Louwman Museum: automotive heaven in Holland

If you’ve been to the incomparable Louwman Museum, you’ll know of what we speak. If not, you must schedule this amazing place into your next European holiday

Evert Louwman is an astonishingly successful Dutch businessman; think Roger Penske but without all the Indy 500 wins. Louwman is a second-generation automotive dealer, importer, distributor and passionate collector who just does things right. His father Pieter was a partner in a Dodge dealership prior to World War Two, ultimately expanding his business to incorporate the importation company for Dodge and Chrysler into Holland.

Evert has grown that business exponentially to include a flagship roster of dealerships. His imported brands include Toyota, Lexus and Suzuki as well as Mercedes-Benz, Maserati and others. Yes, he’s grown his father’s original entity from a business into a juggernaut.

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Louwman cites 1934 as the year the notion of a family museum was born, when his father purchased a 1914 Dodge. Now in its third location since 1969, in Den (The) Hague, Holland, the museum has no less a mission statement than to document the path of automotive history from its barest beginnings to today’s supercars and motor sport, including carriages, motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional aircraft.

The current purpose-built location is a lushly landscaped site not a mile from the United States Embassy, and directly next to the Dutch Royal Palace. Principle architect Michael Graves FAIA, of Princeton, New Jersey, created an underlying design theme of a sprawling Dutch manor house, crafted of local brick and stone, and featuring the steeply pointed slate roof peaks so typical in this country.

Upon entry, you’re in the ‘business end’ of the museum, which houses a foyer and shop selling gifts and books, as well as a theatre, offices and such. The main hall on the ground floor spreads several hundred feet in length. Naturally lighted by vast floor-to-ceiling windows, and topped off with a handcrafted wood ceiling at least three storeys above this grand promenade floor, it would do any modern cathedral proud. In other words, this isn’t some dark, dingy warehouse full of cars. The parking lot (and non-exhibited auto storage) is underground to keep the exterior of the grounds clean and elegant.

Louwman’s permanent collection numbers around 200 cars – about 90 percent of which you’ll see on display at any given time – plus special exhibits that may also be running at any given time. In the ‘grand hall’ you’ll start off with a quick tour of icons from a variety of car-making countries, including a split-window ’63 Chevrolet Corvette flying the American flag, a Jaguar XK120 fixed-head coupé representing the UK, an early Volvo from Sweden, a French Citroën DS, a Czech Tatra, and Japan’s seminal exotic sports car, the Toyota 2000GT.

From there, you’ll take the elevator to the top floor of the building to start your tour, which begins with a small collection of horse-drawn buggies and carriages – the footprints for what became the first automobiles. Examples of the latter date to the very birth of motorised transportation.

Louwman is a committed conservationist. This means a remarkable number of the vehicles in his namesake collection and museum are carefully preserved, unrestored originals. By that we mean complete and functioning examples, blessed in most cases with more than a century of honest patina – not the kind of neglected, abused, derelict, no-longer-functional ‘barnfinds’ so often mistakenly labelled as ‘preservation’ cars.

As you wend your way through the Louwman’s meandering gallery paths, you’ll be impressed by sensitive and immaculate museum craft; the signage is clear and easy to read, while the lighting is just right and perfect for photography. The curation is artful and well thought out. Some of the display work is very simple; just a car (or bike or buggy) sitting in a black window box, with no other adornment or decoration needed.

Other displays are more dioramic, featuring expansive backdrops and ephemera cases. An entire floor is dedicated to automotive art of all kinds: paintings, photographs, sculpture, bronzes, silver… You could easily spend your entire day in here – but please don’t, as there’s just too much else to see.

All types, genres, sizes and levels of transportation history are in evidence, with even steam and battery-powered machines from all around the world, incorporating some marques and models you’ve assuredly never before heard of or seen. These include one of the only known examples of the first four-cylinder-powered cars – a big deal, when most early-20th century vehicles had just one or two cylinders.

There’s also a large exhibit dedicated to vehicles of World War Two – some produced by the Allies, others at the behest of the Nazi regime. There’s no censorship or profiling here; if it’s a significant part of automotive history, it’s out there for all to see and learn from.

Louwman is a Mercedes-Benz enthusiast and dealer, which means there’s a worthwhile collection of pre-Mercedes-era Benz automobiles to see, alongside a room full of Spykers, a Dutch automobile and aircraft brand originally produced from 1880 to 1926.

Italians greats get their own gallery, including Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari. Love 1950s-era Jaguar speedsters? The Louwman boasts both a D-type and an XK-SS. Among the many landmark machines on display is one we’ll never tire of – the one-off, and positively dazzling, 1952 Pegaso Z-102 Berlinetta ‘Cupula’ coupé, in brilliant yellow and sporting red-wall tyres on its knock-off wire wheels. This car’s unusual Zagato body design boasts a lot of glass, and is an Amelia Island Concours Best of Show winner.

So, what else? There are IndyCars, F1 machines, sports racers, one of the four James Bond Aston Martin DB5s, an ex-Steve McQueen off-road racing buggy called the Baja Boot, a NASCAR Toyota, Peter Revson’s McLaren Can-Am racer… It just goes on and on.

Something you’ll need and want to do is enjoy lunch or coffee in the magnificent café on the ground floor. This is so NOT the usual museum cafeteria; instead, it’s a real restaurant that features excellent, European-style food at reasonable prices. The large, spacious, high-ceilinged café is decorated diorama style, featuring a facsimile of the original Louwman’s Dodge dealership, a variety of storefronts and an auto shop.

Again it’s all in keeping with the current Louwman’s penchant for authenticity, with the café being built of genuine period bricks, windows, awnings and other materials sourced from vintage buildings that were being remodelled or levelled. This, of course, makes it all look so much more real.

An important part of the museum’s outreach and business model is that of event venue. If you wish to host an elegant dinner party in the library/boardroom, you can rent it for the occasion. Ditto for weddings or a car club event. The location features a large, full-sized commercial-quality theatre for slide shows, movie screenings or other entertainment, while the stage contains a ‘sinking floor’ that lowers to the parking garage level, so a car can be placed on it, and then rises up into the theatre. Beautiful, and amazing.

It was our fortuitous timing to visit the Louwman the day before the opening of a special Silver Arrows exhibit, comprising seven of Mercedes-Benz’s most iconic and successful racers. And it took only a little cajoling to convince the museum’s director and staff to slip off the covers for us so we could get a look before leaving the country the next day.

After World War Two, Mercedes-Benz resumed motor racing in 1952 with some success. The 300 SL (W194) achieved several triumphs that year, including the Grand Prix of Switzerland, followed by spectacular victories in the Le Mans 24-hours and the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico. The 300SL on display, with chassis number 2 and the characteristic gullwing doors, is the oldest SL in existence.

In 1954 Mercedes-Benz returned to Formula 1 with two different versions of the famous W196 R; the streamlined variant for the longer circuits and a version with ‘open’ wheels for the shorter circuits with more corners. Both versions are on display in the exhibition.

Juan Manuel Fangio became world champion that first year in the W196 R. In 1955 he again won the world championship, in a season featuring exciting battles with his teammate Stirling Moss. The two were engaged in an epic duel during the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort that year: Fangio finished just 0.3 seconds ahead of Moss. Never again would an F1 race at Zandvoort be won by such a small margin.

For the 1955 World Sports Car Championship, Mercedes-Benz developed the 300 SLR on the basis of the W196 R. This was the sports car in which Stirling Moss and Dennis Jenkinson won that year’s Mille Miglia in record time – a record that stands to this day.

Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut designed a closed version of the 300 SLR for the 1956 season. This 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé never actually took part in an official race, but it is regarded as the first supercar. It is without question one of the most valuable cars in the world. The ‘open’ 300 SLR and the Uhlenhaut Coupé are on show at the Louwman, both powered by a screaming, fuel-injected straight-eight cranking out more than 300bhp – quite some going for a lightweight racing car in 1955.

The high-speed racing car transporter, nicknamed Wunder Blau (Blue Wonder), was built in 1954 to transport and service the Mercedes-Benz racing and sports cars. It was dismantled over time, but later carefully rebuilt, and is now part of this exhibition. Incidentally, a near-identical replica was constructed at some point, which is now owned by Jay Leno.

If your travel plans ever take you anywhere near Holland, you must invest couple of days in The Hague (which itself is a lovely and engaging waterside city). Of those, a very full day must be spent at the Louwman Museum – truly and without question among the world’s greatest transportation collections.

Where's the Louwman Museum?

Leidsestraatweg 57
2594 BB Den Haag, Nederland
T +31 (0)70-304 7373

More information here.

Photos courtesy Matt Stone

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