Stepping into the most unexpectedly bizarre car museum

At the top of Arthur’s Seat in the middle of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula sits one of the most bizarre car museum’s that I’ve ever come across – Charlie’s Auto Museum.

The private collection, which became a public museum as the 1988 retirement project of Charlie Schwerkolt, has slowly evolved into what has to be the most madcap collection of stuff you’d ever hope to encounter. And the eeriest thing of all is that there isn’t a spec of dust on anything. How does that even happen?

But it’s the cars that had my head spinning. You know as a child, for those old enough to remember an age before the internet and Wikipedia, you had those big hardcover automotive encyclopedia’s that listed a few photographs and specifications for almost every car built to date? And in between all the Bentley’s and Ferrari’s and Porsche’s were the brands you’d never heard of – Bricklin, Tatra and Wartburg. It was hard to even imagine that these cars existed, let alone to ever see one. And here they all are at Charlie’s.

I wasn’t even planning on going. We were spending New Year’s in Lorne, so after Any Given Reason’s Burger Meet event at Penny’s Hill I drove across to see some mates in Melbourne and then pointed the car down the Mornington Peninsula, dodging the throngs of holidaymakers as I went.

I had been told that the road up Arthur’s Seat was worth driving, so it my visit to the museum all kind of fell into place. This may seem like a bit of an odd backstory, but it’s really just to underscore the point that I had very few expectations as to what I’d find in this museum…

… and then you walk through the door and the first thing you see is a 1963 Tatra 603-2.

Yes, the famous Czechoslovakian presidential limousine with a rear-mounted 2.5 liter air-cooled V8. Like if Porsche had followed through and made their sedan back in the sixties, but weirder and cooler.

Having a Trabant 601 in your museum would just be too mainstream. Instead, Charlie has a Trabbie that was driven around the world by German adventurers Rolf Becker and Mike Laskewitz before being written off in a major accident with a truck just outside of Wangaratta in 2001. There’s even a copy of that day’s Wangaratta Chronicle, proudly boasting the headline “Car destroyed, but Germans escape death, and enjoy city”.

There’s a collection of Goggomobil’s…

… and the only Wartburg in Australia, a 1965 312. Its 900cc 3 cylinder 2 stroke engine can’t exactly be much of a powerhouse.

There’s all manner of small microcars, rickshaws, Piaggio and Bajaj tuk-tuk’s and scooters, the culmination of which is surely this Albert Einstein tribute Vespa.

Whilst on the theme of microcars there is not only a BMW Isetta on display, but also a Trojan 200 which was built under license in the UK.

Alongside sits a 1960 Messerschmitt, bearing a strikingly similar resemblance to the fighter planes also designed by Willy Messerschmitt during the war.

A Bond Bug?

A Nash Metropolitan? The collection of small cars is anything but.

It’s pretty rare these days for me to come across I car that I never knew existed, but here is one that you may have spotted in the opening picture. The 1963 Studebaker Avanti was a long way ahead of its time, especially in terms of its Raymond Loewy penned design. But some things should stay in the sixties, and certainly not be dug up and rejuvenated with the soft lines and lozenge-curves that only late eighties/early nineties America could deliver. The 1990 Avanti Touring Sedan, one of only 50 built and the only one in Australia. I can’t think why.

Just look at those elegant curves and well-judged proportions. And I quote from the sales advertisement: “The Avanti Coupe, Convertible and Touring Sedan are the logical extension of timeless design and contemporary engineering excellence. Among luxury automobiles, the Avanti has no equal. The expansive passenger compartment surrounds you with hand stitched and fitted leathers, burl wood appointments, a full compliment of electronic assists, and nearly limitless options from studio quality audio systems to color television to cellular phones. And the engine compartment is no less impressive. At the heart is a 5.0 liter computer commanded V8. But to really appreciate an Avanti, look at one from the driver’s seat, where comfort and performance meet in perfect harmony. See your Avanti dealer for a private inspection and road test. That will prove to be the real auto show”.

In the only real nod to motorsports, there is a large collection of Dick Johnson Racing V8 Supercar memorabilia and various bodywork parts from the racecars across the AU-BF era.

At the end of the main display you are lead across a courtyard to another shed. There just happened to be a roaring thunderstorm passing during my visit, making for a quick sprint across the bricks to one of the most unexpected discoveries of the day.

Not one, but two of the Canadian built Bricklin SV-1’s. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one in person, and it’s a discovery about as unexpected as you’d ever hope to find.

Malcolm Bricklin’s original idea for the Safety Vehicle One had real merit. It addressed the question of why sports cars, at that point in 1974, were so inherently dangerous. Why can’t a sports car also be safe? Well as it turns out, because back in those days safety was heavy and weight kind of kills what makes a sports car good. The fiberglass and bonded acrylic bodywork was laid over a roll cage and a strong chassis which could withstand reasonably big impacts, and the whole lot was powered by a Ford 351 V8. The business collapsed after 2,854 Brickin’s had been built over two years and with a debt running into the many millions owing to the state of New Brunswick.

Alongside sat another Bond Bug, and an example of the tiny Subaru 360.

The most classically beautiful car in the museum, and probably my choice for favorite, was the Cord 810 characterised by its flowing art deco lines and front wheel drive V8 power. This would have looked like an absolute spaceship driving through rural America in 1936.

And finally, another pair of Czechoslovakian oddities – a 1952 Tatra 600 Tatraplan, and continuing the air cooled rear engined madness, a Tatra 613 from 1978.

And here we have it, peak bizzarity. The Lotus designed Sinclair C5, the vehicle that 80’s computer baron Sir Clive Sinclair hoped would change the face of transport, but was instead labelled “one of the great marketing bombs of postwar British industry”.

There was even a Jeepney, straight out of the Philippines, parked outside. Where does it end!

Don’t get me wrong, there is no chance that Any Given Reason will loose its focus on sports and racing cars and start writing about U.S Mail delivery vehicles and public mobility. In fact, this is likely the last time you will ever see the words ‘Goggomobil’ or ‘microcar’ used in an AGR story. But as an opportunity to walk around for an hour and appreciate some truly odd machinery, each the brainchild and passionate projects of talented visionaries who were convinced they were set to revolutionise the world of transport, a quick visit to Charlie’s Auto Museum shouldn’t be missed.

Now back to regular programming.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles.

 

A few quick road trip happy snaps…


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