Lovers of Franklin cars must visit the the Franklin Automobile Museum in Tucson, Arizona. It’s the largest public collection is devoted to the the quirky marque, built in Syracuse, NY from 1902 through 1934. Just getting to the museum is part fo the fun: it’s tucked away in the residential neighborhood north of downtown known as Richland Heights West, one of the last areas in Tucson with unpaved streets. You approach by driving across natural desert sand, much as a shiny new Franklin car might have done in the 1920s. It’s not uncommon to see the odd tumbleweed charting a lazy course across the sand like in some old John Wayne western.
So plan to take a trip back in time. Drive (slowly!) on some dusty sand roads amid cacti for a few blocks before arriving at the museum’s three adobe buildings. The throwback atmosphere is really part of the fun when viewing such a fine assemblage of pre-World War II cars.
History of the Franklin Automobile Museum
This 27-car collection of Franklin cars was developed by car restorer Thomas Hubbard. He purchased his first Franklin in 1950 and just kept buying them. He was first attracted to Franklins at the tender age of eight when his family bought a brand new 1933 model. Apparently his friends were not impressed.
Museum guide Bill, who as a child used to hang around helping Hubbard’s auto restorations, recalls Hubbard saying, “They’d rib me about the car. I had to explain to my friends, why if the car was so good they didn’t make them anymore.” Hubbard passed away in 1993 but the foundation he established funds the museum and its continued acquisition of cars including a purchase of a 1905 Franklin Model A Runabout with a rare rear-entry tonneau.
History of Franklin Cars
Franklins were the brainchild of engineer John Wilkinson and businessman Herbert H. Franklin, whose personal motto was “It can be done.” Franklin Automobiles were built in the much colder climes of Syracuse, New York in the early part of the 20th century, from 1902 through 1934.
All of the Franklins were air-cooled. Because air-cooling removed the need for a bulky radiator, Franklin cars took on some unusual front-end shapes including barrel hoods, shovels, and horse collars. They were a considered a premium brand; pricing ran just under a Cadillac. Collections this large are rare: although over 150,000 Franklins were produced, only about 3,500 survive today.
What’s on display at the Franklin Automobile Museum
There are three rooms’ worth of autos here. Because early cars required constant maintenance, the 1918 Franklin Model B Touring came with tool kits; the originals are cleverly hidden inside the front doors of Franklin cars and even included extra spark plugs. Look for the handy (and surprisingly small) golf bag on the 1929 Franklin Convertible Coupe.
In a sign of the times, with Charles Lindbergh having crossed the Atlantic Ocean (with an air-cooled engine) just two years before, an airplane logo was placed on the rear bumper to symbolize the car’s “airplane-type” engine; further increasing its sportiness factor.
A 1929/1930/1931 Franklin Model 153 is unique because it was company founder Herbert Franklin’s personal vehicle. The reason it has so many model years attributed to it was that he brought it into the shop annually to update it to the current model year.
A one-off 1931 Franklin Model 153 Sport Phaeton was custom ordered by 21-year-old Stillman F. Kelley, II for his honeymoon. Despite the Great Depression raging, Kelley was able to pay $6,500 for this beauty, and may have survived the financial downturn better than Franklin. The automaker had leveraged his company for growth that didn’t materialize and was unable to shoulder the increased debt burden, declaring bankruptcy in 1934. The aircraft engine division survived but, in an odd twist, was bought in 1947 by Preston Tucker to produce engines for the Tucker 48. It’s not all Franklins though. In an outbuilding there are several other marques, including a 1909 REO Touring, which was the first car Thomas Hubbard restored.
And what’s with those dirt roads?
Part of what makes a visit to the Franklin Automobile Museum so unique is its setting in a quiet area with dirt roads. Dirt roads themselves aren’t really all that unusual-especially in rural parts of Arizona. But the museum is in the city of Tucson, which makes it quite an oddity. Here, you can still find corrals with horses and wild rabbits nibbling on mesquite leaves . . . and the speed limit is a whopping 15 MPH.
The neighborhood, known as Richland Heights West, is about 3 miles northeast of downtown Tucson. The 16 square block parcel was developed on a former ranch in the 1940s, before it was part of the city–and before paved roads were the accepted thing. The city offered to pave the neighborhood roads in the 1990s, but the neighborhood association said, “no thanks.” They like it just the way it is: quite, a little dusty, and full of wildlife. It’s also the perfect place to see a Franklin Car.
Unique roadside Americana near the Franklin museum
A visit to the Franklin Automobile Museum offers the opportunity to take in a bit of authentic roadside Americana located nearby. Anyone who loves road trips is aware of the Muffler Man statues that sprinkle the heartland. These distinctive, 20-foot-tall fiberglass figures were mostly erected in the 1960s to lure visitors to various shops and attractions. They were cleverly designed so the statue could hold an object related to the business they were promoting.
They came to be known as “Muffler Men,” regardless of what they held, because so many of them ended up holding mufflers to promote service stations. One of these icons of mid-century advertising presides over an intersection in Tucson, just two miles southwest of the Franklin Museum. The circa-1964 fiberglass giant at the corner of N. Stone Avenue and E. Glenn Street is one of the earliest “Muffler Man” statues. This one’s dressed up as Paul Bunyan holding an axe, yet it’s still auto-related, as it stands in the parking lot of Don’s Hot Rod Shop at 2811 N. Stone Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85705.
PRO TIP: If you’re really into quirky sights, just about 6 blocks south of the Franklin Auto Museum is the intersection of Glenn & Campbell Although the Rhinestone Cowboy spelled his name with only one “n,” the crisscrossed street signs provide a nifty photo op.
This museum showcasing Franklin cars is one of several unusual museums in Tucson. It truly is a one-of-a-kind destination and a real trip back in time. Further information is available at www.FranklinMuseum.org.
Where is the Franklin Automobile Museum?
3420 North Vine Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85719
When is the Franklin Automobile Museum Open?
Mid-October through Memorial Day, Wed-Sunday, 10am to 4pm.
What was unique about Franklin cars?
The engines were air-cooled, so there was no need for a bulky radiator.
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