There is no shortage of outstanding car/antique collections and museums in California, but few can match the elegant setting and aura of the Nethercutt Collection & Museum in Sylmar. On Feb. 10 LCOC members were privileged to visit the famed venue as guests of the Southern California Imperial Owners, Inc. (SCIOI).
The relatively modest exterior of the collection belies the wonders that lie within, which are immensely more meaningful when visitors have a bit of background on founders J.B. and Dorothy Nethercutt.
Docent Bill Cronkite guided us through the multi-floor collection and told us the story. The elegant building was once the Nethercutt’s home. Though its main floor was built with the finest materials and resembles the grand salon of a European palace, in actuality it was designed to mimic an upscale car showroom of the classic period!
J.B. was born in South Bend, IN, on October 11, 1913, and moved to Santa Monica, CA, in 1923 to live with his aunt and founder of Merle Norman Cosmetics, Merle Nethercutt Norman. He later left his studies at the California Institute of Technology to go into business with his aunt.
On September 3, 1933, J.B. married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Sykes. The marriage lasted more than 70 years until Dorothy’s death on October 8, 2004. It was during their early years together that J.B. and Dorothy began their love affair with old cars.
In 1956, J.B. purchased two cars: a 1936 Duesenberg Convertible Roadster for $5,000 and a 1930 DuPont Town Car for $500, both needing total refurbishing. In an experience common to most of us, the DuPont restoration, which J.B. estimated would take a few weeks, instead took 18 months and over $65,000.
In an experience not common to any of us, in 1958, his meticulously rebuilt project claimed its first prize — the coveted “Best of Show” award at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. By the summer of 1992, his cars had won the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance six times, more than any other individual. The Duesenberg and the DuPont are still part of The Nethercutt Collection.
As J.B.’s collection grew, he was determined to share his masterpieces with the public. In 1971, he and Dorothy opened a museum across the street from the collection which has been free to the public since its opening.
J.B., who passed away on December 6, 2004 at the age of 91, memorably stated: “The recognition and preservation of beauty has been a major focus of my life. It would suit me well if what people remembered about me was, ‘Where he went, he left beauty behind.’” One look at the Nethercutt collection of automobiles and artifacts attests that he admirably met that goal.
One of the most spectacular of the Nethercutt vehicles was a custom 1930 Rolls-Royce once owned by film star Constance Bennett. She was born in 1904 and hailed from a show business family. Both her father and sister Joan Bennett were performers. Constance personified Hollywood glamor. She successfully bridged the gap between silent and talking pictures, was married 5 times, and during the early 1930s was the highest paid star in Tinseltown. Her personal relationships were the stuff of Hollywood legend.
At a time when $15-$20 per week was a decent wage, Bennett paid about $17,000 for this gorgeous Rolls-Royce Brewster Phantom II Town Car after seeing it in a 1936 New York car show. Among its special features was hand applied pin striping and a raised caning design. The luxurious interior compartment features ample leg room, a sofa-like seat and solid gold fittings.
Bennett recouped part of her investment by renting the car for $250/day to producers for films. Among those was the feature, “The King and the Chorus Girl”. Bennett kept the car until 1940 when her third husband Henry de la Falaise reportedly lost it in a poker game. Maybe that’s why they got divorced :)?
Nethercutt acquired the Rolls during the 1980s and after restoration it earned many awards including Best in Show at Pebble Beach in 1992.
Other rare and gorgeous classics included a vintage Maybach, several Franklins and Packards, Pierce Arrow, a 1931 Bugatti, 1898 Eisenach, and several others.
Up an elegant winding staircase on the mezzanine were gorgeous antiques, car show awards and several cases of classic hood ornaments, many made of valuable Lalique glass.
Perhaps the most spectacular of the mezzanine items was a 600-pound sterling silver sculpture specially commissioned from International Silver Co. for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Besides its ornate figures delicate hand etching added to its beauty.
As if all this were not enough, the next level up featured several orchestrions—beautiful hand crafted creations from bygone eras that made music including player pianos and other instruments. These were furniture size music boxes on steroids, mainly built for public places such as arenas, rinks and theaters, and their sounds were equal to their function.
The granddaddy of all was a massive organ that had once graced a Denver area and could produce many sounds such as water running, train whistles, sirens, and, of course, music through its more than 5,000 pipes of all sizes a few of which are shown below. We were treated to a mini concert with iconic themes from Phantom of the Opera and Indiana Jones. I closed my eyes for a moment to image this instrument being used during a “silent” movie to give the feeling of sirens or train whistles at the appropriate times and thinking a lucky audience of the period was not missing much if anything from lack of a sound track.
Watching the intricate parts of these amazing inventions doing their thing was equally as fascinating as the sounds they produced. It left us praising the brilliance of those who created them. Click here to see for yourself. And here. Click the embedded arrows in the videos to play the sound and then the back arrow on your device plus the post link to return here.
An ornate French decor dining room, at one end of this large salon that is still used for special events was another unexpected treat. Although its chairs were made fairly recently, the table is lighted by a huge chandelier dating from the era of French King Louis XIV.
No visit to Nethercutt would be complete without checking out the large museum across the street from the collection. On display are numerous award winners, rare and special cars including several historic Lincolns. the 1921 Model L (upper left below) is one of the oldest known to exist.
Others included an antique fire engine, Cadillacs, Packards and many more.
Outside stood 1937 Canadian Pacific Royal Hudson Locomotive #2839:
#2839 was built by Montreal Locomotive Works and is resplendent in its Royal maroon, gold leaf, gloss black and brushed stainless steel livery, is a testament to the grand era of steam locomotive engineering. The Hudson type is a 4-6-4 wheel arrangement and was a high-speed passenger locomotive with a top speed of 90 mph.
1912 Pullman Private Car #100 California:
Custom built by Pullman in Chicago, Illinois for Clara Baldwin Stocker the eldest Daughter of local Pioneer “Lucky” Baldwin. This railcar has been beautifully restored back to 1912 design.
Guided tours of the trains were offered, but after leaving the museum it was time for lunch then head for home after an unforgettable day at the Nethercutt. Our thanks to SCIOI for inviting us to share this landmark event.