The Awesome Nethercutt Collection
Aug 23, 2011
Richard Parks & Roger Rohrdanz
The Nethercutt Museum and Collection is the dream of the late J.B. Nethercutt and his wife Dorothy. That dream is being carried forth by his son, Jack Nethercutt and his wife Helen. It is a tremendous car collection and historical library of the first magnitude. Roger and I were invited for a special showing of the collection by Chief Curator Skip Marketti. The Nethercutt, as people refer to it, consists of two large buildings located in Sylmar, California and is very easy to see from the 5 Freeway. The exit from the freeway is at Roxford Street going north, turn right on Bradley Avenue and the parking lot is just before you reach Bledsoe Street. The address is 15200 Bledsoe Street, Sylmar, California and the phone number is 818-364 6464. The Nethercutt Museum is free and you do not have to make reservations for the Museum part of the facility. The hours are 9 AM to 4:30 PM and it is set up so that you can see all the cars and read the handy placards at your own pace. Behind the museum on a large lot is a railroad steam engine (Canadian-Pacific Royal Hudson), coal tender and a very large private Pullman private Palace passenger car exhibit. Twice a day at 12:30 and 3:45 PM the staff gives a tour of this magnificent train. Now that is the information on the Museum part of the Nethercutt. There is a completely different building housing the Nethercutt Collection and in my opinion this is equally as impressive if not more so for the average hot rodder. To see the five story tall Nethercutt building and the private collection of the Nethercutt family, you have to call and make a reservation. Tours to see the Nethercutt Collection are scheduled for 10 AM or at 1:30 PM, Tuesday through Saturday. For a weekday tour you should probably have no problem getting a reservation within a week or two. For a Saturday tour the delay can be a few months. If you can, go on a weekday as that helps the staff to coordinate all those who want to see the collection.
The Nethercutt, consisting of the Nethercutt Museum and Library in one building, and the Nethercutt Collection, housed in a separate building across the street, ranks in my opinion as one of the best Museum complexes that I have seen for hot rodders and car guys. I will tell you right now, if you simply go to the Museum and miss seeing the Nethercutt Collection, you will deeply regret your decision, as I will explain later. Roger and I have been to the Nethercutt before and we went through as fast as we could with our personal guide, Skip Marketti, and it still took us three hours. To see and to experience the full glory and value of this unique Museum and Collection, you will need to spend a good day there. I would advise you and your party to get there early, read some of the literature that’s available at the front desk so that you have a bit of a background and then take the tour of the Collection at 10 AM. After the tour is over at Noon you can go out for a bite to eat; a staff member recommended Caruso’s Italian Restaurant, but ask the staff where other eateries are also located. I’ve also seen people bring a lunch basket and picnic on the lawn in the back of the Museum near the train. It can get hot in the summer, so a picnic on the lawn should be reserved for spring and autumn months. When you have finished your lunch, return to the Museum and finish your self-guided tour of the automobiles, see the library and the video room. The staff is very pleasant and helpful and if they know the answers to your questions they will gladly tell you. The final activity should be the Palace passenger train car and steam engine tour which takes about 15 to 30 minutes to complete and is well worth the effort. I saw few young people when we were there, but the children who went on the train tour seemed to really like this exhibit the most.
To understand the Nethercutt Museum and Collection, it is important to know a little more about the founders. I searched the internet for some information on the family and found numerous references to the Merle Norman Cosmetic Company, but little on the founders. Merle Nethercutt Norman was the founder of her company, which she named after herself, in 1931. It seems strange that a California woman would invest her money in a beauty products company at the height of the Great Depression, but three factors weighed heavily on the matter. First, she was a Nethercutt and this family believed in themselves with a healthy dose of esteem and faith. Secondly, she reasoned that women would cut down on big spending items, like cars, homes and home furnishings, but they would still spend small amounts of money to look good. Feeling beautiful and glamorous like the Hollywood Stars would make the sadness of the Depression a lot easier to bear. Thirdly, she was perceptive and smart in how she observed the world and in how to solve problems. She was a hot rodder in spirit; the only difference was that she used skin creams and cosmetics rather than steel and rubber. She developed a sales salon approach where women could try on her cosmetics for free and buy only what they wanted. J. B. Nethercutt was born in 1913 in South Bend, Indiana and at the age of 10 moved to Santa Monica, California to live with Merle, his aunt, after his mother, her sister died. The bond between Merle and J. B. Nethercutt was as close as that between a mother and child.
Long before the passing of his parents, Jack Nethercutt grasped the reins of the Merle Norman Cosmetic Company and directed it to further growth. In the 1950’s when J. B. was firmly in control, Jack went racing. Jack loved to race cars as well as collect them and was a very good sports car driver from the late 1950’s into the 1970’s. He drove a ’59 Ferrari Testarosa and a Lotus 19 at such famous old tracks as Paramount Ranch, Laguna Seca, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Sebring and Nassau in the Bahamas. Eventually the needs of the family company made it impossible for Jack to pursue racing as a career. Jack graduated from the University of Southern California and married his wife Helen. Their imprint is also on the Nethercutt Museum and Collection as they serve on the board of directors for both the cosmetic company and the Museum and Collection. Jack and Helen oversee the present and future growth of the collection as some cars are sold off and new cars are purchased. They continue to enter car shows and win more trophies and ribbons for the collection.
The five-story tall Nethercutt Collection Building is visible from the 5 Interstate Freeway and it wasn’t hard to find the facility. A short drive along Roxford Street to either San Fernando Road or Bradley Avenue, then turn right until you come to Bledsoe Street. It is a pleasant drive along beautiful old homes on extra large lots. I prefer Bradley as the parking lot for the Museum is more accessible. There is plenty of handicap parking and ramps to make access easy. We entered the facility and met a very charming young lady who gave us instructions and called Skip Marketti. Skip is a man committed to hot rodding, antique cars and the automobile. Our first stop was the TV showing room large enough for twenty people. Various videos on the collection are shown to guests. Unfortunately we didn’t have time as our schedule was rather tight, but I would advise guests to watch a few videos and gain a bit of knowledge before embarking on their tour. The two-story Museum building is about 70,000 square feet and there are approximately 150 cars on display. To compare, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California has about 70 cars and motorcycles on display in an area of approximately 30,000 square feet. I estimated the height of the ceiling at about 50 feet and so the spaciousness of the building and the room to walk around made the exhibits even grander. Along the north wall were 8-foot tall oak cabinets that stretched a good 150 feet in length and held a treasure trove of automobile collectibles and memorabilia from the Nethercutt collection. A hot rodder could spend hours looking at hood ornaments, pins, etc.
The Museum is reinforced throughout with massive steel beams, both horizontal and vertical. Skip told us that this is the safest building in the valley and is earthquake proof. Earthquakes have shaken some of the artifacts off the shelves in the past, but now every object is secured and the collection is protected. There is also a high standard set for environmental problems. The humidity is kept around 38%, temperature is set at 70 degrees, and UV light is blocked in compliance with national standards set by elite museums. “Cars are always trying to return to dust over time,” Skip said. Even cars that are on static display need loving attention and repairs. The next room was the Nethercutt Library and it looked to be around 8000 square feet in size and contained hundreds of thousands of written material. In the shelves, cabinets and racks are books, magazines, periodicals, brochures, auto manuals, maps, plans, diagrams, drawings, posters and other material that the Nethercutt uses for research when they reconstruct or restore their automobiles. Researchers, writers and historians are welcome to use all of these sources on the grounds, but cannot remove them from the Museum. The Library has some magazines dating back to the mid 1890’s. They also have the W. Everett Miller collection of automotive design renderings. They find rare old magazines at swap meets and buy them from private collections. “We also gladly accept any donations from the public to add to our collection these are considered tax deductible contributions. We especially need vintage accessory parts books and manuals,” Skip added. An additional advantage is that the Nethercutt Trust supports the library so that it will continue on into the future without being lost.
The Museum also belongs to a wide variety of car clubs and receives their newsletters and magazines. I saw the bulletins and newsletters from the CCCA, Antique Automobiles, Horseless Carriage and fifty other clubs. There are full time employees who are archivists in the library and who maintain and care for all this knowledge. They do research and they assist the public and other historians in their quest to save and promote the history of the automobile. Roger and I left the library and looked out the back door of the building at the train parked on the tracks behind the Museum building. We would return at 12:30 and take the tour, but for now we had to leave the Museum and go across the street to the five-story tall “Tower” building and see the personal collection of the Nethercutt family. Marketti pointed out that this year is the 80th anniversary of the Merle Norman Cosmetic Company. A long line of buildings, warehouses, processing, shipping and administrative offices take up the entire block and employees were busy at work. The security for the building is constant. We were signed in at the guard station, issued badges and asked to refrain from using camera flashes, video or audio recordings. Part of the reason is due to the copyright laws that the Museum has to adhere to. On the first floor, which used to be the old parking garage, was the Dorothy Nethercutt Doll collection and her collection of David Winter cottage village ceramics. The majority of the exhibits are rare old cars and a mix of some fanciful ones.
Skip took us to the second floor, which is called the Grand Salon. The marble Greek colonnades and the marbled walls and floors are replicas of what it was like in the 1920’s and ‘30’s when potential buyers were welcomed into these palace-like dealerships for the top of the line marques like Duesenberg, Packard, Pierce Arrow and Stutz. Here we saw towncars owned by the Hollywood elites like Fatty Arbuckle and Cecil B. DeMille. “One of my favorites is this 1933 Duesenberg with the Art Deco interior and silver colored paint scheme,” Marketti pointed to the Arlington Torpedo sedan. We walked up the carpeted circular grand staircase and entered the third floor, or as they call it the Mezzanine, which overlooks the huge Grand Salon. Here Roger snapped picture after picture. No photographer can resist a bird’s eye view from twenty feet above the crowd. This is where the car collection ends and the musical exhibits begin, because the Nethercutt family has a wide range of interests in collecting. There was an ornate roll-up desk that was two hundred years old that was patterned on the Louis XIV desk in the Versailles Palace. A long row of oak and glass cabinets showed a variety of collectibles. There was J. B.’s collection of agate marbles and marble and stone eggs. I can imagine that he rarely lost a game of marbles. There is also a large selection of hood ornaments. Some were crystal glass ornaments made by Lalique. Skip pointed out the various “mascots,” or hood ornaments made to replace the standard hood ornaments of the day. We learned that these were often aftermarket accessories that were vanity hood ornaments. There were reclining nudes, frogs, bears, arrowheads, and just about any motif, theme or object that you could possibly wish to display on your hood.
The next stop was the fourth floor and as we got off the elevator the room was pitch black until Skip switched on the lights and revealed a dazzling display of musical instruments, often inlaid with rare wood and stone and other materials. There were impressive Grand Pianos, organs and Orchestrians. The Hupfeld Orchestrian is the largest one known to exist in the world. An organ was built into the wall of the room and contained 5000 pipes. Part of the organ and pipes were visible behind a glass enclosure. The degree of artistry in these musical instrumentations would pique the interest of any hot rodder, whether they were a music lover or not. An orchestrians is an instrument that has many smaller instrument built into it. They look like huge armoires or furniture. They open up to display small instruments like a player piano roll, violin, drum, banjo, fiddle, cello, etc. There are no musicians involved, only a mechanical device that plays the various instruments. There are 70 Orchestrians in the Nethercutt collection. A glass case contained J.B.’s collection of musical watches. Each watch had a mechanical inner working that played a melody. Another glass case contained Dorothy Nethercutt’s collection of ceramic miniature pianos. The Nethercutt is a place that is fun to visit even if you aren’t a car guy, because there is something for the entire family to see and enjoy.
Skip now took us back to the first floor garage and maintenance shop. This is the main reason why we came to the Nethercutt and why you should book the tour. If they can’t buy a car or a part, they can make it in their garage, filled with equipment, lathes, presses and every conceivable type of machine. They can make it providing they have the plans for it or a borrowed sample so they can visualize how it should have looked. The Nethercutt also has an upholstery shop and two very large paint booths and they do all of their repair and construction in-house, except for glass work. They have a section of the garage and maintenance shop set aside for shelves where they store the parts from cars that have been disassembled prior to restoration or painting. We saw that they have many cars that were disassembled and their parts neatly tagged and stored waiting for reassembly. I asked Skip if they ever found a part or two that didn’t make it back into the original car. He smiled and left that question unanswered. There are twelve very talented employees who work in the shop and garage.
We left the machine shop, garage, maintenance shop, paint and upholstery area and re-entered the display area where we had first come to pick up our badges near the security guard area. There on display was one of Skip’s favorite car; one that he loves to show to hot rodders as the archetypal car of all time. He loves to ask this question of car guys, “What car do you suppose set the standard by which automobiles owe their descent?” We guessed and then he pointed to the 1912 De Dion/Bouton, a car that is modern in concept, but still holding onto the look of those first horseless carriages. It was equipped with a four speed transmission, a 2-litre V-8 engine, a cast aluminum crank case, independent rear end suspension system and a long metal claw that could be released to stop a car from falling back down a steep hill during an ascent. “That car is fifty years ahead of its time,” he exclaimed. The collection also has three rare model J Duesenberg automobiles. Also restored was a 1913 Mercedes that went 90 mph in its day and is still capable of that speed. He pointed to a 1931 type 51 Bugatti race car with a Grand Prix body. “Maintaining 260 cars in the collection takes a big effort. We try and drive every car at least once a year. We also go through a pickling process where we drain the gasoline from the tank and run white gas through the pump and carburetor. Distilled water and water soluble oil goes into the cooling system to prevent electrolysis and to prevent erosion in aluminum and magnesium parts. Without such care the cars would eventually rust away,” Marketti concluded.
We turned in our security badges for the Tower and walked back across the street to the Museum where Pablo Armas graciously took us up to the storage area and opened two large doors so that Roger could shoot some photographs from twenty feet above the floor level. At ground level the Museum is special, but standing there above the cars and looking down on this valuable collection the view is spectacular. The storage area also contains rows of shelves and filing cabinets where duplicate magazines and periodicals are stored. We descended to the main floor and took some photographs of a few cars before the train tour started. There was a 1934 Packard on a rotating stand. A 1905 Franklin type E Gentlemen’s Roadster sported white pneumatic tires. Others cars included: a 1930 Cord L-29 front drive, 8 cylinder towncar; 1937 Talbot Lago T-150-C-SS sport coupe; 1912 Alco 9-60 seven passenger touring car; 1911 Pope/Hartford seven passenger touring car; 1907 Westinghouse 40/Demi-Limousine; and a 1913 Lozier type 72 Lakewood Torpedo. Other brand or marque names included Reo, Gardner, Simplex, Packard, Mustang, Tucker and Hudson. The receptionist announced the train tour was about to start and we followed some visitors outside to the train exhibit.
I asked the visitors if they had ever seen the Museum before and what their impressions were. They were all impressed and I wrote down their names for the article; Johnny Photisene, My Van, Joey Maniago, Fred Kuppers and his grandson Ethan Vilmur, John and Shirley Weinbeck, Dave and Sandy Schaffer, Gary O’Mary, Greg and Donnette Wheelock (who came from Minnesota). Marketti gave us a short history of the train and then beckoned us to enter the private passenger “Palace” rail car. This was a 1912 Pullman railcar, number 100/California. It is 82 feet long, almost sixteen feet wide, fourteen and a half feet high and weighs 80 tons. Special trucks were needed to haul the railcar, coal tender and steam engine to the site and place them on the railroad tracks. This is probably the shortest rail line in the world. There is four inches of concrete in the bottom of the floor to give the car more weight and thus a smoother and less bumpy ride. The Palace passenger car was purchased new by Clara Baldwin Stocker, the eldest daughter of E. J. “Lucky” Baldwin. Lucky was a name worthy of this early California pioneer, financier, developer and eccentric. Baldwin was a real estate tycoon, developer and owned mining companies, hotels, race horses and race tracks, including Santa Anita. Clara commissioned the railcar for her own use. It was opulence at its best in an age when America was becoming a wealthy world power. It wasn’t only expensive to purchase, it was also expensive to operate.
Clara could afford it with the fortune that she had inherited. Having one’s own passenger Palace car would be equivalent to having your own business jet today. There was Clara’s spacious bedroom and restroom facilities including a bathtub and shower. There were two additional bedrooms for her guests and a room at the front that was used as a kitchen and servants quarters. It took three years to restore the Palace car to the way it looked when Clara rode in it. The Nethercutt even found the original Wurlitzer Pianino and restored it. The private railcars were always placed at the rear of the train, far away from the smoke and to keep other passengers from walking through Clara’s private car. It was completely self-sustaining with its own fuel, food and equipment. Vents in the roof would provide air conditioning. Ten guests could be easily accommodated in sleeping quarters, the salon and at a dining table. There were fees to hook up the railcar, unhook it, store it for future use and for mileage. It is estimated that to use the railcar it would cost Clara the equivalent of one-hundred first class tickets, a veritable fortune then and also today. The tour took us through the steam engine and the coal tender. An Archimedes screw under the steel floorboards took a constant stream of coal to the firebox where the heat exceeded 2000 degrees Fahrenheit and would melt through the steel box if it weren’t protected by firebricks.
With the tour concluded we headed back to the Museum for one last look around and I can safely say that we only scratched the surface as to everything that was there. This is why you should go on-line and learn as much as you can about the Nethercutt Museum and Collection before you go. We photographed more cars and checked out the marques or brands. There were; Ford, Gobron/Brillie, Chevrolet, Winton, Durant, Dort, Dodge, Stevens/Duryea, Lafayette, Franklin, Graham, Hupmobile, Cunningham, Owen Magnetic, Hispano/Suiza, Lincoln, Corvette, Chalmers and many more. To do a thorough story and inventory of this fabulous museum and private collection would take us far more than a day in this wonderful place. There is something so charming and yet so user friendly about the Nethercutt. You are welcomed in as if you were cousins of the family. There is no charge for anything; parking, the Museum, library or tour of the collection. The buildings are air conditioned and the outside heat in sunny Sylmar is far from your mind. I have always been treated well and welcomed back by the friendly staff. This is a place that you must add to your itinerary when you are vacationing.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.