Time & Place: Behind Bill Harrah's Auto Collection

Aug 6, 2018

The great American road trip is a cultural institution, with cars full of travelers touring the country every summer. But for some, it’s the car itself that’s the main attraction. Historian Alicia Barber explains in this segment of “Time & Place.” 

From the old Lincoln Highway to the annual celebration of classic car culture called Hot August Nights, the Reno-Sparks area has always been a top destination for car lovers. It was also the home of one of the country’s biggest car collectors.

Bill Harrah was the founder of the Harrah’s casino empire, but he also loved cars—a lot. He started buying them as soon as he could afford to, as he explained in a 1978 interview.

"Pretty soon there were twenty and then fifty, and—'Oh, there's a car I want,' and I had the money; I'd buy it," Harrah said. "You take a look, and well, what can I—you know—what are you going to do with a hundred cars? So I thought, 'Well, gee, I should have a museum; I should have them in a building.'"

Harrah showed a few of them in downtown Reno, and in 1962, rented a huge brick building in Sparks, a former ice plant, to show around 150 that his staff had carefully restored. Eventually the collection was spread out into thirteen warehouses and multiple showrooms. But as Harrah’s executive Lloyd Dyer later explained, Harrah had something even bigger in mind.

"Bill wanted to have a perfect museum to show his cars," Dyer said. "We owned thirteen hundred automobiles at that time. We acquired over three hundred acres, and we hired an architectural firm out of San Francisco to design a museum for us."

It would be much more than a museum. Covering 360 acres just off Interstate 80 on Reno’s west side, Harrah’s Auto World was meant to include a hotel-casino, restaurants, a golf course, and an ice arena, with state-of-the-art displays and animatronics designed by Disney.

Then tragedy struck. Harrah died in June of 1978 and plans for his Auto World were scrapped. Holiday Inns bought Harrah’s properties, including the cars, and sold or auctioned off most of them, but set aside 175 for a future museum.

Those became the heart of the National Automobile Museum, The Harrah Collection, which opened in Reno in 1989 and has been a mecca for automobile aficionados ever since.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.