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Hot rods and cool caddies

Horsepower abounds in Saratoga, as anyone within a whiff of the Spa City can attest. But thoroughbreds are just the half of it. At the edge of the state park, on the Avenue of the Pines just shy of Route 50, are the cars.

The Saratoga Automobile Museum opened in 2002, in the seventy-year-old former springwater bottling plant. The building features high Palladian windows, and, absent any sales pitches, it makes for a prize showroom. Light streams in, the cars glimmer. The only bummer is that test-drives aren’t an option. The primary mission of the museum is to “display and interpret [vehicles] that represent the automotive heritage of New York State.”

There’s a 1928 Franklin Airman that Charles Lindbergh drove, and for a while there was a 1940 Buick estate wagon—a woodie—that belonged to Bette Davis. Cars come and go. The museum in fact only owns a couple; the rest are on loan from individual collectors, museums, and old-car enthusiasts. Some have current registration stickers on them so they can be taken out for a drive (or a race) now and then.

Throughout the twentieth century, more than 700 different makes of cars and trucks were built in the Empire State—big-name vehicles (like Pierce-Arrow) and less familiar driving machines (Klink, O-We-Go, Friend, Ess Eff…and, in Saratoga Springs, Gagemobile). For a time, New York was the nation’s most promising market for auto sales. But by 1920 Detroit was cranking out inexpensive, mass-produced cars, and many New York automakers shut down.

The racing scene, though, was just revving up. The state’s first auto race occurred in 1896. It involved six cars racing from New York City to Irvington-on-Hudson and back. The average speed—hold onto your bucket seats—was 10 miles per hour. “Many people had never even seen a car,” reads the museum text. But racing developed into a major twentieth-century sport in New York, and speedways cropped up all across the state.

The auto museum’s text tablets and mod backlit signage provide facts and anecdotes (as well as point-blank reminders: “The gas-powered internal combustion engine is a polluter”); but on a quiet day, the museum’s friendly volunteers will happily give a personal tour; even they seem taken with all the vehicular eye candy.

A “Sprockets to Rockets” display includes a 1905 Stanley Steamer, a 1914 Detroit Electric, and a solar car built in 1995 by engineering students at Clarkson University. There’s also an area where kids can send toy cars down a little ramp to observe the aerodynamics, shift an actual Formula Vee racer, or watch a special-topic video (in the winter, there was an enticing one about ice-racing on Adirondack lakes).

Never really thought of cars as “sexy”? If the wide whitewalls, radiant chrome, and towering tail fins of a ’59 Cadillac Eldorado or the voluptuous curves of a turquoise ’51 Packard Ultramatic don’t grab you, how about the cute-as-a-button ’47 Playboy convertible? Or the 1915 Brewster Town Landaulet with patent-leather fenders? Or the ultra-sleek 1931 Pierce-Arrow?—even the exposed, shiny gas tank on this car is drool-inducing. And then there’s a fleet of racecars—from a 1935 Maserati to a 1999 Teo Pro, dirt-track modified.

Finally, what's a museum without a gift shop? Besides shirts, mugs, and postcards, this one stocks one-eighteenth-scale model cars; books on Daytona, hot rods, “grills and tails”; plus a line of Meguiar’s car-care products, in case you get the urge to polish your rims when you return to the parking lot. —MTS

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