While strolling down the gleaming aisles at the Nethercutt Museum, each row may seem like any other world-class auto collection. Yet one distinguishing factor sets the Sylmar, Calif., auto mecca apart: the hands-on legacy bestowed by its founder, J.B. Nethercutt.
All of the gleaming automobiles have been painstakingly restored, just as Nethercutt would have preferred.
"Our collection is distinct in that we restore everything," said Skip Marketti, chief curator. "Cars come in and go right to our restoration shop where the meticulous and lengthy process begins."
The museum employs 12 craftsmen, including metal shapers, painters, upholstery specialists, woodworkers, machinists and mechanics. Working on rare automotive pieces from the early 20th century is no small task but the museum has an on-site resource and one that allows for extreme accuracy.
"We have one of the largest auto libraries and archives in the country, full of period manuals, magazines, sales brochures and other literature. We draw on that material to ensure our restorations are spot on," Marketti said.
To aid other enthusiasts, the staff will assemble individual restoration manuals for each car worked on and make that available for viewing. All of these extreme efforts would make Nethercutt proud.
As a child, the Midwest native moved from South Bend, Ind., to the West Coast to live with his aunt, cosmetic tycoon Merle Nethercutt Norman. He later left school to go into business with her. His first vehicle acquisitions came in 1955: a 1936 Duesenberg convertible roadster and a 1930 DuPont town car, both of which required extensive restoration.
After much work, the DuPont was completed in 1958 and won the coveted Best of Show award at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Concours d'Elegance. By 1992, Nethercutt had won the prestigious event six times, more than any other individual. Both of those first vehicles are still part of the collection today.
While restoring the pair, he started collecting something else that's become a key element at the museum today. "Our library was started then, as he started getting literature, magazines and sales brochures -- all the material needed to restore the cars properly. From that first car came our giant library," Marketti said.
As more vehicles were acquired, Nethercutt, along with his high-school sweetheart and wife, Dorothy, opened the museum in 1977 in the sun soaked foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. When the couple passed in 2004, their son Jack and wife Helen Nethercutt came aboard to lead the museum.
The space now displays 200 vehicles, with 60 additional cars undergoing restoration. The space is divided into two parts; the museum and the collection. The museum houses four-wheeled examples dating from the 1890s through the late 1960s. Strolling along the aisles shows the best from Rolls-Royce, Cadillac, Ruxton, Cord, Bugatti, Maybach, Duesenberg and Talbot-Lago.
For a more exclusive look at automotive history and heritage, a stop in the Grand Salon is a must, which requires tour reservations. Here, the opulence of the 1920s and 30s is shown in all its roaring splendor and majesty. The massive marble columns, wood paneling, crystal chandeliers and mirrored walls all serve as a backdrop for dozens of the finest autos from that era, including Cadillacs, Isotta-Fraschini, Duesenbergs, Delahaye and Maybachs.
Sprinkled in the background of both spaces are collections of other items that interested the Nethercutts. Cabinets of hood ornaments, horns, lights and toy cars abound.
"J.B. loved all things mechanical. Musical instruments are similar to cars and very complex. He wasn't a musician but loved music," Marketti said. As such, he collected dozens of pipe organs of all shapes and sizes.
One particular interest was too massive to store indoors and is on display out back. "J.B. would travel for business and used the Santa Fe railroad to travel from San Francisco to Chicago," Marketti said. "Well before private jets, he noticed the beautiful private rail cars." Mesmerized by their beauty, in recent years he acquired a 1912 railcar and steam 1937 Canadian Pacific Royal Hudson locomotive, and had both restored to stunning pristine condition.
Despite the extensive and impressive nature of the collection, Nethercutt was adamant about sharing it. Since the museum opened its doors, there is no charge to attendees who leave breathless with the splendor of the space.
"The recognition and preservation of beauty has been a major focus of my life," nethercutt once wrote. "It would suit me well if what people remembered me was, ' Where he went, he left beauty behind."