America on Wheels

Membership is growing and the exhibit halls are packed. How does an automotive museum that only owns two historic cars manage to pull it off? Simple. Keep it lean, be creative and make it a trip worth taking.

Situated along the Lehigh River in Allentown, Pennsylvania, America On Wheels calls itself “A Museum of Over The Road Transportation.” But visitors are saying something else about this unique venue that celebrates the wonderful history of old vehicles:

At America On Wheels, there’s always something new to see.

When we opened our doors three years ago, says Executive Director Linda Merkel, it was important to the mission that AOW’s small, fulltime staff of three take on the challenge of changing exhibits frequently with the help of volunteers.

“The fact that we opened when the economy went really bad forced us to be creative,” she says.

AOW is a 48,000 square-foot facility on Allentown’s Lehigh Landing Riverfront, but their business model is refreshingly barebones. The museum only owns two cars, yet there are roughly 75 vehicles in the museum at any given time—all on loan, with new vehicles rotated in every six months to a year and centered on ever-changing themes. One huge benefit of the constantly changing exhibits is that repeat visitors are unlikely to see the same thing twice and will be encouraged to return again and again.

Right now until the month of June, the main attraction is “Dragsters of The Northeast.” Historic dragsters currently on display include those based on production cars: a 1941 Willys sedan; a 1932 Ford Three-Window Coupe; a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda “Lightweight” and many others. Also on display are stockcars modified by generations of fathers who passed along a talent for innovation and a need for speed to their sons.

In addition to main exhibits throughout the year there are also many mini-exhibits on constant rotation at AOW. Historic soap box derby racers, for instance, are currently on display for only six months. Past exhibits included race cars on loan from Mario Andretti—who lives in the area—and Lee Iacoca’s Mustang protype from 1963.

New additions to the AOW galleries also include a 1909 Marsh Metz motorcycle once owned by actor Steve McQueen. There’s also a 1913 Harley Davidson Model 9-A with its handlebar-mounted acetylene gas tank used to illuminate the head and tail lights.

“In June we will celebrate Chevrolet’s 100th year anniversary by showcasing a century’s worth of Chevrolet vehicles through March of next year,” Merkel says. “The ten-month exhibit will include the July unveiling of the 1912 Little Roadster owned by Robert Little of Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania.

But it’s not only about showing off historic vehicles at AOW. In addition to an array of creative exhibits, events, and educational programs for school children, Merkel says another big part of the museum’s success—and a draw to keep people coming back—is that the AOW also makes the museum available for weddings, car club luncheons and annual meetings, car cruises, corporate events and even community theater.

“It’s unbelievable seeing the new people coming through the museum,” she says. “They want to hold events here because they love the look of the venue. Every gallery is beautiful and is reminiscent of a simpler time.”

When AOW began soliciting supporting members last year, 350 people signed up. Merkel is watching that number slowly climb with new people constantly drawn in by a creative calendar of events: among them; the Dutch Dubbers Club Spring Cruise-In (May 2011), sponsored by Young VW and, in December, “Remember American Bandstand,” an event that will pay tribute to the memories of American Bandstand from the late 1950s.

When asked what she considers the secret of AOW’s success, Merkel chalks it up to three very simple things: creativity, running lean, and always giving people new reasons to come back.

For more information, check out America On Wheels