KEARNEY — J.L. Schmidt loves to tell stories about the 160 historic vehicles in the Classic Car Collection at 3600 E. Highway 30.
“It’s the stories that make this museum,” he said.
There’s a tiny 1932 Austin American that hauled a dozen clowns to the center ring in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
There’s a red 1974 Cadillac that was customized for the late Evel Knievel, a 1954 Kaiser Darrin with sliding fiberglass doors and a Studebaker Big Six sedan with heating vents on the floor.
Every car has a story, and Schmidt, the collection’s director, never tires of telling them. The collection drew 13,000 visitors in its first year.
“We look for classic cars with stories,” Schmidt said. “Don’t just show me another Model A. Show me a Model A that had to be dug out of a ditch and took three years to restore.”
The collection showcases the 130-vehicle collection of Bernie and Janice Taulborg of the Elkhorn area — plus 30 more that are on loan. Schmidt knows the stories behind every single one.
He shows off a 1948 Dodge sedan that a team from Kearney High drove from Boston to Sacramento in 2010. He points out a 1931 Studebaker coupe in which back-seat passengers rolled down the rear windshield to talk to friends in the rumble seat.
There’s even a 1971 Ford Country Squire station wagon like the one the Griswold family drove across the country in the Chevy Chase movie “Vacation,” and a 1959 Cadillac with a tailfin fashioned after the tailfin of a P-38 fighter plane.
The collection landed in Kearney after Omaha investment banker Dave Nabity urged the Taulborgs to visit Kearney as they searched for a home for 130 of the 158 cars that they’d collected over 50 years.
“Nabity loved tourism, and he told Bernie, ‘Come to Kearney.’ Bernie saw this city, and that was it,” Schmidt said.
Roger Jasnoch, director of the Kearney Visitors Bureau, said, “It was a marriage made in heaven when Bernie offered to donate his cars. The collection gives travelers on I-80 another reason to stop in Kearney.”
It took four years to open the collection. Plans to build near the Great Platte River Road Archway were scrapped when estimates put the cost at $5 million. Finally, the Kearney Visitors Bureau leased the empty 50,000 square feet on the east end of Cabela’s and spent $1.5 million on renovations.
It took two weeks, two trucks and $148,000 for a professional car mover from Wichita, Kan., to move all 130 vehicles from Elkhorn to Kearney.
“They’d load ’em in the morning, head west at 1 p.m. and arrive in Kearney by 5,” Schmidt said. “The next morning, they’d unload them and drive halfway back, get a motel, and then go the rest of the way.”
In addition to Schmidt, the collection now has a board of seven members, three part-time employees and 70 volunteers.
Next fall, the collection will begin a Teachable Tuesdays series on automobiles and careers for children age 12 and younger.
Schmidt is finalizing plans for displays in 2013. The first exhibit will focus on Rolls Royce and its $1 million, one-of-a-kind Wraith limousine. The second will focus on Henry Joy, president of Packard, “who convinced Congress to call the great American road the Lincoln Highway,” Schmidt said.
After that will come a look at what Schmidt calls “orphans,” or discontinued cars such as Plymouths, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles. He changes displays four times a year to keep the collection fresh.
As the collection enters its second year, the car advisory committee is poring over a folder bulging with stories and pictures of 20 cars that people have offered to loan.
“When Bernie Taulborg came out to see us for the first time, he had tears in his eyes,” Schmidt said.