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V16 Caddys, V12 Lambos, V8 Fords and more at the San Diego Automotive Museum

Check out Jags and Jetfires, Caddys and Cords, Fords, Bimmers and more at this San Diego museum. Here's a full tour.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

I'm standing in Balboa Park, roughly in the middle of San Diego. Though I could walk to the Pacific Ocean, I'm actually farther east than every west coast state capital.

But I'm not here to talk about walking or fascinating geography facts. I'm here to check out some cars. Beautiful slabs of steel and aluminum, and in this museum, sometimes plastic and copper, too. It's the San Diego Automotive Museum, and though it's not huge, it has a wide range of cool vehicles of all types.

There are motorcycles from all over the world, a Lamborghini and a DeLorean, a V16 roadster and a V2 3-wheeler. There's even a highly modified Cadillac that drove cross-country twice without stopping.

Check those out, and more, in the gallery below.

Steampunk San Diego

My visit coincided with the tail end of the Steampunk with a Retro Twist special exhibition, featuring metal machine creations that appear like relics from an alternate Victorian era. None are actually steam-powered, of course, but feature the copper-and-valves aesthetic of the retro-futuristic steampunk style.

But these one-off creations aren't the main reason for my visit. Many important eras and regions are represented in this museum. From Britain there's an immaculate Jaguar XK120, once the fastest production car of its day. There's also the iconic Austin Taxicab, this one owned by none other than Frank Sinatra. 

From Italy there's a Lamborghini Countach, the first with the famous rear wing, and a Bizzarrini, the only one with a 4.0-liter V12. A Mustang and Firebird, both looking showroom fresh, make up the muscle car contingent. The Oldsmobile Jetfire nearby is even more interesting, being one of the first production cars with a turbo, and this is one of the only examples in the world with its original engine. 

Then there's a bunch of motorcycles from all over, the big Cadillac V-16 and the tiny Morgan 3-Wheeler. The latter you can get new from their factory, a fascinating place that we toured last summer that's still building cars with wood frames.

$75,000 Cadillac

Perhaps the most interesting vehicle at the museum is one that's certainly unique. It's called Louie Mattar's Fabulous Car, a highly modified 1947 Cadillac that drove nonstop from San Diego to New York and back. Another trip drove from Anchorage, Alaska to Mexico City. 

The modifications are as extensive as they are impressive. When was the last time you saw a Cadillac with an ironing board and sink? Or a shower and a water fountain? Many of the modifications are of a more practical variety, if you can call such a creation "practical." For instance, the oil and coolant can be changed from inside the car while moving. Running boards and a pneumatic jack enabled en route tire changes. And since these were the days before 8-tracks or CDs, there's a reel-to-reel tape deck in the front. 

All told, Mattar claimed to have spent over $75,000 on the car, or around $714,450 in today's money. Not bad for a car that cost $2,523 when new. For his effort, he and his co-drivers held, for a time, some land endurance records.

Rotating Wheels

Since the exhibition space isn't huge, every quarter new cars are rotated in. While the Steampunk with a Retro Twist exhibition was happening during my visit, as I write this they're rolling in cars for the Three Decades in the Rearview retrospective to celebrate the museum's 30th anniversary.

The San Diego Automotive Museum museum is open every day except major holidays and occasional special events. Adult admission is $10. In all the museum has some cool cars, but is probably too small to warrant a trip on its own. However, it's in the same parking lot as the excellent San Diego Air and Space Museum, and I'm guessing you, like me, are right in the middle of the Venn diagram of people who like both wings and wheels. So hitting both in an afternoon is well worth your time.


In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel