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The Collier Collection: Florida’s other magic kingdom

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Imagine for a moment that the wonders of the Louvre or the Smithsonian were kept behind a permanent velvet rope, available for study only by professionals and scholars. Imagine if such a venue then threw open its doors.

After a 20-year period under lock and key, one of the world’s premier private collections has reopened to the general public, granting access to more than 100 of the world’s most desirable cars. 

Now, in addition to the scholars who have been able to marinate in the ambiance of the breathtaking 1935 Duesenberg SSJ or the 1965 Ferrari 250 LM Berlinetta GT, non-credentialed mortals can buy a ticket and see these stunners in person.

The Collier Automotive Museum in Naples, Florida, holds important cars built between 1896 and 1995, as well as magazines, photographs and manuscripts dating to the 1890s. In this new stage of its life it is administered by the Revs Institute for Automotive Research, a programme based at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

“It is really one of the finest collections in North America, without doubt,” says Ken Gross, journalist and former executive director of the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. “If you are interested in sports and racing cars, if you had your own private list, these are the cars that would be on it. A Duesenberg? Yep, he’s got that. Hispano-Suiza? Check. These are fabulous, fabulous cars, beautifully presented.”

The institute’s cars were amassed by Miles Collier, president of the Revs Institute. “The automobile is, quite simply, the most significant technologic object of the 20th century,” Collier said in a statement. “Our mission is to create awareness of the automobile's role, past, present and future, in shaping the modern world.”

That said, there is some room for favouritism in the collection, which includes Collier’s father’s 1935 MG PA/PB.  This is the car that staff is charged with saving first in the event of a fire, jokes vice president Scott George.

As wonderful as the museum’s cars are on their own merits, the institution’s work to position them within a broader historical context is equally critical, said Scot Keller, chief curator of the LeMay Museum in Tacoma, Washington. “You can’t talk about the history of the automobile or the history of America separately,” he said. “They’ve been intertwined for 110 years.” The Revs Institute’s focus on that context and work with Stanford to advance research in that area is key, Keller insists.

One such display highlights the years-long effort by American Briggs Cunningham to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in the ‘50s, George noted. “The history of those efforts and the story behind it is quite remarkable.”

The Revs Institute hasn’t consigned these vehicles to a life of leisure, either. They make frequent appearances at major car shows and have been known to compete in historic races, Gross noted. “They are giving people a chance to see them in action,” he said.

For all the collection’s drool-worthiness, George, the institute’s vice president, maintains a wish list, and it is heavy on racing cars. The 1991-92 Williams-Renault Formula 1 racer with active suspension is a particular favourite, he says, and one that likely could give newer racers a run for their money on a track.

Still, most of the cars make their residence in Naples. And though an advance reservation is still required to pay a visit, the velvet rope drops for anyone with a ticket, which for general admission is $17.