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100-Plus Things: Stunning cars in Pierce-Arrow Museum

Once, Buffalo rode on the wheels of a dream. That dream comes to life in the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum.

Not into cars? Go anyway.

Every once in a while, James Sandoro -- who opened the museum in 2001 with his wife, Mary Ann -- sees someone parked outside. That someone is usually a woman, waiting for the menfolk in her family to emerge.

"Come inside," Sandoro will tell her. "Come in as my guest. If you end up enjoying yourself, you can pay."

He did that dozens of times in 2017, he reckoned. Every single time, the reluctant guest was dazzled.

I was, too. Four hours had passed before I knew it. And I still felt I hadn't seen everything.

Quietly, the museum at Michigan Avenue and Seneca Street has grown into one of the most expansive car museums in the whole world. If it continues to grow as planned, it will take the lead, hands down.

There are cars that will make your eyes pop. A romantic 1932 Duesenberg and a streamlined Silver Arrow are on loan until November. See them while you can. You will never forget them.

The Pierce-Arrows in the permanent collection also radiate beauty, style -- and size. In pictures, they're stunning. You see people piled into them, laughing, waving, enjoying. Seen in person, the cars are overwhelming. They are so majestic and massive that they take your breath away.

They used to be the choice of presidents. And they are still. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, foes on the campaign trail, found common ground in that they both visited the museum and were in awe of what they saw. Both asked if, should they win, a Pierce-Arrow could grace the inaugural parade.

To think these magnificent creations came from Elmwood Avenue in North Buffalo, in that big old factory many of us pass every day. Even the engines were made there.

To think what Buffalo was back then.

Here is how our car museum differs from other car museums. It doesn't stop with cars. It surrounds you with myriad glories of the past.

"This is our heritage," Sandoro said. "We love to tell the story."

Frank Lloyd Wright fans make pilgrimages here to gaze on the filling station built from Wright's plans. It stands in a building custom-designed for it, with 60-foot ceilings. Glittering with copper, the gas station shows Wright's humor as well as his iconoclastic grace. Overhead is a sign he personally designed. You have to work to read it, but it says "Tydol," a brand of gasoline.

Students of fashion love the cars' strong style statements, the illustrations that advertised them, and arrays of gowns and vintage hats. Art connoisseurs linger over the countless gleaming hood ornaments.

Children crow over the dozens of automobile horns. Judy Ruggiero, at the admissions desk, honked one fashioned like a snake, and its tongue vibrated.

"This was how you tricked out your car in the early 2oth century," laughed staffer Tim Green.

You see other cars besides Pierce-Arrows. A 1940 Lincoln loved by Frank Lloyd Wright. A boxy electric car from Toledo. Five recently donated Corvettes, worth millions. And a famous Thomas Flyer, also made in Buffalo.

And there are vast collections of gas pumps, miniature gas pumps, and toy cars and trucks. Pierce bicycles, manufactured in what is now Canalside. Automobile-themed sheet music, with a gleaming gramophone. Books. A Trico exhibit. Ancient Harley-Davidsons. A Jell-O wagon from Rochester, flawlessly preserved.

The scope of the Sandoros' holdings boggles the mind.

"This is only about 25 percent of it," Sandoro beamed. The rest, he said, is stashed in other buildings.

The Sandoros' employees smile about his obsession. Green expressed approval for a painting of a Great Lakes freighter that Sandoro bought for $300 at a flea market.

"But then he came in with a model of a World War II sub. Uh, guys? Don't we have a military park?" He sighed, affectionately. "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Jim Sandoro has to keep adding to his collection."

Well, why not? The Sandoros are doing what all of us wish we could.

Here is a couple who can buy anything they want at sales and auctions, but have room for it. The museum never feels kitschy or cluttered. Everything is elegantly displayed, thanks to Mary Ann Sandoro, a former curator for the Buffalo History Museum. Shining cases come from Spolka, a bygone Buffalo clothes store.

The bright, attractive ambiance clears your head and makes you think. Which is appropriate for January, as the Roman god Janus looked backward and forward.

There is only one downside. You will never see your own car the same way again.

Emerging into a bleak wintry day, I looked askance at my own vehicle.  I just got it, and I love it. But suddenly, it looked like what it was -- puny, devoid of style, assembled by robots, smudged with salt. Couldn't I at least take it through the car wash?

That is what the Pierce-Arrow museum does to you. You want to hold your head a little higher, make your life a little lovelier, open your eyes to new horizons.

To ride, once again, on the wheels of a dream.


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