The World’s Greatest Car Collection – Came from Bingo?

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Bill HurrahWilliam (Bill) Fisk Harrah was born September 1911 in California, his father was a respected lawyer and real estate agent whilst young Bill attend UCLA to study mechanical engineering. The Great Depression forced Harrah senior into near bankruptcy retaining just one leased building on the pier at Venice Beach; this became a small time gambling venue for locals and visitors offering slot machines and a version of Bingo. 1937 SS100 2.5 litreFinances forced Bill to leave college in 1930 although stories circulated he was already facing removal after constantly doodling automobiles on his text books and cheating in a chemistry exam. Joining his father on the pier, it became obvious there was a good living to be made within the gambling world and especially playing their version of Bingo. He purchased the game and venue from his father for $500 then refurbished the location and removed the undesirables; soon grossing $50K per year from this game of skill. However, this was not how the authorities viewed Bill’s operation and with constant Police raids and threats from prosecutors a forced move followed to a legal ex-Bingo hall in Reno, Nevada. Operating legitimately Bill Harrah amassed a fortune, most of which was spent on seven wives and 1400 classic, vintage and historic automobiles.

One of the Hurrah Collections Royale's post saleThe Harrah Collection began in 1948 when he purchased a Maxwell ‘Runabout’, the model in question was actually a 1911 but sold to Bill as a 1907 version. This error encouraged Harrah to build a vast library of automotive knowledge and it is rumoured stopped him from pursuing his heavy gambling habit; this new pastime became all-consuming. The vehicles he purchased over the decades would often be unique, include an impressive legacy or be the finest available and all would pass through a restoration process that at its height employed 70 highly skilled craftsmen. During the 60s the casino’s and gambling profits rocketed and Hurrah looked to own one version of every memorable automobile (plus many not so notable); when first opened to the public in 1962 in Sparks, Nevada the collection totalled 325 cars. It is proposed that Harrah was the first collector to require an early computer to record the details as his inventory grew, especially when he purchased the complete Winthrop Rockefeller collection in 1975 for just under $1M.

thomas flyer 1908The collection included 68 rare and historic vehicles, the pinnacle of which was the Thomas Flyer winner of the ‘Greatest Race’ from New York to Paris in 1908. Cars with special provenance included a 1936 Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Roadster and James Dean’s Mercury from Rebel Without a Cause. The drives of famous stars featured numerously throughout his collection including a 1941 Chrysler Custom owned by actress Lana Turner; one of six built. Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado Coupe sat amongst one of just 26 Dual Ghia’s ever produced, the collections version once owned by Frank Sinatra; Dean Martin had another two. President Kennedy enjoyed a Lincoln Continental in 1962 and that was also purchased by Harrah along with John Wayne’s Corvette. Unique machines from the dawn of motoring included the 1892 steam powered Philion which ran on solid metal rims and is believed to be America’s first car. A Stutz Bearcat from 1913 was one of the fastest race machines of its day and a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost from 1921 wrapped in copper panels. Bill Harrah continued to expand his car collection but became ill with a heart condition during the 1970’s and failing to recover from surgery in June 1978 he sadly died on the operating table at the age of 66.

1913 Coey FlyerIt was estimated his passion for collecting, restoring and preserving the 1400 cars cost in the region of $40M and included a Bugatti Royale with 8000 man hours invested in its perfection; one of two Type 41’s that have enjoyed time in the Spark’s Museum. Following his death, the heirs were left six million shares in the company but no cash to clear the $35M in estate taxes or the $13M debt owed to a Reno bank. The Harrah empire of casino’s, hotels and vehicles were purchased by the Holiday Inn Group and tragically the collection was broken up, much of it heading for auction during the mid-80s. Once it became apparent that the world’s largest and many believed finest gathering of automobiles was going to be split and disposed of there was a public outcry which escalated to the Nevada state governor. He tried to stall the sale through legislation whilst venture capitalist endeavoured to purchase the collection but to no avail. A non-profit organisation was set up and with State backing and donations from enthusiasts the National Automobile Museum was built in Nevada. The Holiday Corporation donated 175 cars and a further 60 were reacquired with donations, the remainder went under the hammer.

the Hurrah Collection1909 Welch Model 4.0The museum opened in 1989 minus many of the most valuable of Harrah’s Collection they raised an estimated $100M but what remains forms much of the current display. It has been added to with a 24-karat gold plated De Lorean from 1981 but luckily still includes many machines of character such as Jack Benny’s Maxwell, Douglas Fairbanks Ford Model A and Clarke Gables De Soto from 1947. Visitors can still view most of the vehicles once driven by the stateside rich and famous, plus the Thomas Flyer and their 1912 Rambler was used in the 1997 version of Titanic. Whilst we will not see such a prestigious collection again, what of the remaining cars and their future? The current custodians in Nevada proclaim; The mission of the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection) is "to collect and preserve the automobile for future generations with an emphasis on vehicles collected by William 'Bill' Fisk Harrah, to tell the story of the impact of the automobile on American society, and to perpetuate the legacy of Mr Harrah as a renowned collector. Mr Harrah ended life as a cash poor but automobile rich, that is surely the way most enthusiasts want to go. 1910 Packard Model H 1937 SS100 2.5 litre