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Thursday, May. 29, 2014

Kansas City Automotive Museum tells story of the car from a local perspective

Special to The Star

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Want to go?

The Kansas City Automotive Museum, 15095 W. 116th St. in Olathe, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Admission is $11, or $9 for seniors and military, $8 for students from 13 to 17 years old with ID and children from 4 to 12 years old, and free for younger kids. Memberships start at $45.

A ribbon cutting on June 14 will have food, music, giveaways and celebrity look-alikes.

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If the Kansas City Automotive Museum in Olathe had a mascot, it might be a low slung, curvy ’74 Sterling kit car done in a candy-color red on the showroom floor.

Hydraulic arms move the roof off the car, allowing passenger and driver to slip inside.

Can I say that again? You get in through the roof.

Museum President Jeff Wagoner and I took the car out for a ride through neighborhoods of manicured lawns, drawing looks from the drivers of cars with less allure, less history.

But sometimes those things are less important than a working dashboard.

Two blocks from the automotive museum, the Sterling’s feline roar sputters into silence. All at once, Wagoner realized he has less gas than he thought after a trip to show the car at Kauffman Stadium, a conclusion he had to come to on his own, since the fuel gauge has long passed the point of usefulness.

Getting out to push, Wagoner said it’s pretty common for classic cars to misbehave and demand patience and love from their owners.

“So you’re getting the real classic car experience right now,” Wagoner said.

Minus the experience of pushing an empty sports coupe on a spring day, Wagoner’s aiming to share just that the Kansas City Automotive Museum.

The building that houses the museum also has other classic cars you might expect to see in an ample car club: a well-preserved Ford Model T here, a ’55 Buick Super there, which is parked a few steps away from a ’41 Cadillac Fleetwood that was in the film “Pearl Harbor.”

More than just the slick rides, however, Wagoner and his team have supplied the missing story of Kansas City’s automotive history. It was an element so important to him that he built into the staff someone who would deal explicitly with that narrative, a position held by historical director Kyle Yarber.

To say Yarber is conversant with Kansas City’s automotive history is an understatement.

In two hours,Yarber may be able to cover all his historical work on display in the museum, everything from the Harry Truman’s hotrod obsession to the little-known Kansas City Speedway, a 11/4-mile track made of wooden boards popular in the early ’20s.

He might tell about Maston Gregory, a Kansas Citian well-known to local authorities for countless moving violations before he became well known on a worldwide stage racing Formula One in the late ’50s though the mid ’60s, when he earned the nickname “The Kansas City Flash.”

When you stop to think about it, it makes sense for the Kansas City Automotive museum to tell the story of the car as local history.

Kansas City is the only city in the world with plants for Ford, General Motors and Harley Davidson.

The city is home to the oldest General Motors franchisee, Robert Greenlease, who sold Cadillacs out of a building you can still see at McGee Street and Gillham Road.

There’s definite interest in automotive history here, as Wagoner learned when he pushed his Sterling back to the museum.

He called to a pair of landscapers and recruited them to push the sports car back to the museum.

First, the millenials had to process their amazement at the car. Second, they asked if they could get pictures.

Flanking Wagoner on either side and pushing, both wanted to know everything about Wagoner’s red ride.

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