Mobilia Magazine 1994

The Double Life of Walter Miller

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The Museum of Automobile History is the Brainchild of Automotive
Literature Dealer Walter Miller
Photos by Michael J. Okoniewski
I rivers do a double-take when they
^M pass a certain neat, if homely,
^^V building off Carrier Circle in
^^ Syracuse, New York. They might be catching a better look at the shiny silver biplane on the front lawn: a Hollywood movie prop from 1933. Or perhaps it’s the red car in the parking lot, with a front at both ends, like a two-pointed pencil. Or maybe the trio of bantam trucks, none of which looks like it could haul anything larger than, say… a sales brochure for a 1930 Maybach.
If the place gets its share of attention from passersby, it’s just as well, because the build­ing happens to be the headquarters of Walter Miller Automobile Literature.
No one sells more automobile literature than Walter Miller. Before he can sell it,
though, he has to acquire it, so Miller mea­sures the growth of the business in terms of file cabinets. Three-drawer file cabinets hold his inventory: the original brochures and owners’ manuals that constitute the bulk of his sales. Miller vividly remembers the great day when he needed to pur­chase his first, sole file cabinet; that was in 1978. Today, there are 300, and he has taken to adding them 25 at a time.
Over and above the automobile liter­ature—quite literal­ly—Miller’s building is full to the brim with other automo-bilia: posters, toys,
games, models, souvenirs, clothes, acces­sories, letters, autographs, ashtrays, licenses, buttons, signs, pennants, and flags. All of it pertains to the 100-year history of the auto­mobile in America and around the world—
Left: Miller carries a load of recently acquired items past a landscape of automobilia in his Syracuse, New York shop. Above: A sampling of toys shows both the lighter side of America’s obsession with the automobileand the lighter side of Walter Miller.
but none of it is for sale. What started as a col­lection has emerged as a dream for Walter Miller: the Museum of Automobile History.
Miller’s museum will open in Syracuse in 1995. "I want it to appeal to every person," he says, "especially groups from schools. They’ll see the automobile era chronologically, decade by decade, and see it through thou­sands and thousands of the actual, original things that were part of it." The museum will include memorabilia pertaining to autos, trucks, and motorcycles, with America, Europe and Japan all represented.
In Miller’s view, "the automobile has
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Walter Miller is passionate about the hobby which has
become his vocation."! want the museum to appeal to
every person,"says Miller. "They’ll see the automobile era
chronologically, decade by decade, through thousands of
the actual original things that were part of it." Below:
With offerings like these, the museum is sure to please
both enthusiasts and the general public.
reminders like, "The other driver is blind for a half-mile, unless you dim your lights." (Another poster, for an auto thrill-show, seems to diminish that alarm, however: "France the Magician will drive an automo­bile blindfolded!") The safety theme contin­ues with a framed selection of speeding tick­ets issued to F.T. Sanford, a noted aviator, by English police in the years around 1906; one time, for example, Sanford was nabbed for going 20 m.p.h.
The automobile was a monumental inven­tion, and it inspired others—others very near­ly as important, such as the Car-B-Cue, a handy appliance that cooked hot dogs in the car by plugging into the cigarette lighter. Another of Miller’s car accessories is the Thermador, an elemental air-conditioner from the Fifties that worked by hanging from the car window. Outside air blew through the ice-filled Thermador, and then flowed coolly into the passenger compartment. Another sure thing that just didn’t catch on was a pro­peller that—for some reason which remains unclear!—attached to the front of the car.
In most cases, it is a compliment to call a collector "discriminating." Walter Miller, however, has drawn only the loosest boundaries around his collection, accumulating anything that mankind created in the wake of the automobile. From patent models to four-door pin cushions, what Miller likes about original automobil-ia is—everything.
Walter Miller’s Museum of Auto­mobile History may or may not dis­play a few actual automobiles —
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altered our society to a greater extent than any other invention since the wheel." The museum will demonstrate this, one item at a time.
Over 10,000 pieces constitute the collec-.on, and many are one-of-a-kind. At least one hopes so, in the case of a hand-lettered canvas sign that hung on the side of a car in the mid-Twenties: "My advice—Don’t buy a Gray Car. This one is absolutely no good." It continues with a long list of specific com­plaints. (One doesn’t see many Gray dealer­ships anymore, come to think of it.)
Other of the one-of-a-kind items are slightly more august. In 1919, Ettore Bugatti wrote to the Duesenberg brothers in New Jer­sey, and that letter is now part of the collec­tion, along with hundreds of other automo­tive autographs and letters. Miller is especial­ly interested in the Japanese auto industry in the postwar era and thinks he may well have more material on it than anyone, any­where. One of Miller’s framed let­ters, received by the Ford Motor Company in 1948, requested "automobile and trucks [sic] cata­logues and anything likely to inter­est us." It was sent by Toyota.
Stylists’ renderings from the ‘teens through the Sixties depict cars that might have been: a 1949 Cadillac sports car, for example. The hundreds of original render­ings also include work from the great carrosseries of Europe, such as Kellner, Saoutchik, and Figoni
and Falaschi.
Many collections aspire exclusively to such pur-sang, and the rarefied company of Bugatti or Saoutchik. Miller, however, fills out the entire picture of automobile history by paying the same respect to the most hum­ble pieces (which, ironically, can now be just as rare). He delights in his growing collection of homemade, folk-art toy cars; crude as many of them are, they reflect automobile enthusiasm at its most sincere level.
Just as basic are the posters and enamel signs that advertised road safety, with
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up the corporate ranks at General Motors. But he didn’t. The summer after graduate school, Miller surprised his friends, relatives, and himself by plunging full-time into the busi­ness of dealing in automobile literature. "All I had was a few banker’s boxes of stuff," he says, "and when I had my first chance to buy a whole collection of sales literature, for $500, I only had $525 to my name. But I did it." At the time, in the mid-Seventies, the late
In the splendid chaos of his memorabilia-crammed offices, Walter Miller pores over auto literature. A few of his 300 jam-packed file cabinets stand by.
father was not a car guy," he says, "but he had a copy of Floyd Cly-mer’s Those Wonderful Automobiles and I read it when I was five. It sparked my inter­est." Later, when young Wally began to collect old maga­zines, like Fortune and The Saturday Evening Post, he ripped out ads for some of the cars described in Cly-mer’s book. With that, he started on the road to both his
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Miller hasn’t quite decided yet. Actually, though, they might seem extraneous. Plenty of other museums show automobiles; this one will be unique in its attempt to show the world as it grew up all around the automobile. Walter Miller has been dealing in automo­bile literature for 25 of his 40 years. He has been a collector for 35, but it wasn’t always cars that caught his eye. As a boy, growing up near Syracuse, he liked to collect stamps, coins, seashells, and baseball cards. "My
business and the museum.
As             a
teenager, Miller earned pocket money selling car ads at local car shows. He earned busi­ness degrees at the State Uni­versity of New York at Bing-hamton and McGill Univer­sity. By then, he assumed he would go to Detroit and work his way
Two colorful examples of automotive folk art show auto-mobilia at perhaps its humblest but most sincere level.
Nat Adelstein was the biggest literature deal­er in the country. "That gave me the inspira­tion that my business could grow to be big," Miller recalls, "but it took a long time to build it, and even to learn how to build it." It took him two years of hunting just to find enough material to fill that first file cabinet.
The acquisitions of three major collections are the milestones of Walter Miller’s expan­sion. Every year from the early Thirties to the Sixties, a Ford executive named McCullough kept abreast of styling in the worldwide industry by ordering complete sets of brochures. His material, which filled two vans, was Miller’s first major purchase. The second one brought an old circle to a close, as Miller bought the Floyd Clymer research
Time for a bit of homework in the bed of Miller’s bantam pickup.
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library from the publisher’s estate, including over 50,000 photographs. That filled half of a tractor trailer. The third collection acquired by Miller was that of J.L. Elbert, the author of a fine Duesenberg book, The Mightiest American Motorcar. For five decades, Elbert had made a hobby of sending away for automo­bile literature; he was so meticulous that he even kept the envelopes in which the material arrived. The Elbert collection, 120,000 pieces in excellent condition, filled an entire house.
In the early days, Miller conducted most of his dealings at automobile shows; today, his is a mail-order business and
Toys and die-cast miniatures in every size and shapeand in every corner of Miller’s building.
Henry Leland to lose control of his company, and for Henry Ford to take it.
Such momentous arti­facts are in stark contrast to such whimsical items as an original watercolor, circa 1915, of three vegetables rid­ing in a touring car. Where does it fit in the scheme of automobile history? It is enough just to wonder why the potato got to drive.
Humor runs through Miller’s museum collection in the form of countless gags and goofy items inspired by the car. On the outside of the building, Miller commis­sioned a local artist named Jeff Davies to paint a billboard poster advertising Miller in
From plates, to automotive art, to signs, a wealth ofauto-mobilia awaits its new home: the Museum of Automobile History opening next year in Syracuse, New York.
ed to specific subjects,
Miller with mock circus poster by artist Jeff Davies, depicting the "Hazardous Terrific Automobile Double-Forward Somersault." And for his next trick… The Museum of Automobile History!
answer mail, fax and phone queries, and pack items for shipment.
he sets up at only two shows: Hershey and Carlisle. The company advertises extensively, especially in search of material with which to fill file cabinets. Miller usually has several pre-1900 pieces on hand. One example is a Duryea catalogue from 1898 that lent per­spective to the young auto industry by depicting its own outmoded 1893 models.
At present, Miller says that literature for sports cars from England, Germany, and Italy is in growing demand, along with that for Mopar cars from the Fifties, and for early Japanese cars. The steadiest interest over the years has been in material related to Corvettes. Ten employees in the Syracuse building sort the literature, prepare lists relat-
All around the employees as they per­form their tasks, museum items have been piled, stacked, arranged, balanced, and other­wise safely stored. While Walter Miller is in the process of selecting a site in central New York, the rooms of his business have become a de facto museum for auto fans and historians.
Even in disarray, far from the sensible order that Miller intends to give the collection in its permanent site, the bits and pieces con­vey a dimension of social history. One com­pelling item is a framed letter from the Detroit Trust Company, dated December 9, 1921, that begins "We have today been appointed receiver for the Lincoln Motor Company…" With that, the die was cast for
a circus feat: "the hazardous terrific automo­bile double forward somersault.
"Out thrilling all others," the poster con­tinues, "a new astounding sensation." That might actually serve to describe Miller’s newest and best act: the Museum of Automo­bile History.
All photos © 1994 Michael}. Okoniewski.


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