Few Rally to UC Berkeley's Auto Museum

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mere mention of UC Berkeley, one of the foremost research institutions in the country, conjures up images of Nobel laureates busily advancing the frontiers of knowledge by gazing at the sky, splitting atoms or peering through rows of microscopes.

But few would guess that august Berkeley counts among its educational resources Lucille Ball's 1957 metallic blue convertible. Or the Maharaja Gulab Singh's nickel-plated 1926 Daimler. Or the black 1953 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe that experts believe Rita Hayworth drove around Hollywood.

These and about 117 other classic cars are on display at the Behring Auto Museum, an opulent showcase located in an upscale shopping center 18 miles east of Berkeley's rolling campus. Although many students and professors are not aware of it, the school is part owner of this most unusual collection.

The museum and the bulk of its vehicular inventory are gifts of Kenneth E. Behring--developer, majority owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team and one of the world's richest men--whose dream has been to make sure the best Duesenbergs, Bugattis, Alfa Romeos, Packards and other luxury cars he has collected are put on perpetual display.

Museum employees say Behring, 65, wants to give the public an opportunity to appreciate fine automotive engineering and style. Berkeley officials say the well-polished collection is educationally significant because it traces the evolution of a machine that, for better or worse, has shaped society.

Not everyone is impressed.

"The university is now operating a rich person's used car lot," said Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who labeled Berkeley's association with Behring a scam.

"It stretches the imagination that it's for research or for undergraduate instruction."

In 1989, Hayden was among the legislators who tried to block Behring's gift. At the time, the developer was on the verge of keeping the cars because state officials said he would have to pay $1.4 million in back sales taxes if he turned them over to the university.

Republicans introduced a bill giving Behring a tax break but Hayden and other Democrats nearly killed the measure with accusations that it was a special interest giveaway of public tax money to someone who did not need it. Behring, a University of Wisconsin dropout and former used car dealer, has been ranked on the Forbes 400 list of wealthy people and his net worth is estimated at more than $320 million.

At the last minute, however, UC lobbyists swooped in and resuscitated the bill by arguing that the museum would be a multimillion-dollar asset that the university could sell in the future.

Four years later, school and museum officials admit that that is unlikely to happen. One of the biggest reasons Behring wanted to give his gift to Berkeley, museum spokesman Cameron McCrady said, is that "the University of California doesn't get rid of anything."

"It (Behring's gift) was based on trust, that this will become such an asset to them that they would be foolish to disband it," McCrady said.

Meanwhile, Behring has sweetened the deal. In 1991, he and East Bay developer Ken Hofmann added a 28,000-square-foot, $8-million wing that was dedicated as the UC Berkeley Museum of Art, Science and Culture. The purpose: allow the university to exhibit dinosaur fossils and anthropology artifacts that would otherwise be condemned to a warehouse.

In architecture and emphasis, however, there is no mistaking that it is Behring's auto museum that stands out. The 63,000-square-foot, $13-million museum structure, completed in 1988, is a lavish showcase of steel from Japan, ruby granite from India and copper-colored skylights from the former West Germany.

It is located on the edge of Behring's master-planned Blackhawk community, where homes once sold for up to $12 million, and anchors the corner of his Blackhawk Plaza. The futuristic edifice rises behind tiers of gushing waterfalls.

Visitors walk into a foyer guarded by a 1912 Series A Stutz Bearcat and a 1910 Mercer Model 30 speedster, both bright yellow. Straight ahead, twin staircases sweep up to the museum's second-floor landing, where spotlights show the gloss on a white, 1931 Alfa Romeo Flying Star.

"We're not showing the history of the automobile," Frank R. (Skip) Marketti, the auto museum's director and curator, said during a recent tour. "We're showing the automobile as a work of art.

"We don't have a Ford on the floor. We don't have a Model A. Presently, the emphasis is on the cars because of their design significance and they were owned by celebrities," he said, pointing to a 1957 convertible. "The Dual Ghia--that was owned by Lucille Ball."

Early on, the collection included the touring cars of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. But museum officials said complaints prompted them to withdraw the cars from exhibition.

The soft-spoken Marketti said he is busy trying to upgrade the collection--the museum sold more than $5 million worth of vehicles last year--so that it features cars of distinction, from the 1920s to the 1950s. A third of the 120 cars are "one-offs" or one-of-a-kind models.

These include the so-called Chrysler "dream cars," such as the long, red 1954 De Soto Adventurer II rumored to once have been test driven--and rejected--by the king of Morocco. Across the way, there are three mid-1950s Alfa Romeo Model BATs, considered Europe's finest show cars.

Upstairs, however, is the star of the show: The Daimler that once belonged to Maharaja Singh, a onetime ruler from Rewa, India. The maharaja ordered his car with a German silver body, a royal seal on the side and an open-mouthed serpent as a fender ornament.

"I don't know if it's true, but the story is that it was brought out of the jungle slung among four elephants," Marketti said. The maharaja so seldom drove the car that it racked up only 18,000 miles over 30 years.

In all, the museum contains about 70 cars donated by Behring; the balance of the museum's collection are new acquisitions or on loan from other automobile aficionados, Marketti said.

The reason Behring wants to give the cars to Berkeley is to make sure the collection stays together, Marketti said. The developer wants to avoid what happened to the 1,500 classic cars once owned by casino and hotel founder William F. Harrah, whose world-renowned collection was sold off in pieces after his 1976 death.

For the same reason, Marketti said, Behring is donating his library of nearly 75,000 auto magazines, sales brochures and mechanical specification manuals--reportedly the second-largest collection of its kind in the world. Behring's son, Tom, is the librarian, and plans call for the material someday to be put on-line.

Valued at more than $22 million, the buildings, land and Behring's auto collection are technically owned by a nonprofit educational institute established 10 years ago by Behring and Hofmann. The men will continue to run the museums until 2002, when Berkeley is scheduled to take over the institute by appointing three of its five directors. The school now has two administrators on the board, including Vice Chancellor John L. Heilbron.

Berkeley officials hope that the museums will emerge into an effective--and lucrative--draw for high school students and well-heeled alums living in the East Bay.

But attendance has not even begun to match such enthusiasm. Although it cost nearly $2.1 million to run the museums last year, they took in a mere $358,000 from rentals, membership dues and admissions paid by the 91,000 visitors. Only sales of excess cars and a large loan from Behring has kept the enterprise in the black, public filings show.

Berkeley has not paid anything for operation, and the goal is to make the museum self-supporting before the school takes full control, museum officials say.

Although it is well known among car buffs, particularly in Europe, Berkeley's auto museum is mostly a secret on campus.

That dismays Stanford University engineering professor James L. Adams, who requires his classes to tour it because it is an automotive showcase of elegance.

"That museum and the cars in it definitely have an emotional effect on people and they certainly are beautifully crafted and made," he said. "I use that museum to get my students thinking about what beautifully made products of industry are like and also the effect that different forms can have on different people."

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