and a place to go.
But cars are so much more than just modes of transportation. For America, they represent innovation, a way of life and personal freedom.
Not far from here, just a short ride across the county line in Hershey, there exists a place dedicated to the automobile and the culture which it has spawned. The Antique Automobile Club of America Museum, located off Route 39, just north of Hershey, strives to honor the place of the motor car in our society, through education and entertainment.
“Transportation is a part of the fabric of our lives,” said Nancy Gates, the AACA Museum’s Director of Marketing and Publicity. “Everybody has owned or ridden in a car. It’s imperative to understand the evolution of transportation – the different types of cars, the different types of engines. There’s certainly a lot of history to it. But that’s a whole other road you can go down.
“What I like most about the museum is that the exhibits change,” continued Gates. “Every three to four months, we have something new and exciting to talk about. It never gets stale. Just the people. Just the interaction with our customers. We’ll do anything to enhance their visit.”
While Chocolatetown has become a destination for national and even international travelers and tourists, the AACA Museum is a site that must be discovered. It is a gem that even some locals have yet to uncover.
Open 361 days a year, the AACA Museum attracts about 60,000 visitors annually during normal business hours, and an additional 15,000 yearly through special events. Visitors come from as far and wide as Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, England, France, New Zealand and Australia to marvel at the wonders encompassed by its walls.
The cost of admittance is $10 per person, and the three stories of displays take about an hour-and-a-half to peruse thoroughly.
“Our visitors are concentrated from the Northeast, but we also get a lot of international visitors as well,” said Gates. “In the summer, there’s a lot of families visiting Hershey. It does come to be seasonal. Summer is families with kids. The same way with Christmas. Fall and Spring we see a lot more of our enthusiasts. They may just like cars and want something to do on a Sunday afternoon. We do get a fair number of local people, more during the off season. Sometimes you just don’t remember to see what’s in your own backyard. But we do see a lot of people from the central Pennsylvania area.
“There’s a variety of audiences,” Gates continued. “Obviously family and kids here on vacation. But another of our core groups is car enthusiasts. A third audience would be tour groups, senior groups. We also get school groups, and that’s an area where we want to try to expand our focus. We want to develop more educational programs.”
Among the established tourist sites in Hershey, the AACA Museum is a relative newcomer. The 70,000 square foot museum, which opened in June of 2003, was the natural extension of the 80-year-old Antique Automobile Club of America.
“As people collect automobiles, they want to interact with other collectors,” said Gates. “What I hear from our guests who drive by, ‘I never realized what was in there or how big it was.’ They perceive us as being a room with cars in a row. We’re so much more than that. People are surprised by the things we have.
“There’s different levels of car museums,” added Gates. “People wonder, ‘if I’m not a car enthusiast, why would I want to go there?’ But those who do are glad they did. People are surprised by all the things to see and do.”
The main level of the AACA Museum is set up as a tour through the century-long history of the automobile, beginning in the early 1900s in Battery Park, New York, progressing through 1920s Hershey and 1930s Miami Beach and including the Heartland of America in the 1940s and this country’s drive-ins of the 1950s. The downstairs level of the museum is dedicated to buses, a model train exhibit and motorcycles – at this particular time 26 ‘Indians’.
“There’s a lot of Americana and The American Story mixed in,” said Gates. “There’s a lot of things that exist that wouldn’t if it weren’t for automobiles.
“I’m a marketing person by trade,” continued Gates. “I definitely picked up a lot of knowledge along the way, but I’m certainly no expert.”
Accentuating the experience are hand-painted murals on the walls, a rotating art gallery, a collection of 300 car ornaments, a dedicated staff of volunteers and a full-service gift shop.
“We accept donations, but we don’t have a budget for buying cars,” said Gates. “Fortunately, we’ve had generous donors over the years.
“That’s the fun thing about this museum,” Gates continued. “Every car has a story, and everybody has a car story. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to enjoy it.”
The AACA Museum is currently constructing a wing that will house the largest collection of Tucker automobiles in the world. Also on the list of coming attractions are ‘One Hundred Years of Dodges’, a Lotus exhibit, a Russian motorcycle exhibit and an exhibit dedicated to the station wagon.
“For us, the immediate future holds the permanent opening of the Tucker gallery,” said Gates. “Plus, we want to expand our educational capabilities. We want to be more hands-on. We want to interact more with our visitors. Eventually, we’d like to expand the building. The way the building was created, it allows for wings to be added out the back and along the sides.
“For us, it’s all about keeping it interesting and figuring out what people want,” Gates added. “It’s really about telling different stories. Hopefully people will learn and appreciate.”