The 10 greatest car museums in the USA

So many museums – but which to choose from? Here are AutoClassics' favorites, chosen for quality and variety of the cars and displays

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Choosing the best of the best

There are so many museums of the automobile in the USA, from occasionally-open private collections to huge facilities exhibiting hundreds of cars.

We judged them on the standard of the displays and the variety and provenance of the cars – but we stuck to multi-marque museums only, and we're leaving the motorsports museums for the next time.

The result is that the top ten museums are truly special. See if you can visit them all!

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Antique Automobile Club of America Museum, Hershey, Pennsylvania

The AACA Museum in Hersey represented a huge step forward in the collector car world when it opened in 2003; the result of ten years of work raising funds in order to build a new purpose-built museum to complement the club’s research center and library.

The AACA Museum now features more than 100 cars and 30 motorcycles as well as trucks and buses, documenting the history of the American automobile. There’s a display of Tucker cars, two Deloreans and a special Route 66 display. And every visit helps support the AACA.

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National Automobile Museum, Reno, Nevada

Gaming pioneer Bill Harrah was one of the first of the really big classic car collectors, and the Harrah’s Automobile Collection ran to more than 1400 cars at its height. When he passed in 1978, his chain of hotels and casinos, and his car collection, was bought by Holiday Inns.

Following a national outcry at the proposal of splitting the car collection, Holiday Inns donated 175 of the cars and the research library for a non-profit museum – at the time, the largest philanthropic gift in US history.

The result is the National Automobile Museum, which opened in 1989, and still exists. There are now 209 vehicles, from an 1892 Panhard et Levassor to hot rods such as Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit to race-winning Indy cars.

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Lane Motor Museum, Nashville, Tennessee

It doesn’t always have to be about glitz and glamour. The Lane Motor Museum is packed with the automobile world’s stranger creations, often unloved, mostly rather small, but always entertaining. It’s also one of the only US museums to specialise in European cars and microcars.

Founder Jeff Lane opened the Lane Motor Museum in 2002, in the former Sunbeam bakery building – a local landmark. The exhibits are categorized under ‘cars, motorcycles, flying, floating and bicycles’, which might give you an idea of the breadth of exhibits. In fact there are 500 vehicles in the collection, around 150 of which will be on display at any one time.

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LeMay, America’s Car Museum, Tacoma, Washington

The LeMay is huge; over 165,000 square feet (plus a three and a half acre showfield), exhibiting 350 cars at any one time, most of them from the private collection of Harold and Nancy LeMay, which at times consisted of around 3000 cars and thousands of automotive artefacts.

When Harold passed away in 2000, Nancy pledged to display the best of the collection to document the progression of the American automobile through the years. LeMay – America’s Car Museum, opened in 2012, to great critical acclaim. Most of the cars on display are those that Americans would have grown up with as family cars, now-rare models that would otherwise have been forgotten.

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Blackhawk Museum, Danville, California

The Blackhawk was the museum that really raised the bar for automotive museums. With its dark interior and dramatic lighting, it was one of the first to display the cars as works of art – and the cars it featured were out of this world too. Its annual displays at the Pebble Beach were always something to look forward to as well.

It’s still a force to be reckoned with, and Blackhawk museum founder Don Williams ensures that exhibits are rotated on a regular basis. Highlights include an Alfa Romeo BAT car and a 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.

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Mullin Automotive Museum. Oxnard, California

If you’re looking for cars as art, this is the place. Peter Mullin’s tastes are very much in the French Art Deco cars, perfect if you like your Bugattis, Talbot Lagos, Voisins etc, and his cars are exquisitely laid out.

Many of the cars are former Pebble Beach concours winners, and there’s also the famous ‘Bugatti in the lake’, carefully preserved after 75 years underwater, and one of just two Bugatti Atlantics that still exist in their original form.

Upstairs at the Mullin Automotive Museum there’s a remarkable display of Bugatti family art. It’s by no means the largest museum here, but it’s truly special.

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Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Neurosurgeon Fred Simeone's superb Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum consists of 65 extremely significant cars, with a strong emphasis on the most historically important race cars ever made.

They include important cars of Le Mans, the Targa Florio, Mille Miglia, Bonneville, NASCAR and more, and are set out in superbly created, period-appropriate vistas.

This is a museum ever-willing to show its cars, and there are regular Demo Days, as well as concours appearances for the star attractions. One of our favourites is the legendary Bugatti Type 57G ‘Tank’.

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Revs Institute, Naples, Florida

Miles Collier has been building his remarkable collection of important cars since the late 1980s, when he bought the Cunningham family collection of cars, which included the first Ferrari race car sold in the USA and one of just six Bugatti Royales ever built.

The collection has been under the banner of the Revs Institute since 2008, an organisation set up by the Colliers to further the preservation and the understanding of the history of the automobile. The result is a superb visitor experience through several galleries of stunning cars.

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The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan

This is Henry Ford’s legacy, an expansive celebration of transport and lifestyle of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are cars, lots of them, but also trains, household objects, furniture and even a 1930s Dymaxion kit-form house.

On the same site is Greenfield Village, where Henry Ford rebuilt historic buildings that he’d had dismantled brick-by-brick to preserve important history – even Thomas Edison’s workshop and a working 19th century farm. You can walk around or catch a lift on a Ford Model T.

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Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles

The most innovative of the USA’s car museums – in fact, we'd say it's the most innovative and forward thinking automotive museum in existence.

The Petersen Automotive Museum was born out of the personal collection of Robert E Petersen and wife Margie, publishers of Hot Rod and many other cult car magazines. Three years ago it was given a $125m makeover, with a complete workover of the museum building (originally a department store) including a remarkable exterior treatment.

With the permanent Pixar 'Cars', Art Center Design and Forza experiences, the vault tour, plus the current Legends of LA, film cars, 70 years of Porsche and other exhibits, the Petersen is always worth a visit.

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You might also like… Greatest race transporters

What you don’t often see at car museums anywhere in the world are race transporters. There aren’t many left, and they take up a lot of space!

But they’re also highly evocative machines, and so we couldn’t resist sorting through our favourites. You can see them here – some of them are truly wild.

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