PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — For parents eager to introduce some history and culture to their kids, but who know the word “museum” will elicit groans and eye rolls, it’s time for a road trip.
At the Newport Car Museum, the artists aren’t named Van Gogh, Monet, or Matisse, but Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes, McLaren, DeSoto, and Ford. Walking around, you’ll see excited 10-year-olds, teenage car spotters, stroller-pushing parents, and curious octogenarians.
There’s something about cool cars that transcends age. I discovered this on a recent visit with my 14-year-old son, and in a phone conversation we both had a few days later with the museum’s 79-year-old owner Gunther Buerman, whose collection of cars fills the museum. He was not ashamed to tell us: “I’m old, and I’m still obsessed with cars.”
It’s easy to drive right past the red warehouse on Route 114, about 15 minutes away from downtown Newport, situated behind a gated entrance and next to a Raytheon Technologies building. A visit to the museum can span one to two hours, but its proximity to Newport for shops, restaurants, mansions, and the Cliff Walk, makes it a perfect daytrip pit stop.
Once you pay the $20 fee and walk inside, it’s impossible to not go all googly eyes. The collection is 90 of the most beautiful muscle cars, classic fin cars, and sleek race cars ever built. Admire the blue 1965 Ford/Shelby, the black 1954 Corvette, the 1979 Porsche 930 Turbo, the lime green 2017 Lamborghini Aventador SV Roadster, or the blue 2010 Tesla Roadster. Some cars, like the silver 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, are extremely rare, with only 250 built in the world, while others boast of speed like 0-60 mph in 2.7 seconds.
“There’s a story to every car,” Buerman said. He talks like a fifth-grader clutching his first iPhone as he describes the new Porsche 959 the museum just bought. “It’s an iconic Porsche,” he said. “In the late 1980s, the trifecta was the Ferrari, the Lamborghini Countach, and the 959.”
But the car he can’t wait to unveil this summer is a black Bugatti Veyron, once considered the fastest car in the world. (How does 250 miles per hour sound?)
The museum is set up over 80,000 square feet as a series of brightly lit rooms, most of which have floor-to-ceiling windows. It nods to pop culture with some of the original cars from movies like “Ford vs. Ferrari” and “Fast & Furious.”
There are no ropes separating you from the cars, but there’s no touching or sitting allowed, either (except in the sleek modern chairs and couches set up throughout the space). You can lean in and ogle the controls, gear shifts, seats, and dashboards, and on certain “Hoods Up” weekends, you can geek out at the engines to see what makes these beauties rumble and roar with their 900-horsepower engines.
Buerman, who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and attended Syracuse University College of Law with President Biden (Class of 1968), likes to tell the story of how he got started. As a young lawyer, his boss left him a 1965 Mustang convertible that he fixed up and drove around and traded for a Porsche. “Things kept going from there,” he said.
After he had about a dozen, and he found success as the founder of the American Rock Salt Company, he and his wife, who enjoy yacht racing in Newport, faced a decision: sell them, or open a museum.
“I said to my wife, is anybody gonna come? I have no idea.”
They opened in 2017, using car museums in Los Angeles and Naples, Fla., as models, and today the museum has more than 50,000 visitors a year, according to Buerman. On Father’s Day in its second year, Buerman said they had 1,000 visitors.
Those numbers may pale when compared to the Museum of Fine Arts. But to Buerman, both places have more in common than fun gift shops to browse. “It’s not only a car museum, but in my way of thinking, it’s an art museum. Those [cars] are kinetic art. They’re beautiful. The car designers designed beautiful art.”
There is something else about the space Buerman revels in.
“We enjoy sharing the collection with people. In these divisive times, it’s very ecumenical. I don’t care what race or religion you are, you just go in and talk about cars.”
But even Buerman struggles with one question: What’s his favorite? He starts with the old analogy about how you can’t pick a favorite child, but then he acknowledges one that holds a special place — a silver 1966 Ford Shelby 427 SC Cobra.
“It was owned by the Walton family. It’s very special.”