The National Automobile Museum is currently featuring a three-month-long exhibit in tribute to Nevada gaming pioneer, William F. “Bill” Harrah. Striving to provide audience members with an unforgettable and timeless experience, the exhibit includes rare artifacts from Harrah’s life-long collection.
In debut of the exhibit, the museum held an event on Sept. 2 to celebrate what would have been Harrah’s 109th birthday. At the focal point of the display, it is easy to envision Harrah driving his 1934 Packard LeBaron Sport Dual-Cowl Phaeton around the city. Labeled as “one of the rarest, and most beautiful Packards,” it was one of Harrah’s favorites.
No project was too big for Harrah— featuring his first collector car, a 1911 Maxwell, that started his obsession for restoring classic automobiles. To get to his Lake Tahoe casino faster, Harrah equipped his Jeep Wagoneer with a 4.4 liter Ferrari V-12 engine. Nicknamed the “Jerrari,” it agelessly wears a brilliant orange coat with classic wooden paneling.
An original mechanical Pace slot machine is also displayed and is characterized by its round “escalator” and ability to make “sounds of excitement.” Harrah coined many industry standards with over-the-top customer service and fine attention to detail—not many casino owners have operated a fleet of busses and snowplows to provide access to resorts situated 59 miles apart from each other.
From glitz to glamour, an original showgirl costume and showcards are featured from the infamous Reno Headliner Room where American superstar, Sammy Davis Jr, frequently performed. Later renamed Sammy’s Showroom, it quickly became one of the most popular places to perform.
Growing up in Southern California, Harrah learned his father’s business as a game operator. After Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, Harrah seized the opportunity to open a small bingo parlor in Reno just six years later. Struggling to make a profit at first, he searched for connections within the industry and successfully opened his first casino in 1946.
Over the course of his lifetime, Harrah owned approximately 1,400 automobiles and three of the most popular gaming companies in the world. The City of Reno was greatly impacted as entertainers and thrill-seekers from across the country flooded in to experience Reno-Tahoe’s bustling nightlife.
Following his death in 1978, Holiday Inns purchased Harrah’s Casinos and Harrah’s Automobile Collection with the intent to sell the collection in auctions and private sales. Fortunately, though, Holiday Inn gifted 175 cars to what would later become the National Automobile Museum.
As it opened in 1989, the idea of the nonprofit museum was to preserve the remaining collection to educate future generations on how the automobile deeply impacted American society and Nevada culture.
Today, the National Automobile Museum “is recognized as one of 10 Best Automobile Museums in the U.S.,” according to its website.
Attributing much of its success and existence to Harrah, the museum currently has more than 200 cars bringing to life historic street scenes and theatre presentations. Currently, certain displays are roped off due to state mandated COVID-19 compliance. However, there is plenty of fun to be had. Visitors are encouraged to take pictures in front of the displays to create a unique automotive experience.
“End of an era. The start of another,” reads one of the museum signs.
For the first time in nine decades, the Harrah name will no longer be featured on the hotel-casino located in Downtown Reno as earlier this year it was sold to an affiliate of CAI Investments. Although the new investment will aim to improve downtown with new growth opportunities, the Harrah legacy will continue to live on at the museum.
To visit, the National Automobile Museum is located at 10 South Lake Street, Reno, NV, 89501 and is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.