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Marilyn and James Dean cars.
James Dean and Marilyn Monroe customized cars: note the eyelashes on the headlights.

Volo Museum: Bonnie and Clyde Death Car

Field review by the editors.

Volo, Illinois

The feeling of where does this place end? is strong at the Volo Museums. Officially, it's just the Volo Auto Museum -- but that name doesn't do justice to an attraction that winds through a half-dozen warehouse-size buildings, and whose exhibits include a roadside bomb from Iraq, a Bonnie and Clyde Death Car, and a 14-foot-tall animated King Kong.

Bonnie and Clyde movie death car.
Bonnie and Clyde (fake) Death Car was exhibited at state fairs, has 160 real bullet holes.

The Death Car is an old friend: we last saw it at the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum in the 1990s. Like most of the cool stuff at the Volo Auto Museum, it's here because of museum director Brian Grams. "I grew up on this property," said Brian, whose family turned their former farmstead into a sprawling vintage car dealership, and now an even-more-sprawling museum. "I've been around cars since I was born, I've been selling cars since I was 15, and, frankly, cars bore the hell out of me."

To rekindle his passion, Brian began buying cars not for resale, but because they had Hollywood pedigrees or were just weird. "It got my interest going again," he said. The Grams family encouraged Brian's experiments, and the museum now boasts collections ranging from Saddam Hussein relics and Nazi war booty to antique peep shows and squished penny machines. "We're a family business; we don't have a board of directors that we have to answer to," said Brian. "We just do what we want."

The Volo Museums.
Crystal chandeliers add a touch of class to the Duesenberg Room.

The vintage Bonnie and Clyde Death Car, which is in fact a fake Death Car, is displayed beneath reproductions of lurid posters from its days as a touring attraction the 1940s (A near-twin fake is less than 50 miles away at Historic Auto Attractions; the original is in a Nevada casino). Brian said that this particular fake Death Car was used by Hollywood as a template for the second-generation fake Death Car that appeared in the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie (That car was last displayed at the now-closed Crime Museum in Washington, DC).

Cat in the Hat car.
Cat in the Hat car is drivable, cost $1.4 million to build.

In any other museum the Death Car would be a showcase attraction; here it's wedged between the Speed Racer Mach 5 and the party van from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The same is true of a unique two-tone pink station wagon built for Elvis Presley -- a standout in any other auto museum -- but at Volo it's actually hard to see because it's surrounded by vehicles that are even crazier. Space is at a premium. Brian said that there's no room for more buildings, so every existing square foot has to be used.

Adding to the museum's quirkiness is that it's also a functioning vintage car dealership, with the classic cars-for-sale packed into the center of each building, and the freak not-for-sale vehicles arrayed around the periphery. This makes for an odd mix of serious cars buyers and fun-seeking tourists, but everyone on our visit seemed happy with the arrangement.

The Volo Museums.
War-stressed dummies in the Armed Forces Adventure building.

Blazing a trail between pop culture and wheeled transportation presented a problem for the Grams family: how do you organize something for display that's never been organized before? "Is Truckasaurus Rex a 'Kids' Car' or a 'Bizarre Car'?" asked Brian, a challenge we've similarly encountered in categorizing attractions for the Roadside America app for iPhone. The Grams settled on a novel solution: they abandoned organization altogether. "If you put all the historical stuff in one building and all the fun stuff in another building, half the family is always bored," said Brian. "So we mix everything up."

Roadside bomb.
Iraq roadside bomb "could be set off anywhere in the world by a cell phone."

Not knowing what you'll see adds to the fun at the Volo Auto Museum, but it also makes visiting it a commitment in time and walking. We glimpsed Pee Wee Herman's bicycle from Pee Wee's Big Adventure, and a Cat in the Hat "Whatchamajigger" that cost its film studio over $1 million to build. One car on display was shaped like a 14-foot-tall roller skate, another like a 28-foot-long guitar (Accompanying signs stressed that both were fully driveable). The EVA buggy from Alien we frankly don't even remember from the film, but it looked interesting. A tractor-trailer driven by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight had been turned into a makeshift memorial, with fake bullet holes in the windshield and a tombstone-like inscription added to the driver's side door.

"We've found that people don't know what they like," said Brian. "They'd never see some of the things we have if we didn't force them to." He continued, "Some guy will say, 'I'm a grown man; I don't want to look at some Cat in the Hat car' -- but after he sees it, he'll say, 'Wow, that was really neat.'"

Regardless of the museum's current lack of space, Brian is committed to the expansion of its collection. He told us that he'd recently purchased all of the robots from Tommy Bartlett's Robot World (now the Exploratory), although the family hadn't yet figured out how or where to display them. "We never plan anything," he said with a laugh. "Things just kinda happen."

Also see: The 7 Death Cars of Bonnie and Clyde

Volo Museum: Bonnie and Clyde Death Car

27582 Volo Village Rd, Volo, IL
Midway between Chicago and Milwaukee. I-94 exit 11B. Drive west on Hwy 120/Belvidere Rd for about 13 miles. Turn right (no stoplight) onto Volo Village Rd. Drive one mile to the attraction, on the right.
Summer daily 10-6; fewer day and hours off-season. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $23.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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