It is always surprising to me how often the efforts of one man are responsible for showcasing an entire museum worth of special vehicles. Fine examples include the Simeone Museum, the Vintage Motos Museum in Denver, and the Petersen Museum in LA. These collections are often more interesting, because they were not driven by the need to get visitors through the turnstiles. They were the particular interest or area of focus for a single individual and eventually grew large enough that they needed their own space. As I have mentioned several times before, we are all the better for it as pristine or interesting examples of vehicles that often do not exist anywhere else are sometimes found in these collections. Which brings me to Alain Cerf. Alain is an innovator who developed a shrink wrap packaging system and moved his business from France to the US. It became very successful and fueled his passion for cars. The collection grew, and eventually needed a separate building next door to the factory. Then, as a few others have done, Alain decided to share his passion with the public. He formed a museum with the nondescript name of the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum. However, this is not just another collection of great cars to be found elsewhere….
The hallmark of this museum is innovation. Every vehicle within it is there because it has introduced some facet of innovation that went on to influence many other vehicles or which is commonplace today or perhaps even an innovation that never caught on. The cars are mostly European, but include a Ruxton, two Cords, and a Willys Knight from the US. The collection covers vehicles from Czechoslovakia, Germany, England, Ireland, Austria, The USA, and of course a core from France. The museum starts with some interesting products from France. The French cars begin with a Peugeot Dal Mat, a Salmson, a Talbot and a lovely Delahaye coupe with a unique “butterfly” hood. Tops in this area though had to be the stunning Panhard Dynamic from 1938 which from a styling and aerodynamic perspective had to be well ahead of its time while still finding a certain Art Deco flare. The cute Claveau and the elegant Voisin rounded out the section. Suffice it to say that my knowledge of French cars increased significantly within a matter of 40 feet. One marque prominently featured in both race and street trim was Tracta. They pioneered CV joints and supercharging. Citroen’s groundbreaking SM, and iconic 2CV continued the French innovations.
The British are represented by a BSA 3 wheeled car reminiscent of a Morgan, a very nice all-aluminum Jensen sportscar prototype, a legendary design Jaguar E-Type, and an Allard. Czechoslovakia is well represented in the museum. Tatra is pretty well known for its design, and its rear engine placement. However, the T75 featured independent front and rear suspension and overdrive in 1933! German innovation was also on display. Small “sporty” sedans from DKW, Adler, and Detra were featured, and there was a magnificent (if deteriorated) Audi cabriolet from 1935. Stars of the German show (pun intended) were a pair of rear-engined Mercedes cars from the 1930s, a 130H, and a 170H. They had just returned from a concours where they had both won blue ribbons. An NSU R080 (see NSU R080) was a more modern German innovator.
With all of this variety and innovation, there was one vehicle that clearly stood out as the king of all vehicular innovations. It was the 1770 Fardier de Cugnot, and it was the world’s first self-propelled vehicle. It runs on steam and is a large and impressive vehicle. Back in 2007, Alain Cerf decided to build an exact functioning replica of the machine. He told me it took 3 years and that finding the right wood and making parts as they did in the mid 1700s, was no easy feat. Talk about hard to find parts ! Seeing the machine at full scale up close is awe inspiring. One can only imagine what it must have been like to see this thing roll through the local village. It takes the concept of a vintage restoration to a whole new level. Just what you would expect from an innovator like Alain Cerf.