The experimental Golden Sahara II has glow-in-the-dark tires and its own ice machine.
The experimental Golden Sahara II has glow-in-the-dark tires and its own ice machine.

Klairmont Kollections Museum

Field review by the editors.

Chicago, Illinois

Larry Merton Klairmont (1926-2021) was a Chicago real estate multi-millionaire. He loved cars; at one time he owned over 600. Larry stashed them in buildings (that he also owned) throughout the city until his fiancee, Joyce Oberlander, put her foot down and told Larry he needed to park them all under one roof.

Pumping gas at the museum's replica Cucamonga Service Station.
Pumping gas at the museum's replica Cucamonga Service Station.

So Larry looked over his Chicago properties, found a huge old printing plant, had it gutted, filled it with his treasures, and called it the Klairmont Kollections Museum. It was private, but Larry enjoyed it so much that he opened the collection to the public in July 2019.

"You don't have to be an automobile enthusiast to be overwhelmed," said Bob Olson, executive director of the museum. Larry's horde fills over 100,000 square feet of floor space, packed with cars parked bumper-to-bumper and side by side in the world's most stylish and spotless traffic jam. Larry had a fondness for top-of-the-line models that looked better than most other cars even in their own time, and he kept them pristine, as works of art, free of road grime. Bob said that the staff continuously "speed details" every car -- hundreds of cars -- wiping away any speck of dust or forbidden fingerprint.

The 1955 Beatnik has the world's largest automotive bubble top.
The 1955 Beatnik has the world's largest automotive bubble top.

Several of the cars, said Bob, are worth over $1 million apiece, but they all look expensive.

Larry wasn't content to fill his museum with old, pretty automobiles; he had a range of additional interests and the cash to satisfy them. He also had connections to other, similar collectors. "There are some odd dudes out there," Bob said, and from these like-minded individuals Larry bought slot machines, Vespas, microcars, mechanical orchestras, neon signs, a store's worth of clocks and watches, soap box derby contenders, and a model railroad once owned by Neil Young (with a miniature Mount Rushmore). He purchased an exact replica of a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf fighter and suspended it, ominously, from the rafters over his 1940s vehicles. He bought a dinner menu from the Titanic. Hanging on the wall of one of the restrooms is Larry's framed collection of naughty French postcards. "It's adults only," said Bob of the bathroom. "People are forewarned."

Eisenhower-era drive-in. To the left, a 1990 car with wings and and a 1964 Amphicar.
Eisenhower-era drive-in. To the left, a 1990 car with wings and and a 1964 Amphicar.

Born to be wild on a 1947 Harley-Davidson Flathead U.
Born to be wild on a 1947 Harley-Davidson Flathead U.

One of Larry's most noteworthy non-automotive acquisitions is an electric chair used in New York's Sing Sing prison. An accompanying sign states that "614 men and women died by this method" in Sing Sing, although perhaps not all in this particular chair. Larry put it to practical use; he would caution museum visitors -- genially -- that anyone who touched one of his cars would have to sit in the electric chair. "We're not striving to be the Smithsonian," said Bob.

As for the cars, Larry bought what he liked and, as Bob said, "He liked oddities." A lightweight 1926 Hispano Suiza has a body made of leatherette. A 1918 Pierce Arrow was once the world's most expensive automobile, Bob said, because most of its exterior has been plated in gold. In a similar spirit, Larry took one of his museum Rolls Royces and had it covered in a million tiny crystals. It took four people four months to glue each one into place by hand.

Pedal cars were one of Larry Klairmont's many collections.
Pedal cars were one of Larry Klairmont's many collections.

Vehicles on display range from a humble Good Humor ice cream truck to an absurd Pulse Litestar, which had vestigial wings. The "Two-Faced Ford" is the front ends two identical cars welded back to back, so the driver never had to use reverse. The world's most perfect replica of the 1966 Batmobile has operational drogue parachutes and a flame-throwing exhaust. A 1962 delta-shaped car-of-the-future -- it could make 90 degree turns at 60 mph -- was originally named the Vortex X-1970, then had to be renamed the Vortex X-2000 because it was too far ahead of its time (It still is). The XF58 Ice Princess is 20 feet long with twin cockpits and six wheels; the 1955 Beatnik has what the museum says is the world's largest automotive bubble top. "Sometimes," said Bob, "things are just cool."

If a Studebaker and a Cadillac had a baby, it might resemble the XF58 Ice Princess.
If a Studebaker and a Cadillac had a baby, it might resemble the XF58 Ice Princess.

Executive director Bob Olson and the museum's gold-plated car: a Fort Knox on wheels.
Executive director Bob Olson and the museum's gold-plated car: a Fort Knox on wheels.

Larry's most eye-opening vehicle is the Golden Sahara II, built as a concept car in 1956. Described as a "laboratory on wheels," the car has 24 karat gold trim, white mink floor mats, paint made from pulverized fish scales, and a cocktail bar with an ice machine. It can be driven by voice command, push-buttons, or a "unitrol" lever -- the ancestor of the modern joystick. "There are multiple features on here that were completely unheard of in the late 1950s," said Bob, including autonomous braking, a built-in television, and guidance control radar. The car's translucent "neothane" tires are illuminated from within with colored lights. "Who wouldn't want to have tires that turned red when you hit your brakes?" said Bob.

Unlike other personal hoards, the Klairmont Kollections Museum has always had a plan in place to outlast its founder. Bob said that the museum is currently working to elaborate its displays and add more ambiance, including replicas of such landmarks as the museum's already-existing Route 66 Cucamonga Service Station. The goal, said Bob, is to create a space worthy of Larry's stash. "Our cars are an extension of our dreams," said Bob. "That's really what this collection is all about."

Klairmont Kollections Museum

Address:
3117 N. Knox Ave., Chicago, IL
Directions:
Northwest side of the city, on the east side of N. Knox Ave., just south of its intersection with W. Belmont Ave.
Hours:
Th-Su 10-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
773-685-1904
Admission:
Adults $22.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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