‘The first car I owned was in the very early days of my courtship with my wife Dorothy,” recalled the late J.B. Nethercutt, “…was a 1923 Chevrolet touring… It had a loose piston in the engine… no floorboards in the front… and the running boards were gone. But since I only paid $12 and a .22 pump rifle for it, it wasn’t too bad of a deal.”
J.B. bought a closed body — with floors — and mounted in on the Chevrolet chassis and that was their car for many years as J.B. helped his aunt, Merle Norman, build her cosmetics business.
It got better. In 1956 they bought 1936 Duesenberg Convertible Coupe, but the seller wanted to fix a few things and that would take three weeks. In the intervening time, J.B. found a 1930 duPont town car, needing some work, for $500 and assumed he could have it finished by the time the Duesenberg was ready. He couldn’t.
Nineteen months and $65,000 later, he had both cars and took the duPont to Pebble Beach. It won. The die was cast. The Nethercutts bought a few more cars. And they’ve won at Pebble Beach several more times.
“At the time I never had it in my mind that there was a car collection in the making, I just owned cars that I liked.” — quite a few, actually.
In only four years, it was decided there should be a museum. A pal and master designer Tony Heinsbergen was commissioned to create a six-story structure that would include a vast marble showroom to mimic the sales rooms of the great classic era. It needed to contain 30 cars — and several floors of musical instruments including the second largest Grand Wurlitzer theater organ in the world along with fine art, great furniture and one of the finest restoration shops in the world. It was affectionately titled “San Sylmar” in deference to Mr. Hearst’s house up the coast.
By the time Y2K distracted everyone from real accomplishment, the Nethercutt collection had outgrown even the available storage outside the tower. The New Museum, across the street, was completed to contain 128 additional cars and a vast array of automobilia. Even that collection has reached 200 cars. All of them are drivers as either excellent, unrestored family heirlooms that found their way to J.B. or fabulous “Pebble Beach restorations” — a term coined to describe that for which the Nethercutt collection is famous.
Both museum buildings are open to the public — for free — the San Sylmar tower requires a reservation to control the size of the professionally guided tour, but The New Museum is a walk in.
Plan more than an hour to see and photograph that group of cars. It is a logical plan to make a reservation for the two-hour tour of San Sylmar and arrive with time to see the big collection across the street before that tour begins; at its end it will be hard to focus on more cars. No car enthusiast visit to southern California can be complete without a visit to this collection.
The museum is located at 15151 Bledsoe Street, Sylmar CA 91342. For more information, visit the museum website.
Interior photos by Larry Crane. Outdoor images by Dennis Adler and shared courtesy of the Nethercutt Collection archive