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Under the bonnet of the Louwman Museum

The privately owned museum is a soaring cathedral to the wonders of the car. Eighty years after a 1914 Dodge tourer started the collection, it is now open to the public. Simon de Burton reports

April 24 2014
Simon de Burton

One of the finest privately owned motor museums in the world is possibly the last place anyone would expect to find an old Toyota with shattered windows, crudely repaired doors, a ravaged interior and a radiator grille that seems to have been fashioned from part of an industrial-sized oven.

But, of the 250 or so vehicles on show at the Louwman Museum in The Hague, this decrepit-looking apology for an automobile is, in its own way, one of the most important of all. It is so important, in fact, that museum director Ronald Kooyman worked tirelessly for seven months to bring it to the Netherlands from its former resting place in an old barn 200km outside Vladivostock. It had migrated there after living out its useful life on a Siberian farm following the end of the second world war.

Kooyman is believed to have paid handsomely for the car, in cash, having been escorted to its owner by two middlemen – a local logistics expert and an employee of the British Consulate blessed with an understanding of Russian customs and particularly useful connections in Vladivostock.

Six months later, the car arrived in the Netherlands and, after having its faded bodywork, rodent-damaged upholstery and cracked, Russian‑made tyres stabilised by conservators, it was wheeled to its dedicated position within the museum – a softly illuminated booth decorated with a map charting its final, 5,150-mile journey by road, rail and sea. And then, and only then, could museum owner Evert Louwman finally breath a sigh of relief.

This car, you see, is the oldest known Toyota in existence. It is a Toyoda AA and, of the 1,404 examples manufactured, it is the only one to have survived – it is so rare, in fact, that the Toyota Museum in Japan had to commission four replicas in order to show people what its first car looked like. But the AA has an additionally special meaning to 73-year-old Louwman, because it was his late father’s belief in the Toyota marque’s future, during its earliest days in Europe, that enabled the family to accrue the funds to put together a collection of cars that few countries – let alone private individuals – could ever hope to amass.

Piet W Louwman began his career in the motor trade during the early 1920s while still a teenager. By the age of 20, he had become the Dodge distributor for the Netherlands, but it was signing the deal to become the region’s importer of Toyota cars in 1964 that enabled his business empire to truly burgeon.

At that stage, the Louwman collection was relatively small but did, importantly, include a 1914 Dodge Model 30 tourer that Piet W bought in 1934 direct from the factory for use as a showroom exhibit to attract passing trade. To most people at the time, it would have been nothing more than an outdated vehicle, but the far‑sighted Louwman had already realised the importance of preserving the heritage of the fast-developing automobile.

More than that, he recognised that the particular nuances of individual cars would one day be regarded as important – which is probably why he was careful to ensure that what would prove to be the foundation of a world-class collection was fitted with every conceivable period extra.

And now, precisely a century after it rolled off the production line in Detroit, the Dodge remains a cornerstone of the Louwman collection as much for being the first car bought for it as for the rarity of its original gradient meter, cut-glass windows, warning whistles and Fat Man steering wheel, which was designed to tilt to allow drivers easier ingress.

Details like that make history interesting, and it is just such an appreciation of originality on which the Louwman collection has been built.

Until quite recently, however, its marvels could only be enjoyed by a lucky few. Evert Louwman made the decision to increase public access to it during the late 1990s – and then spent almost an entire decade planning how to do it.

As might be imagined, the result is rather more elaborate than your average motor museum, being situated next door to the royal residence of Princess Beatrix and having been designed by the critically acclaimed American architect Michael Graves as a soaring cathedral to the wonders of the car.

Loosely based on a traditional Dutch coach house, it has steeply sloping roofs above outer walls made from specially commissioned bricks, an octagonal tower, a 90m, triple-height Great Hall with a vaulted wooden ceiling, a library modelled on a traditional gentleman’s club and, just for good measure, a 340-seat theatre with a stage that enables cars to rise up from below.

There is also a decidedly impressive “historical town square” within the building, which then-Queen Beatrix opened officially in 2010. In typical Louwman style, this is not some cheap reproduction job made from chipboard and papier-mâché: Mr Louwman sought out and acquired over many years old properties slated for demolition. These were then carefully dismantled and reassembled within the museum.

That level of attention to detail quickly pales into insignificance, however, in comparison with the criteria Louwman sets for the actual exhibits.

“My father started the collection by buying the Dodge in 1934,” says Louwman, “but most of what he had bought was taken by the Germans during the war. Thankfully, we managed to hold on to the Dodge and, in about 1965, we bought a few more cars – but it was not until after my father’s death in 1969 that I started collecting fanatically. It just seemed that the car had played such an important role in modern history, and was changing so much, that a proper museum needed to be formed to explain its development. I was able to acquire many of the exhibits when values were relatively low – I think it would be impossible to form such a collection at today’s prices without having one’s own printing machine with which to create the money.

“We have tried to compile an interesting and balanced collection of automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, carriages and other unique vehicles with the aim of clearly and grippingly demonstrating a fantastic era of transport,” he continues. “It is about a heritage that deserves to be conserved, which is why some vehicles remain in their original state with the honest patina of a century of use.

“Others are the only examples of their kind ever produced and, by observing their variations in design and technology, it is possible to distinguish between the various cultures from around the world.”

Designed to take visitors on a mile-long, one‑way trip through the history of non‑pedestrian travel, the tour begins with exhibits dating back to the mid-18th century. These include superbly preserved, and entirely original, examples of a sedan chair and a Portuguese traquitana (a luxurious carriage) that was discovered after more than 100 years in storage, complete with its original paintwork, upholstery and leather tonneau cover.

But it is the cars, of course, that this museum is all about – and their range and diversity are as remarkable as their quality and rarity. An 1887 De Dion Bouton, for example, is not merely the oldest car in the museum, it is one of the oldest surviving cars in the world, full stop.

An 1895 Panhard & Levassor, meanwhile, is exactly the same model as the one that won one of the first-ever motor races, an almost 1,200km run from Paris to Bordeaux and back, which started on June 13 1895 – and finished 48 hours and 48 minutes later, with Émile Levassor crossing the finish line six hours ahead of the second car, having fuelled himself on a bowl of soup, two sandwiches and a glass of champagne.

I know this because every car on show in the museum is accompanied by a meticulously researched description that places it precisely in context with automobile development – and every single one of those descriptions is written in perfect English, with not a single punctuation mark out of place. Relevant and beautifully styled backdrops also add to the educational experience, bringing the displays to life using a combination of photographs of many of the actual cars with their original owners and other material relevant to their particular eras.

Indeed, even those with nothing more than a lukewarm interest in old cars are likely to find the Louwman collection fascinating. Who could fail to appreciate, for example, the truly remarkable Brooke Swan car nestling among the maharaja exhibits? Created by an eccentric, Calcutta-based Englishman called Robert Nicholl “Scotty” Matthewson, who delighted in shocking the locals, it is designed to represent a swan gliding through water.

The back of the car sports a pattern of lotus flowers applied in gold leaf, while the rounded bonnet is carefully crafted in the shape of a swan’s body, complete with a graceful neck, electric lights behind its eyes and a beak linked to the engine’s cooling system, which enables the driver to spray a crowd-dispersing jet of steam onto the road ahead.

Other unusual accessories to the Swan car include an exhaust-driven, eight-note horn controlled from a keyboard in the back, a ship’s telegraph for relaying instructions to the driver and wheel brushes for the removal of elephant dung. The Maharaja of Nabha, who bought the Swan car from Matthewson, subsequently ordered the construction of a miniature, electric‑powered version called the Cygnet. It is said to be the oldest car built in India and can, of course, be seen in the museum alongside its parent.

It is difficult, too, to ignore the preferred transport of 1930s American banking tycoon Hugh McDonald: a Graham Blue Streak coupé and a custom-built “land‑yacht” caravan in which he liked to be driven between his Long Island estate and his New York office. The latter, a 20ft machine built by the Curtiss aircraft company, has a cockpit-like nose complete with compass, barometer, altimeter and swivelling floodlights.

Elsewhere, you’ll find one of Steve McQueen’s personal dune buggies, the Baja Boot 2, in which he contested the Baja desert races between 1967 and 1972; Elvis Presley’s Cadillac Fleetwood; one of the actual Aston Martin DB5s used for the making of the Bond movie, Goldfinger; Winston Churchill’s old Humber; and Lady Docker’s flamboyant 1955 Daimler DK400 coupé, fitted with zebra-hide upholstery, a gold radiator surround and a built-in cocktail bar.

What is perhaps one of the most famous movie cars of all time is in there, too: the 1904 Darracq that took the title role in the 1953 film Genevieve, about the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Since acquiring the car in the 1990s, Louwman has driven it in the famous rally several times. He also bought the 1905 Spyker that appears in the picture with Kenneth More at the wheel in the role of advertising salesman Ambrose Claverhouse.

But don’t get the idea that the Louwman collection is light on the truly historic and significant – because it’s anything but. Nowhere else are you likely to find such a remarkable and eye-wateringly valuable selection of important competition cars and record breakers. Examples? How about the Jaguar D-Type steered to victory in the 1957 Le Mans 24-hour race by Ron Flockhart and Ivor Bueb, and now probably worth around £10m? Then there is the 1931 Alfa Romeo 6C driven in the 1934 Mille Miglia by Nino Farina (who went on to become the first Formula One champion); a 1933 Maserati 8CM Monoposto Grand Prix car raced by Tazio Nuvolari; the McLaren M8F in which Peter Revson won the 1971 CanAm championship; an Aston Martin DB3 that, in 1952, took part in the only Monaco Grand Prix specifically for sports cars; the 1935 Lagonda M45R that won Le Mans; and the truly remarkable, 100hp Napier, possibly the original car to be painted “British Racing Green” – and which, in 1903, boasted a top speed of 100mph.

Elsewhere, there are sections devoted to steam cars, micro cars, electric cars, concept cars, military cars and luxury cars. There is a hall given over to the world’s largest collection of Dutch-built Spykers, a display of no fewer than six Bugattis – including “Black Bess”, the famous two‑seater owned by aviator Roland Garros – and the 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK acquired for the Louwman Museum in 2004 for nearly £4.2m from the estate of British motoring enthusiast George Milligen (who paid £400 for it in 1941).

And then there are the numerous rooms of automobilia, housing everything from the most extensive collection of works by the celebrated automotive illustrator Frederick Gordon Crosby ever assembled to rare motoring posters, bronzes, racing trophies, motoring‑based ceramics, driving watches, clothing, jewellery, cigarette cases, toast racks and more.

But what, I ask Louwman, is going to happen to all this stuff when he’s no longer around to look after it?

“Well, that has been taken care of,” he says. “When I pass away, the collection will not be sold off. Instead, plans are in place for it to remain open to the public for at least the next 200 years – which is partly why we wanted to house it in a building that was made to last. How people will be moving from A to B on a daily basis that far in the future I have no idea. But at least the Louwman collection will give them an idea of how we used to get around in the past.”

Now that’s what I call a legacy.