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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.

Franklin Automobile Museum Tucson Arizona

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. 

Franklin 1925 Sport Coupe

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 dirt road entrance to the Franklin Automobile Museum harkens back to the 1940s

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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We love exploring these unusual museums in Tucson, Arizona. Many of the city’s unique museums reflect Tucson culture and showcase exhibits and artifacts that cannot be found anywhere else. From a funky spot to view old signs to a Cold-War colossus, to a rodeo tribute, check out our 7 favorite museums in Tucson.

Ignite Sign Art Museum

A collection of neon signs at one of our favorite museums in Tucson: the Ignite Sign Museum

It’s lit at the Ignite Sign Art Museum in a Tucson museum that celebrates the city’s long legacy of clever neon signage. While many of the signs are still in place at their original locations around town, the museum preserves and displays signs that are no longer used. Since this is a working sign restoration studio, on Wednesdays and Saturdays there are demonstrations of the neon bending that creates these wonderful designs.

PRO TIP: Visit the Ignite Sign Art Museum in Tucson on Wednesdays & Saturdays to see sign restoration in progress.

Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum

A collection of western saddles from the Tucson Rodeo Parade museum

Claiming to be the largest non-motorized parade in the country, the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum dates back to 1925 when this really was a cowtown. This is one of the more historic museums in Tucson. The museum celebrates the parade’s long legacy with a collection of more than 100 horse-drawn vehicles. (Some of them were used in the movie Oklahoma which, despite the title, was filmed in southern Arizona.)

The Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum is located inside four buildings, one of which is the old Tucson Municipal Flying Field airplane hangar. In addition to all the vehicles and saddles, there’s also a model railroad inside one of the buildings. The Tucson Rodeo takes place in February but the museum is open January, February and March.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Walking path at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

Okay, I have to admit that at first I was skeptical about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Even though this is one of the more popular museums in Tucson, my thought was “When you’re in Tucson there’s pretty much desert all around you, so why would I need to go a museum about it?” Well, when I hike in the desert there aren’t placards and informative guides explaining to me all the flora and fauna I encounter.

I found that a visit to the museum makes me appreciate the actual desert even more. There’s also a zoo, botanical garden, natural history museum and aquarium to round out the experience. And it’s an absolute delight to hang out in the hummingbird house! The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is adjacent to Saguaro National Park, one of 31 Arizona National Parks and Monuments in the state, a great place to test your newfound knowledge of the landscape.

PRO TIP: Visit adjacent Saguaro National Park after you explore the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to test your newfound knowledge of the landscape.

Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures

I was going to write a short story about this museum but I figured that was too obvious. The museum features more than 500 antique and contemporary miniature dollhouses and models. But it is more than just a museum of dollhouses. There are miniatures here of practically anything you can think of . . . like a set of animal carvings inside a walnut shell.

And lest ye think the Enchanted Tree shown above is not miniature at all, it’s hiding–at kid height–a series of miniature rooms in the nooks and crannies of its magical trunk. This is one of the museums in Tucson that’s lots of fun for miniature people as well!

History of Pharmacy Museum

Okay, a museum devoted to medicine may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s no doubting that it’s different. The world-class History of Pharmacy Museum is tucked into Drachman Hall on the University of Arizona campus. It’s definitely one of the more esoteric museums in Tucson.

Hundreds of thousands of items (full disclosure here: we did not count them but take their word for it) ranging from old-timey bottles of elixir to anti-venom kits for snake poison are displayed in antique shelves. A full-scale replica of an old-fashioned drugstore that looks like it was lifted from Main Street USA helps put all these unusual items into context. Reading the ingredients on the labels on some of the old jars it’s amazing what got approved when product safety was not as emphasized.

Titan Missile Museum

Titan II missile in silo at Titan Missile Museum in Arizona

During the Cold War in the mid-20th century there were 54 Titan II missile sites on active alert across America. It’s quite surprising to realize that the picturesque Sonoran Desert surrounding Tucson was the home of 18 of these underground silos, one of which survives as part of the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona, just a 25-minute drive due south of downtown Tucson. It’s the only place in the country where you can see one of these missiles in its original home. But don’t worry, that’s not a real nuclear warhead on top, (or so the guide told me.)

Gadsden Pacific Toy Train Museum

Just one of the many layouts at the Gadsden Pacific Toy Train Museum. Photo courtesy of the museum.

Formally known as the Gadsden Pacific Toy Train Operating Museum, this museum features nine indoor operating layouts. There’s also one set out in the garden, along with a train you can ride around the property. If that’s not enough, hop into the full-sized actual caboose for a browse around and photo op. This Tucson museum is a train lover’s delight.

Franklin Automobile Museum

Franklin antique cars lined up inside the Franklin Automobile museum
A row of Franklin cars lined up at the Franklin Automobile Museum

Lovers of classic cars will admire the collection of Franklin cars–and their unique setting at the Franklin Automobile Museum in northern Tucson. Set within in a quirky neighborhood that still has the original sandy roads from the 1940s with a 15mph speed limit, you get into the “early 20th century mood” before you even set your eyes on the cars themselves. Franklins, with their leading-edge air-cooled engines, were all the rage 100 years ago, but now are quite rare. This is the only independent museum in the country dedicated to the marque.


The magnificent weather around Tucson invites you to spend the majority of time outdoors, enjoying the splendid Arizona sunshine. But when you’re craving a little bit of shade (and air conditioning!) these unusual museums in Tucson are a great option. And if all this exploring has you feeling a bit “peckish,” satisfy your hunger with a Sonoran Hot Dog in Tucson: it’s a James Beard Award-winning classic!


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