Tales from The California Automobile Museum

VALT Stories is a series that brings together car culture tales worth sharing from the Bay Area. This series embodies everything from photo essays on notable cars to selected narratives of the stewards of automotive enthusiasm in the community.

Gabriel Ionica serves as the Communications Coordinator at California Automobile Museum in Sacramento. He is also a published automotive writer for DriveTribe, Shifting Lanes and LBI Limited. This piece portrays his experience working at the museum.

Automobile museums are havens for car enthusiasts and casual history buffs alike. There are enough of these sanctuaries scattered around the contiguous United States to appease the heart of any cross-country adventurer who seeks them. They chronicle the 100-year-old saga of the internal combustion engine that has taken humanity farther than we would’ve ever imagined.

Cars are so much more than just transportation–they’re figures of artistic visions, and serve as the definitive zeitgeist of their times. Few things in life engross your collective senses as much as staring at a vintage Ford Model K, while a ‘67 Camaro that’s just a few rows across from you idles away in the steady rhythm of its V8. They encompass a sense of appeal that has enamored generations of people who’ve interacted with them.

Over the years, I’ve learned that life has funny ways of bringing old hobbies back into the spotlight. As clichéd as it may sound, “I’ve been into cars for as long as I can remember”. My mother claims that back in Romania, I was able to name random cars passing by on the street as early as four years old, and I’m inclined to believe her. Those Daewoos and Dacias hold a special place in my heart, regardless of their relative unreliability compared to their contemporaries.

While I pursued other hobbies growing up–esports being one of the more dominant ones–my love for cars made a recent resurgence, and I welcomed it with open arms. Looking back now, I’ve come a long way from when I attended the Cars and Coffee event that changed my life back in November of 2020.

Meeting people and earning their trust eventually landed me my current position as Communications Coordinator at Sacramento’s California Automobile Museum. A little fan service for the history nerds among you: the California Automobile Museum first opened its doors in 1987 as the Towe Ford Museum. It was originally based around a collection of Fords owned by Edward Towe, a Montana banker, who moved his collection to Sacramento at the request of a group of six men who got together and decided that the region needed a car museum. Now, Mr. Towe wasn’t exactly best friends with the IRS, who eventually auctioned off a number of cars in his collection to “help him” pay his debt. Thankfully, some of the cars’ new owners kept them at the museum, which was eventually renamed the Towe Auto Museum to reflect their expanding horizons. It was once again renamed to the California Automobile Museum, and now hosts a diverse collection of automobiles ranging from an 1880s Columbia “Penny Farthing” Bicycle to a 2011 Honda Clarity FCX.

Before this job, I would have never imagined being able to spend eight hours a day, five days a week in such an intimate space with some of the world’s most influential automobiles. Day in and day out, I have the honor of interacting with the caretakers of these treasures, racking up stories that could easily fill the pages of a biography. Here are a couple of samples.

One chilly winter day in 2021, a man drove up to the museum in an awfully familiar white Cobra with a broken plastic windscreen asking if he could store the car there for the winter. It didn’t take long before I found out that he wasn’t just any man; nay, this was stunt driver Tony Hunt, and the Cobra was the exact Superformance replica used in the movie Ford v. Ferrari! Christian Bale had sat in that very seat! And as if seeing such an iconic movie car in person wasn’t enough to make my day, I helped push-start it when the starter decided that life was just too hard for it. Best day at work ever!

Another story revolves around a 1979 Toyota Cressida–Toyota’s answer to the European luxury cars of yore. A few months before I took over the reins as Communications Coordinator, a local couple had donated the Cressida to the museum, as its mounting mechanical gremlins were becoming more than they had bargained for. Not knowing what to do with the car at the time, it found its near-final resting place beneath a tree in the museum’s side yard. Given that I’m a JDM fanatic (as my 300ZX might lead one to believe), I couldn’t see such an icon succumb to the California elements, and thus decided to take matters into my own hands. Armed with a jump starter and zero clue as to what I was doing, I ventured forth into the almost Pokemon-like tall grass, hell-bent on starting this car up. This quickly led to the discovery that the battery was far too drained for any jump starter to revive it, calling for a four-hour seance with the battery charger Gods in an attempt to revive it. Imagine my delight when this Cressida started up as if it had been parked yesterday, and not been sitting around for four months!

It quickly received much-needed attention from our detailing crew, took part in our Japanese exhibit, and was then sold to a buyer from Rhode Island who is currently rebuilding the engine, and plans to gift the car to his 89-year-old father on his birthday, as he owned one when he was young.

It has been nine months since I accepted my position at the California Automobile Museum, and I could not be more thankful for the opportunity. I’ve been introduced to so many car communities and cultures, and I’ve learned so much about cars since then, that telling the full story would extend far beyond this brief article. I wouldn’t be writing about cars today if it weren’t for this job, to say the least, and I am thrilled about the doors I will continue to open in the future thanks to the museum.

Now if I could just get my hands on a Ferrari.

Edited by Vijay Sankar


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