Jim Sandoro was just a kid when he became fascinated by the old car kept in a neighbor’s carriage house. Sometimes he’d sneak in, pull back the dust cover, and climb up and pretend he was driving.
But one day he was caught in the act. At first, the elderly car owner wasn’t happy, but young Jim’s questions were so many that the man eventually tired of answering and offered the youngster a bribe if he’d leave.
The car was a classic, a vintage Pierce-Arrow. The bribe turned out to be the man’s chauffeur’s pin from back in the days when he was the car’s driver.
Young Jim liked his prize/bribe and started asking other old-timers neighborhood about their old cars. He learned much, and many of those older gentlemen also had automotive souvenirs they were willing to give to an interested youngster.
By age 10, young Jim had quite a collection, and he vowed that someday he’d have his own car museum.
Although it took several decades, during which Jim had a long and successful career in the collector car world, he and his wife, Mary Ann, eventually did establish his museum, the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum in the hometown Jim shared with Pierce-Arrow and Thomas and other automotive-related brands.
The museum opened in 2001 in a former Mack Truck dealership in downtown Buffalo. But only about 25 percent of the collection can be displayed at any given time. Most of it is stored away in other buildings. But Sandoro, now in his mid-70s, has obtained a 300,000 square-foot building just across the street and is eager to refurbish its interior and to enhance and expand the museum’s display space.
The current museum could hold more cars, but a large section of its space is devoted to an exhibit as remarkable as the amazing vehicles on display.
Sandoro’s career in collector cars included being one of the partners in the original Auctions America, and a longtime vehicle appraiser. At some point, he learned that back in the 1920s, architect Frank Lloyd Wright had created plans for a dramatic, copper-roofed gasoline station to be built — of all places — at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cherry Street in downtown Buffalo, just a few blocks from the location of Sandoro’s future museum site.
The Sandoro’s had a second home in Scottsdale, Arizona, and he spent time doing research at Taliesin West, where Wright had a residence and studio. Like finding a classic car forgotten in a barn, Sandoro found a paper in a file with the word “Cherry” written by Wright. He turned the paper over and discovered the missing plans and somehow convinced the Wright Foundation to let him build the station in his new museum.
And yes, that’s “in” as inside, to make it available for visitors year-round and to protect the 4,400-pound cooper roof from the extremes of a Buffalo winter. Now, the museum attracts not only those interested in automotive and Buffalo history but in architecture as well.
Speaking of automotive and Buffalo history, they are very much intertwined. Not only is the city the home of Thomas, famed for its round-the-world race victory, and Pierce (which also produced two-wheeled vehicles), as well as the Buffalo Electric and Playboy cars, but also home to a major General Motors engine foundry, Trico wiper blades and other suppliers.
The museum has become a major event center in Buffalo. For example, the Bills football team recently staged a gathering there for its team and several hundred other people. Sandoro said it’s surprising even to him how many people turning 90 years of age want to have their birthday parties at the museum.
And just like his childhood neighbors, Sandoro often has a present for the children attending a grand- or great-grandparent’s birthday. He’ll often offer them a vintage license plate and is proud that through the years, many of those children have returned and said those early trinkets sparked an interest, and in some cases, even a collection.
For museum hours and other visitor information, visit its website.