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Friday, July 24, 2015

Surprising visit to Louwman auto museum at The Hague

The Sunbeam S7 motorcycle given to Field Marshal Montgomery.
I've never visited an automotive or motorcycle museum I didn't enjoy, even if it didn't have a Royal Enfield motorcycle on display. The Louwman Museum in The Hague, though, is exceptional. It has a surprising ability to — well — surprise.

Perhaps because it is a private collection, the Louwman ignores boring chronological coherence to surprise the visitor with one spectacular rarity after another. Although there are priceless Mercedes, Ferraris and Bugatis there are also, frankly, the lowly.

Apparently, the vehicles on display at the Louwman were chosen on the basis of "get a load of this." What fun that is.

I was delighted to see the Sunbeam S7 motorcycle presented to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as a 1948 publicity stunt on behalf of the British motorcycle industry. Interesting enough for its tandem two-cylinder engine and shaft drive, the Sunbeam is still more interesting as an example of the industry's marketing program of the day.

The victor of El Alamein gave the Sunbeam to his chauffeur in 1962 and, when it was sold two years later, it still had only 400 kilometers on the clock.

Plain looking DAF on display isn't any ordinary car.
Being in the Netherlands, one expects to see a little blue DAF car on display. Another visitor remembered riding in one with her family as a girl. "We called it 'Daffodil' she told us.

But the DAF 600 at the Louwman is not a production model. It's one of the secret prototypes first tested on the road in 1957. The prototype number still hangs from the rear view mirror. In 1958 the DAF would startle the automotive world with its continuously variable transmission.

What other museum would give the Austin A90 such pride of place?
Nevermind rare: how about the rarely remembered? Such as my all-time favorite, the 1949 Austin A90 Atlantic, displayed behind rope at the Louwman as though priceless.

This lovable Brit is adorned with three headlights and a Pontiac-style silver streak up the hood in an effort to appeal to Americans. Americans only wanted 350 of them, and nobody anywhere else wanted many more, so most Atlantics rusted away unappreciated.

There's a fun episode of "Top Gear" that tells the story.

At the Louwman I got my best look ever at a 1948 Tatra, the Czech take on what a VW Beetle would be like if it had four doors, an airplane style tail fin, and an air-cooled three-liter V8 in the back.

In a word: unstable at speed.

Tatra 87 looked as though it could fly; and it might.
I'd never before laid eyes on a 1942 Chrysler Town and Country barrel back station wagon. The one at the Louwman is still beautiful, although it has never been restored.

1942 Chrysler Town and Country barrel back sedan.
The 1928 4 1/2 Liter Vanden Plas Bentley Le Mans on display certainly takes a prize for "Most Hood Louvers."

1928 Bentley Le Mans in British racing green.
The Louwman collection includes cars driven by maharajahs, owned by Elvis, featured in James Bond movies and victorious at Le Mans. As you can tell by the photos here, the cars are given space, not parked next to one another as if in a lot at the shopping mall.

Like any good museum, the Louwman teaches lessons. Signage in English puts each vehicle in context.

Styling of 1899: Benz designed to make you think motor was up front.
I was surprised to learn that Benz cars were considered so conservative and old-fashioned by 1899 that a false bonnet was included to give the impression that the motor was in front. You've heard of hill-holder features on manual transmissions? The 1899 Benz had something better: a "hill strut" that folded down underneath to keep it from back sliding. The 1899 Benz was behind its times.

And, of course, the Beetle was displayed in front of a giant photo of a smiling Fuhrer — sobering context indeed.

VW people's car displayed next to Jozef Ganz's version.
Just as chilling, the Louwman placed next to its Beetle the little "Swiss People's Car" designed by Jewish engineer Jozef Ganz. Ever heard of him? He originated ideas Ferdinand Porsche incorporated into the Beetle, but had to flee Germany.

The Beetle would sells millions but the Swiss People's Car never entered production.

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