You’d probably never think that a car-crazed kid from a Detroit suburb would own the largest collection of European vehicles in the United States. Or that he would open a museum to showcase it in Nashville. Or that this Vanderbilt University engineering graduate would choose an abandoned bakery in which to house it all.
But that is only because you don’t know Jeff Lane.
The Lane Motor Museum, the foundation launched by Jeff and former wife Susan, features about 125 cars and motorcycles — rarely seen in this country, no less — on display almost daily in the 132,000-square foot former Sunbeam Bakery site along Murfreesboro Pike near Interstate 24. Vehicles (and there are approximately 350 total) date back to the 1920s and include amphibious craft, micro-cars, prototypes, alternative-fuel cars and an assortment of others from around the globe.
Lane has ventured far from his native Romeo, Mich., spanning that globe for more than 25 years in search of rare or “thought-to-be-extinct” vehicles. It was his personal collection of vehicles that made up the first museum donation in 2002, and the doors to this unique nonprofit foundation officially opened to visitors in October 2003.
The Nashville Post visited recently with Lane in his office, which more resembles a hobby shop or boy’s bedroom than an executive’s inner sanctum. Model cars, motorcycles and flying machines of metal, wood or plastic share shelf and wall space with posters, placards, postcards, emblems, logos and many one-of-a-kind collectables.
So when are you going to stop playing with toys and get a real job?
Never… probably. I don’t usually get that ‘when are you going to get a job’ type of criticism; I get the ‘You’re a lucky person that you get to do what you want to be doing.’ People do say ‘I’d love to be doing what you’re doing. If something happens to you, I’m available.’
I read that your grandfather sold cars, your father was in the auto parts business, and you’re collecting cars. What’s up with that bloodline?
Well, I blame it on my dad. He was interested in cars. He was an enthusiast and then a collector. When he was in the Army in 1954, in Germany, he bought a new MG TF. When he came back home to Romeo [where we lived in a house in a cul-de-sac with a two-car garage], he kept the car for about a year. But then he realized he was getting married, he lived in a cold climate, the car was a two-seater convertible [and] it wasn’t really practical — so he got rid of it.
But years later, he got interested in another TF. He would have liked to have the one he had before, but he didn’t have the VIN number and couldn’t find any paperwork. So he got another one and we started restoring that one in the garage. Now we did most of the work in the summer of ’68 I think, but my dad worked as an accountant so he didn’t have that much time to work on the car. So then it started to get cold and my mom says, ‘Hey, I didn’t mind having the car outside in the summer, but now there’s snow and ice outside and I want my part of the garage back.’
My dad’s solution was to build a workshop next to the garage. So he built that and we spent like a thousand hours out there.
Did you really ask for a car for Christmas when you were 12?
Yeah. When my dad asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said that I had helped him restore his car and I’d like one of my own. Now my thought was I’d restore it, not drive it, and I’d have four years to work on it (in time to get a driver’s license). And my dad got me one — all in pieces. It was a piece of junk; a totally disassembled MG TF. It came to me in the back of a pickup truck.
I did take my driver’s license test in it. I’d somehow put it together and there was this one lady who ran the licensing office [Romeo was a small town of 10,000 then] and she had seen the MG and wanted to ride in it. So I went down to the office and she had me drive out to show the car to her neighbor. When we drove back to her office, she handed me my license.
Wasn’t it somewhat sacrilegious to be driving MGs around Detroit instead of a Ford or Chevy?
That’s funny, because yes, it was. However, the fact that they were classics — old cars, not really modern cars — they weren’t competing for sales.
So how do you find your cars? Or do the cars find you?
Well, it’s kind of a combination. Some we seek out. We’re always looking for stuff. We also have some people in Europe that … know the kinds of things we’re looking for. But being a museum, obviously, is a huge advantage because there are people that know of us, have a car and contact us. So you get those opportunities that you wouldn’t get as an individual.
But you had 70 or 80 vehicles before you opened the museum. How did you find your first dozen or so?
Well, we did a lot of searching. It was really early Internet days. I got really interested in Czechoslovakian cars when I first saw a Tatra at a classic car show in Paris. At that point, there was a Tatra site on the Internet in English. It wasn’t much, but as for building the collection, a lot of it is travel and a lot of it is networking with people, or networking with clubs. And like with other businesses, I know a lot of people in the car business and they know me.
Why is this museum in Music City and not in Motor City?
Well, I came to Vanderbilt in 1978. And I was ready to leave Michigan because of the cold weather. Not only that, but we had MG club friends down here and we’d come to Nashville many times and enjoyed it here. After graduating, I took a job in Oklahoma at Tinker Air Force Base, then went back to Michigan and the family business before finally coming back to Nashville for good in 1989. After working in a family business in Michigan for so long, I guess I wanted to do something on my own. And I really hated the cold weather.
The museum’s mission is to “collect, preserve and document” vehicles. Why is that important?
It’s important because these cars have a lot of history. I don’t think people realize that there are a hundred different ways to do something and there are a hundred different cars. You might think that’s stupid, but they were all built for a reason, and the reasons were tied to the surrounding conditions.
There are also a lot of people who put their life’s worth into creating them. So I think it’s important for people to see how the car has kind of evolved. To ride in an old car or see an old car is to see how far we’ve come. Luxury cars in the ’30s, for example, didn’t have heaters. Can you imagine trying to sell a car today without a heater? Nobody would buy it.
Is there a vehicle you’ve never driven but want to?
Yeah, I’ve never driven a steam car. But we have one now that we’re going to restore. I’ve never ridden in or driven a really old car. Something like from 1905 or so. But there’s always cars we’re looking for, so if they exist…
When does a collection become a museum?
Well, that’s a tricky question. We created a nonprofit foundation, a 501(c)3, so they’re not my cars; they belong to the foundation. People see me and they see the cars and assume it’s all one, but it’s not. I know a person who has a collection and calls it a museum, but it’s not open to the public. To me, a museum is something that anybody should be able to go and pay to see the collection.
If cars were made simply to move people around, why don’t they all look more or less the same?
Obviously, the car in which most people drive is how others see them. Some people drive cars just to be recognized and associated with that car. The car is part of your personality. If I drive a Prius, I’m interested in environment and the economy; if I drive a Hummer, I’m probably not interested in either of those things.
At the museum, people can look at a car and ask, ‘What kind of person would have driven this?’ Or perhaps they’ll think that a car seems like a dumb idea, but when you dig into the car’s history, you learn that for the conditions of the time, it was really appropriate.
What are the chances that the Lane generational fascination with cars is going to continue?
Well, I have three daughters and they are not interested in cars, except when they need to get from one place to another. So probably not too good.
- ALEX B FRUIN INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDACE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDANCE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; FRUIN, ALEX B TRUSTEE; FRUIN ALEX B INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC, CANDACE F TRUSTEE; STEFANSIC CANDACE F INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC CANDANCE F INHERITANCE TRUST
- ROSS, BRIDGETT D
- COOKE, ETHEN LANYARD TRUSTEE; COOKE, ETHEN LEWIS ESTATE
- JACOBS, JESSICA ALEXANDRA; JACOBS, ERIKA BESS