Historic Auto Attractions
This is a great destination -- though not as visited as it should be.
And we partly blame the name: Historic Auto Attractions. It fails utterly to convey the scope and type of cultural artifacts awaiting the curious who venture into an industrial park in this suburb north of Rockford, IL. We were amazed.
Wet your whistle on this:
- Hitler's staff car displayed next to a uniform worn by Colonel Klink on TV's Hogan's Heroes!
- A section of fence from the JFK assassination Grassy Knoll!
- Bonnie and Clyde's death hats!
Historic Auto Attractions' improbable location is because of its proximity to businessman Wayne Lensing. Wayne purchased the treasures that comprise the collection. He thought about building it in a tourist mecca such as the Wisconsin Dells or Branson, Missouri. "But I live here and I work here," he explained, "and it's kinda neat to have it across the street."
Wayne is an ex-auto assembly line worker who became a millionaire businessman. In the late 1990s, on a whim, he bought a limo once owned by Howard Hughes, and he found that other people liked it as much as he did. "Seeing the joy it gave people to see the car -- that kinda got something goin' in the back of my mind," he said. "And I thought, boy, it'd be nice someday to have a museum."
Wayne possessed the staff, facilities, and the land to build his own museum. He also had a good eye and an open wallet. Wayne acquired dozens of items that would have starred in any attraction by themselves, and these included far more than just automobiles. He bought the gun that killed John Dillinger and put it on display. He did the same with Janis Joplin's hippie blouse, and with a pair of prescription glasses destroyed by Elvis Presley in a "fit of rage," according to its accompanying sign.
"Some of that stuff that goes into the Smithsonian is sitting in warehouses and people never get a chance to see it," Wayne said. "I like people to be able to see this stuff."
The bulletproof glass on Joseph Stalin's limousine is two inches thicker than the bulletproof glass on Evita Peron's limousine, and the only reason that we can know that is because they're both on display at Historic Auto Attractions. This is the first museum we recall that assembles the rides of the 20th century's most notorious dictators, all behind glass in a gallery called "World Leaders."
Wayne is every professional curator's nightmare, which is another reason to admire what he's created. His museum gives equal placement to Jackie Kennedy's funeral veil and to Colonel Sanders' chicken-yellow V-12 Lincoln. The fireplace mantle on which President Truman signed the order to bomb Hiroshima is only a few feet from a pickup truck used on Sanford and Son. "It's all history," Wayne says, and he has a point.
Wayne is especially interested in the Kennedy years and in JFK's assassination, and a large section of his museum displays artifacts from that time. Caroline Kennedy's yellow Easter suit is here, as are JFK's golf balls and a closet full of Jackie's dresses ("The Clothing of Camelot"). Wayne exhibits several items stained with JFK's blood, and the actual catalog Lee Harvey Oswald used to order his murder weapon, and the ambulance that drove Oswald to the hospital after he was shot by Jack Ruby (It once was a star attraction at the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum). Wayne bought the Texas School Book Depository window that was next to the window that Oswald fired from, and when you look through it you can see a miniature depiction of the Kennedy motorcade below.
Since he's a guy busy running the other successful business that makes a crazy museum like this possible, you're unlikely to see Wayne around much. We lucked out, and managed to drag him back to the JFK section. He points out a 1963 limousine with dummies of Jack and Jackie in it. "This is not the real car. This is nothing," he says, a prop for the tableau. But the car just behind it IS the real car, the one that was following JFK's car when he was shot. It is Wayne's most treasured possession. "I've sat in it," he admits. He points with pride to the panoramic photo that serves as the exhibit's backdrop, and says that he flew to Dallas and stood in the street where Kennedy was assassinated so he could get the right framing for the picture.
It was on that trip that Wayne accidentally came across another JFK artifact: a small section of the fence that once stood on the grassy knoll, and that possibly shielded a second gunman. Someone who saw Wayne standing in the street with his camera suggested that he visit the Conspiracy Museum up the block, which Wayne had never heard of. "I went over there and I told this gentleman what I was doing," Wayne recalled, "and he says, 'Well, come down to the basement.' And, my god, he had 200 feet of this fence down there. And I told him about my museum, and he sawed off a chunk and we took it home."
There are galleries of super hero cars, the Back to the Future DeLorean and the Ghost Busters ambulance. For race fans there are dragsters, and NASCAR artifacts. One collectible car is made out of wood.
It is difficult to say when Wayne will stop his collecting, but he doesn't seem inclined to do so any time soon. He plans to expand Historic Auto Attractions to three times its current size, which would be well over 100,000 square feet of history. He showed us into a secret room packed with future exhibits, which include Houdini's straight jacket, the hat and shoes worn by Jack Ruby when he shot Oswald, and Jed Clampett's oil drum bass fiddle from The Beverley Hillbillies. If any museum can display those items together, this is the one.
"The satisfaction I can get out of people's feelings, that's what propels me forward," Wayne said. "When they leave the place and if they've had a good time? It makes something worthwhile inside of my soul."
To be thorough, we called Wayne a couple of weeks after our visit, just to make certain that he hadn't acquired anything new. "Well, we got a replica of Air Force One sitting out in our parking lot," he said, matter-of-factly. "Just a fuselage, no wings. So people can walk though it and get a look to see what the inside of it looks like."
Update: One of Wayne's more macabre possessions, Lee Harvey Oswald's original tombstone, was returned to Texas in 2015.