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1953 Chevy and the sign from Jalopy's Drive-In, formerly in Perkins, Oklahoma.
1953 Chevy and the sign from Jalopy's Drive-In, formerly in Perkins, Oklahoma.

Classical Gas Museum

Field review by the editors.

Embudo, New Mexico

The mile-high drive along Highway 68 between Taos and Santa Fe features stunning scenery, expensive galleries and wineries, and the deceptively rattletrap Classical Gas Museum in Embudo. Johnnie Meier, a scientist at Los Alamos, retired in 2002 and built the museum to suggest a rustic service station from the early days of auto travel. Johnnie, a roadside preservationist, is usually around to greet visitors. The museum is free -- "I'm a terrible businessman" Johnnie told us -- but tourists are encouraged to leave a donation for the local animal shelter.

Johnnie Meier.
Johnnie Meier.

Johnnie has always been into cars and highway culture, he said, but the Classical Gas Museum -- the only museum we know of named for a Mason Williams record -- is mostly about the history and art of old gas stations, particularly gas pumps. "Back in the early days," Johnnie said, "gas stations earned a reputation of being dirty, nasty, greasy, unpleasant, ugly." To change that perception, gasoline distributors in the 1930s hired industrial designers to make gas pumps attractive.

Classical Gas Museum.

"The product inside them was all the same," Johnnie said, but if it was packaged in something that looked good, you might buy it from one station rather than from another.

"To me, these pumps are works of art. Works of sculpture," Johnnie said. He pointed to one apparently inspired by New York's Art Deco Chrysler Building. "I have an advertisement from 1935 when it was introduced," said Johnnie. "The ad says, 'Introducing the Wayne Model 60: the world's most beautiful gas pump.' The designers built it to be as beautiful as possible." Fully restored by Johnnie, the Model 60 and other pumps from the 1930s -- with their chrome dials, illuminated globes, and intense primary colors -- are like the Wurlitzer jukeboxes of gasoline.

Shell memorabilia.
Shell memorabilia.

(The Wayne Model 60 was so attractive that an oil retailer in Missouri designed his gas station to look like one.)

Johnnie showed us around the property. The front, side, and back yards are filled with weathered 1950s cars, skeletal jalopies, old roadside signs, rusty wheel rims, and a fiberglass statue of Woodsy the Forest Service owl holding his "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" whistle. Glass electrical insulators serve as display edgers. A sun-faded Big Boy statue stands next to a genuine 1950s diner. Several dinosaurs are visible in the undergrowth. "A guy drives up and says, 'You wanna buy some dinosaurs?'" Johnnie recalled. "He had bought those for his kids about 50 years ago, and his kids grew up and moved away, and then his homeowners association started giving him a bunch of static about 'em and told him he needed to get rid of 'em."

Johnnie rents out some of his gas pumps to movie shoots, which cover up the brand names.
Johnnie rents out some of his gas pumps to movie shoots, which cover up the brand names.

Gas station attendant caps.
Gas station attendant caps.

Also outdoors are gas pumps, a lot of them, mostly untouched, because Johnnie likes them that way. "Here's a nice pump that should not be restored," he said, pointing to a model from 1940. "The patina, the different textures and colors, the way it's faded. That's just beautiful the way it is." Johnnie said that visitors, to his surprise, like "the rusty stuff" as much as they like "the shiny stuff."

He raised his hands in admiration in front of the 1940 pump. "People appreciate it! It's not just me!"

Indoors, the contrast is striking. Johnnie has packed the 1000-square-foot space with the prettiest examples of his restored gas pumps, their spotless paint a color explosion amplified in the glow of several pristine neon signs. There are vintage in-station displays of packaged radiator sealant, grease, antifreeze, and other automotive products, all clearly chosen by Johnnie for their eye-catching designs; a collection of gas station attendant caps; toy model gas stations; S&H Green Stamps memorabilia. Old, attractive oil cans and road maps are artfully placed as room decor.

Woodsy Owl, pal of Smokey Bear, guards the tree line.
Woodsy Owl, pal of Smokey Bear, guards the tree line.

"With the world going with electric cars, this place will really become a blast from the past," Johnnie said. "There'll be people walking in here sayin', 'What is that thing? A gas pump? What's a gas pump?'"

In 2022-2023 there was serious talk that Johnnie's collection would move several hundred miles into an abandoned Kmart in Tucumcari, to become part of a Route 66 museum. That deal fell apart in early 2024, and while Johnnie expressed some dismay, he also recognized that Route 66 has become "over-romanticized" and that his collection might lose its impact and charm if it abandoned its little oasis in Embudo. "I'm attracted to situations where I'd have more space," he admitted. "But I have a great location. I'd be happy here for the rest of my life."

Illuminated globes topped gas pumps back in the 1930s and '40s.
Illuminated globes topped gas pumps back in the 1930s and '40s.

Plus, visitors to the museum in Embudo usually get to meet Johnnie, an extra treat that Johnnie, visually-oriented, finds puzzling. "What surprises me is that people want to take pictures of me," he said, insisting that he has not aged as well as his gas pumps. "I think I need to get restored myself."

Classical Gas Museum

Address:
NM-68, Embudo, NM
Directions:
Halfway between Santa Fe and Taos in tiny Embudo, on the south side of NM-68. Look for the old gas station signs out front.
Hours:
Summer daily; off-season Sa-Su only. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
505-852-2995
Admission:
Donations accepted.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Boondoggle Conquistador Visitor CenterBoondoggle Conquistador Visitor Center, Alcalde, NM - 8 mi.
LowLow's Lowrider ArtLowLow's Lowrider Art, Chimayo, NM - 15 mi.
El Santuario de Chimayo ShrineEl Santuario de Chimayo Shrine, Chimayo, NM - 15 mi.
In the region:
Big Dog Swing, Santa Fe, NM - 36 mi.

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