When asked how he acquired so many cars, Archie Lewis responds, “I don’t know, I just started gathering them up, first thing you know I got a bunch.”
Situated in Moriarty, New Mexico, a hamlet astride Route 66 consisting of just under 2,000 people, the Lewis Antique Auto & Toy Museum features classic automobiles – some in pristine condition in a garage, others rusting away outdoors, and still others somewhere between these extremes.
Lewis and his partner Beth each have an armchair set up in the front of the garage, along with an old barber chair, a ratty couch, piles of magazines, a gumball machine, and dusty shelving. In fact, it’s hard to comprehend you are walking into a museum at all. A plastic container like the kind restaurants use as tip jars is there for the modest $5 admission fee.
“I’m old,” Lewis says in a quiet voice which trails off at the end of sentences. “I bought my first one when I was nine. I’m 86 now.”
Lewis wears a blue flannel shirt and blue jeans. He’s bald up top with straight white hair ending in a ponytail, with an accompanying beard and mustache. He grew up about 100 miles south of Moriarty, in a little town he says doesn’t exist anymore, at the junction of several state highways (the town, Vaughn, still exists but its population is a fraction of what it was when Lewis lived there). His father owned a garage but traveled around a lot.
Lewis made a name for himself in Albuquerque, establishing a successful mechanic shop that lasted for 50 years. He steadily built his collection of vehicles, sold his shop to a well-known local businessman and racecar driver named Jim Guthrie, and spent nine months moving his lot to Moriarty.
“I moved out here and called it a museum,” Lewis says. “We looked like gypsies if you’ve ever seen gypsies. Strung out in a big old long line. I wouldn’t do it again. The cars were easy, but the parts were really hard.”
He admits he made a strategic error in placement of the cars outdoors. “I should have made it where you could run a lawnmower between ‘em. Cause now they’re jumbled, and you can’t get between ‘em. It’s too late now, I’m over the hill, I can’t do it anymore. I tried this summer to try to get somebody to cut weeds, and there’s nobody that will work. This is a welfare town. Everybody gets a check from the government. I tried to, but they won’t give it to me.”
As one wanders the aisles in the garage, there’s not too much traditional museum signage or indicators of the cars’ previous lives. But Lewis is eager to share tidbits about various pieces.
A 1957 Thunderbird has the most value, he figures, because of the engine. One man offered Lewis $28,000 for the engine alone. A truck outside reeled in an offer of $40,000 cash. Lewis rented some of his autos to movie stars in the 1960s. One car he owns belonged to Bob Nolan, writer of “Cool Clear Water” and sidekick to Roy Rogers.
He also owns a classic vehicle once owned by Spanky of the Little Rascals. It’s not George McFarland, the Spanky known widely to most, but rather an oral surgeon named Harry Navarre, who as a youngster played a minor role as what Lewis terms “the original Spanky.”
“Everybody was mad when he sold it to me,” Lewis says of the deal. “Everybody wanted it. I’d known him for 50 or 60 years. He was always gonna sold [sic] me the car when he died. Hard to find one that’s original, that’s never been restored.”
Lewis’s son is a trucker on the verge of retirement. He figures to inherit the the collection when the time comes, but Lewis says it will be “his business, unless I come down and say ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
As for the toys, there’s not much variety – most of them being miniature cars and trucks – but they are worth perusing.
The outside is reminiscent of many junkyards I’ve been to that may have one or more sections of vehicles just like the ones here. They are rusted, broken in places, yet breathe an untold history, magnificent hunks of metal that cruised boulevards and country roads throughout western towns decades ago.
Moriarty sits on Route 66, and the License Plate Memorial Wall inhabits the museum’s grounds. A group of enthusiasts called “RETRO 66” constructed the mural several years ago. They plastered a semi-trailer with New Mexico license plates in colors arranged to spell out “NEW MEXICO,” “ROUTE 66,” and “535 MILES” (the latter figure indicating what is the longest stretch of Route 66 in the country, according to the group’s president at the time). A ribbon of road in turquoise plates underlies the letters. On the other side of the trailer, viewers take in various road signs, as well as more license plates which snake from one end to the other and include most of the Route 66 states.
Lewis is the kind of man that speaks of a unique life, even if it can’t be all said in a single visit. The government used truck parts from his dad’s garage for atomic bomb testing. Archie and his mother drove to the secret site in White Sands, then were forced to live in a tent for several weeks while the bomb was assembled. It was on that trip that he spotted a 1926 Model T roadster; at the tender of age nine, he bought it using money accumulated from a paper route.
In addition to being a mechanic, he’s worked as a welder, trader, and gold and uranium prospector. The furniture and the unrestored autos are weathered like the lines in his joyful, well-lived face and in his hands that tell of hard, spirited work. He has enormous pride in his collection, even if to some it may appear (from the outside anyway) as one man’s own junkyard. The roadster is “in the same condition I bought it in,” he told roadsideamerica.com. “It would run if I clean the fuel lines.”
He enjoys enriching the details of certain pieces, and the names of people associated with them, His sense of humor is peppered throughout the conversation with myself and two accompaniments. A snippet he told a local newspaper is indicative of such humor.
“You know I’ve had people in tears sayin’ it took ‘em back to when they were young,” Lewis told Joel Wigelsworth of the Albuquerque Journal. “There was a lady in here the other day and she came in here and the tears was runnin’ out of her eyes and I said ‘What happened? You fall down or what?’ and she said ‘No, I seen that ’51 Kaiser. That brought back so many memories, I just broke down. I don’t know why she’d have memories of a ’51 Kaiser, they’re ugly cars.”
We mention how we were in the area for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which brings about yet another tale.
“We went in a hot air balloon,” Lewis says. “There’s no sound up there, just ‘woosh’.”
Here his partner steps in to embellish the memory. The couple’s balloon crash-landed, bounced up and down, and crashed again (having just witnessed a rough landing at the Fiesta, I can imagine what it looked like). A sandwiching of the couple and the pilot resulted in Archie calling out, “Can we get out?” As people rushed in to assist, Beth burst into laughter.
“Will never do that again,” Lewis concludes.