History with style

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This place is about how highways, cars, and trucks all tie together in the transportation history of our country.” -Bob Martin, senior communications manager, Mack Trucks


Gearheads take note: if you love formula one racers, muscle cars, motorcycles and antique trucks, then you need to make the “America On Wheels” in Allentown, Pa., your next stop. Not only is this unique museum chock full of motor transport history, the building itself is a model of elegance and style. You simply can‘t ask for a better place to house the spectrum of vehicles that makes up America‘s past.


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[The lobby of the "American On Wheels" museum provides visitors a quick synopsis of highway history.]


I got a special tour of “America On Wheels” - billed as “a museum of over the road transportation” - by Executive Director Linda Merkel, who probably loves this place more than anyone. I mean, the geiger-counter reading for her enthusiasm and passion concerning the vehicles under her care is simply off the charts - not that it takes much to get excited about what‘s on display.


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[Gerry Kunkle's silver '54 Jag -- restored to perfection.]


Walk down the front hallway, for example, and the first vehicle you see is an immaculate 1954 silver Jaguar XK120, restored and owned by Gerry Kunkle. His Jag - like all the vehicles in the museum - is in tip-top working order. All you have to do is add gasoline (or diesel, where some of the vehicles in here are concerned), fire her up and off you go. Keep going and you meet a 1918 Mack AC fire truck - originally supposed to be shipped to the Western front in World War I, but which ended up being purchased by Baltimore‘s fire department.


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[It's hard to see, but to the right of this Mack 1918 AC fire engine is a perfectly restored children's toy fire truck, complete with stuffed Bulldog at the wheel -- donated to the museum by a local enthusiast.]


Turn the corner to the left and you‘ll find some alternatively fueled vehicles - including one of General Motor‘s EV-1 electric cars, which I test drove way back in the day. (I might add that it‘s more than a little depressing to figure out that you drove a museum exhibit when it was brand new - a big indicator that one is getting old!)


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[The museum made sure the UPS lettering on this '79 Mack F-Series cabover tractor matched what the parcel delivery carrier used back in the day.]


Back into the hallway and go right, however, and you meet big trucks - like a 1979 Mack F-Series Model F785T cabover, a tractor model made famous by United Parcel Service (which allowed the museum to use the old-style UPS lettering on the vehicle to make it authentic.) A little farther over is a beautiful 1958 Mack B-70 Series dump truck, Model B753LS, restored in perfect detail by Irving Jensen, who owns a big construction firm out in Sioux City, Iowa.


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[Bob Martin and Linda Merkel are working hard to raise the museum's profile -- and exhibits like Jensen's dump truck behind them should help attract visitors.]


Obviously, Mack Trucks is a major sponsor and contributor to the “America On Wheels” museum - with Bob Martin, the company‘s senior communications manager, on its board of directors. But it‘s also a place that would never have existed without a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on Mack‘s part - in part because the concept for this museum dates back 17 years.


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[Like racing? That's a 1986 Penske PC-15 Formula One racer in the foreground, with a 2005 NASCAR Dodge Charger behind it, along iwth a 1967 McLeare M1C restored by Jack Thompson.]


Zenon Hansen, Mack‘s president from 1965 to 1974 and later chairman of the company, originally came up with the idea, though it fell to Jack Curcio, CEO after Hansen, to keep the dream alive. And it‘s a dream that became reality in April this year only after some unusual twists and turns. Originally part of a “Lehigh Landing” revitalization project, the building housing the museum is a former meatpacking plant - with part of the façade of that plant preserved in the current structure.


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[You can see the remains of the old meatpacking plant's facade to the right of the museum's front door.]


Though almost none of the other projects of the revitalization project came to fruition, there are still hopes that the museum can spur future development of the area as it gains the attention of car and truck buffs everywhere.


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[How about a little "muscle" with your sheet metal? That's a gorgeous 1972 Oldsmobile 442 W-30, restored by Ken Maher, with a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda in the background.]


“We opened too late to host any 2008 classic car shows -- they'd already set their schedules -- but we‘re already on the calendar as the location for many of them in the 2009 season,” Linda Merkel told me. “We‘ve hosted two weddings here already, along with plenty of other gatherings, including car club meetings. It is a great place for things like that.”


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[Here's a rare bird -- a 1970 Plymouth Superbird, restored by Ralph Barbagallo, powered by a 440 cubic inche V8 that cranks out 390 hp. Unpopular in its day, this model now fetches up to $500,000 at car auctions.]


The fact that many of the cars on display at “America On Wheels” are on loan from local enthusiasts speaks volumes about the museum‘s appeal. The facility is also rotating the vehicles on display and completely changing parts of the building‘s layout wholesale on at least a yearly basis, so visitors won‘t see the same thing twice for very long, Merkel added.


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[Yes, that's a 1984 racing lawnmower on the left, and a 2007 "Rocket Barstool Racer" on the right. Sometimes you just gotta have some fun!]


One of the best parts, however, is the attention paid to trucks drivers. Mack set up a special display area highlighting the valuable role truck drivers play in the U.S. economy, along with oral recordings of actual drivers talking about their experiences and their feelings about their profession. It‘s refreshing to see that much attention paid to a group largely ignored in the annals of our nation‘s past.


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[Even Mack's Bulldog logo has it's own unique display case at the museum.]


Needless to say, if you ever end up near Allentown, Pa., make sure to drop in to visit “America On Wheels.” It‘s a blast from the past you won‘t soon forget.

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