Florida Road Trip – Part Three

The first week of our trip has seen us lay quite a few miles under the wheels of the Rogue Sport and it’s time for a slight change of pace. Leaving St Petersburg behind, we head north along the Gulf coast. As delightful as the historic district is, it perhaps doesn’t shout ‘Florida’ with quite the same unmistakeable glee as Miami or the Keys.

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We make leisurely progress up to Clearwater Beach, pausing at a laundrette as we’re running low on clothes in spite of my wilful spending on naff motor racing ware. We also stop for a game of crazy golf at a pirate-themed course which would have been hilarious fun had I not caused marital strife by winning convincingly and doing so with ill-judged smugness.

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Clearwater Beach is somewhat lively on account of Spring Break and we find ourselves surrounded by slim, good-looking folks with strong tans and white teeth. Mercifully our accommodation is a block off the main strip and we can hide from the revelry when we choose.

Our apartment is basic but perfect for a short stop, with decking straight out of the room providing a view of a secluded bay. A mating pair of Osprey are circling when we arrive and they settle high in the trees above the local park. It offers them a commanding view of the flying fish which leap out of the water right outside our door. Sitting in a comfy chair nursing a beer and catching up on a book in the early evening is really very pleasant and a reminder that holidays don’t need to be all about motor racing.

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With that in mind, I rise early on Tuesday and head back south to Naples. I’m flying solo this time with nothing more than a bucket full of podcasts and some more peanut butter M&Ms for company. It feels like a long drive but the destination is worth the effort: The Revs Institute, home of the Collier Collection of automobiles.

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The institute has a higher purpose which is to enable and support the advancement of automotive studies as a consequential subject of scholarship. This is a place which takes the protection and preservation of automotive history extremely seriously – as well as providing support for its future. Weighty stuff but as motor racing enthusiasts, this place is looking after our interests better than just about anywhere else on the planet and should be lauded as such.

The museum is the public face of the institute and you need to book in advance for a designated time slot. This process adds an air of mystique and exclusivity which contrasts abruptly with our recent foray to Swap Shop. Access to the institute’s enormous archive isn’t offered with museum entry but I think I’ll add it to the bucket list – and especially if there is a topic which requires detailed research.

There are three principle exhibits in the atrium to greet visitors: Lotus Elite, Ferrari 250LM and McLaren F1. This is just the hors d’oeuvre. The F1 (chassis 022) is the newest car in the collection by quite a margin which speaks volumes about its importance.

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Every exhibit features a useful description including general model information and a section specific to the history of each individual car on display. For archivists, this transparency and opportunity to track the significance of the particular chassis in the collection is fascinating – and important. In a world where replicas are now as prevalent in historic racing as originals, a degree of opacity has developed around this issue. It’s refreshing to see the cars’ histories displayed honestly.

The museum is split into separate galleries so the visitor has a choice over their navigation. Unlike, say, the Louwman where you follow the sequence laid out for you, you want to ensure you peak at the end of the visit.

Given the inherent quality of every car here, I simply head right and land into a group of Porsches as good as any in the world. These are air-cooled gems from the early days of the company, starting with 550s and finishing at the perfect 908/3. You can explore each exhibit online so I’ll spare you the narrative but this is a comprehensive history of Porsche’s early days on the road and race track – but mainly the track. The highlight is undoubtably 917-019 (one of two 917s here). This is the most original 917 in existence, still carrying all its scars, scabs and blemishes. The evocative Martini livery is present but far from correct with a distinctive paint peel on the OSF wheel arch.

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019 doesn’t boast the greatest racing history among the 917s but it was a Martini Racing Team entry for the 1971 season and was driven by that year’s victorious Le Mans duo, Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep. It is maintained in fine running order – believe it or not, Collier has driven it on the Florida streets! – but likely will never be cosmetically restored and shall remain a unique relic of the most fondly remembered period in sports car racing history.

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Extraordinary vehicles come thick and fast. The pioneering days of motoring are not my field of expertise but it would seem that the institute houses a vast array of important cars – both American and European – from this period.

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From the 1920s and 30s are examples from all the greatest marques including Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Hispano-Suiza, Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and MG – the British manufacturer appearing to be a surprising family favourite. The extravagant Figoni & Falaschi Delahaye is a particular highlight with outrageous art deco coachwork which could only have come from France.

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There are plenty of pre-war racing cars too; with Miller, Duesenburg and Mors among the domestic marques featured. However, it’s the European titans which really stand out. The 1947 Mille Miglia-winning Alfa Romeo Tipo 8C 2900B Berlinetta is to my eye among the most glamorous and beautiful cars ever made. That it triumphed in the world’s toughest road race only adds to its allure.

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Complementing its outrageously burly Maserati 8CTF #3030, which enjoyed a long career in America, the Revs Institute houses one of the most important pre-war racing cars of any kind.

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The Mercedes-Benz W154 #15 is the ultimate example of pre-war grand prix technology. It took part in only one race – the 1939 Belgrade GP. That event took place on 3rd September 1939 which will forever be remembered as the day when Britain and France declared war on Germany.

A certain amount of mystery still surrounds the history of #15. It was shipped into Eastern Europe when the Allies started bombing raids on German industrial centres, whereupon its history becomes murky. It was discovered, along with a sister car, in the hands of Romanian mechanic Roman Josef and became the victim of a complex tug-of-war which eventually landed the mighty Merc in Switzerland. Miles Collier subsequently bought the car and it has resided in Florida since 2003. It has been extremely sympathetically restored but its twin-stage supercharged M163 engine runs perfectly and it has been demonstrated at the Goodwood Revival. While the 1937 W125 might have had more sheer grunt, the W154 – and particularly #15 – is the ultimate example of pre-war engineering. It is supremely, and I use the word advisedly, special.

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The treats continue apace. One of only two surviving Lancia D50 transaxles is mated to a genuine engine with a recreation body. Sir Stirling Moss’s Cooper Type 43, the first rear-engined winner of a post-war GP. Graham Hill’s BRM P-578 ‘Old Faithful’ which carried him to F1 championship glory in 1962. Dan Gurney’s masterpiece: the Eagle-Weslake in which he won the 1967 Belgian GP. And another Eagle – this time the 1975 Indy 500 winner.

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And all these highlights before we hit the Cunningham gallery. A giddying array of Cunningham-manufactured and run race and road cars. It’s easy to forget that Cunningham was a hugely successful marque back in the 1950s. The Revs Institute showcases a multitude of self-built racers as well as the equipe’s Birdcage Maserati and D-Type Jaguar. Did I mention one of the world’s oldest surviving Ferraris? Or the GT40s both MkII and MkIII? Or Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport?

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Even with six clear hours, it’s impossible to do this place justice. It isn’t just the cars – for they are staggering – but the way they are displayed without ropes to obstruct one’s view. It’s the honesty of their stories and the way their scars are shown with pride as part of their histories.

Above all else, it’s the reverence for important automobiles. And in that respect, no other museum I have visited has resonated so deeply. The celebration and preservation of important racing cars means more to me than anything else in life. And I get the impression that sentiment is shared with everyone involved here.

Leaving the Revs Institute isn’t easy. Once more I wander around the Porsches, pausing alone at 917-019 one final time. Naples isn’t just the best place in the world for old people to retire, it’s the best place in the world for old motorcars to retire as well.

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Back to reality and our corner of Clearwater is busy but not upsettingly so and we easily find a spot overlooking the beach in a bar on our last evening on the coast. The setting sun mercifully isn’t heralded by spontaneous applause here, but the moment is hugely atmospheric as friends chatter and pelicans silhouette themselves against the amber sky. I’d always thought the Floridian paradise of brilliant white sand and loping palm trees looked inauthentic. It turns out I was wrong – it’s really quite magical.

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