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Tupelo museum a big draw for auto enthusiasts

TUPELO — Automobiles are more than just a way to get around.

The American love affair with cars has been going on for more than a century now, and the new Tupelo Automobile Museum showcases some of the most popular models that have found a place in the hearts of Americans.

The museum opened in December 2002 after being the dream of car connoisseur and broadcast executive Frank Spain of Tupelo for more than a decade.

One of the oldest cars in the collection valued at more than $6 million is an 1899 Knox. The newest is a 1994 Dodge Viper, a sports car that has never been driven. Other particularly interesting cars include a Lincoln previously owned by Tupelo native Elvis Presley.

Spain said opening the museum has been a dream come true. “I hope people from all over the country will find their way to Tupelo to enjoy this museum which traces the development of the automobile from the 1800’s to the present,” Spain said.

Spain is the owner and CEO of WTVA, Channel 9 in Tupelo and of WMDN Television in Meridian. He also owns the Microwave Service Company of Mississippi and Florida.

Nostalgia is a big part of the attraction of the museum, says Max Berryhill, the auto museum’s curator.

“Everybody drives cars, and it seems especially in Mississippi we have a lot of auto enthusiasts,” Berryhill said. “People still remember when they were a kid cars that caught their eye. It seems the biggest attraction is anyone with a 1955 or 1957 Chevrolet as a kid, it revives their memories. It brings back memories. We have a 1920s version replica of an old filling station. That also brings back a lot of memories to some folks.”

Auto adoration is primarily a male hobby, and the largest percentage of visitors to the Tupelo Automobile Museum is male. But female visitors also find something to “ooh and “aah” about.

“You wouldn’t believe the response we get out of ladies who come through,” Berryhill said. “They’ll find one they really like. They seem to enjoy the museum, too.”

About 100 restored cars are housed in the 120,000-square-foot museum located on East Front Street next to the BancorpSouth Conference Center. State-of-the-art displays have interactive speakers detailing the history of each car. There are also about 40 cars currently being renovated, with some housed in open-viewing restoration bays. The museum also has hundreds of antique automotive signs. There is also a gift shop, with meeting rooms and a dining area set to open in the near future.

Spain’s fascination with cars began in 1950 when he purchased a 1937 MGTD valued at $7,500. He said that after spending the same amount restoring the car, he decided to learn more about collecting the antique treasures. His next purchase came in 1983 when he purchased a 1938 British Lagonda. From that point on, he began to purchase two or three cars at a time with the idea of acquiring vehicles by decade beginning with the 1880s.

The museum that has been attracting about 500 visitors per month doesn’t conflict with any other tourism venue in Tupelo. It is an added attraction rather than being in competition with other attractions.

“We are very fortunate to have this exciting new tourism product that is a first for Mississippi,” said Linda Butler, executive director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It is awesome. This museum is really breathtaking. It starts with the beginning of time for the automobile, and provides a description of the history of each car. It is very educational, and it is beautiful. I haven’t really been a car lover before, and yet I found the museum to be fascinating. It has been a good marketing tool for us to encourage visitors to extend their stay here. It has added considerably to the diverse attractions Tupelo has to offer.”

The Tupelo Automobile Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Regular admission price is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and AAA members, $7.50 for groups of 10 or more (scheduled in advance) and $5 for children 12 and under when accompanied by a paying adult. For more information call (662) 842-4242.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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