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A tour of the Nethercutt Museum and Collection: From classic cars to self-playing orchestras

The Nethercutt Museum and Collection in Los Angeles is an amazing collection of classic cars, a train, self-playing, mechanical musical instruments, and more. Here's a full tour.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

It'd be easy to miss the Nethercutt Museum and Collection. It's housed in two fairly non-descript buildings a few blocks from "the 5" in Los Angeles, surrounded by industrial zoning and beaten down on by the hot, angry Southern California sun.

Inside, however, is a stunning collection of more than 250 classic cars dating back to the earliest days of automotive greatness. And a steam locomotive, along with a restored 1912 Pullman private train car. Right next to one of the world's largest collections of Orchestrions: automatic-playing mechanical musical instruments, and even entire orchestras, typically more than a century old.

And the amazing part: from the cars to the instruments, they all work.

Started in the 50's by the owners of Merle Norman Cosmetics, the Collection began with one car, restored by J.B. Nethercutt himself. The 1930 DuPont Model G won the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, which isn't a bad way to start.

The Nethercutt consists of two parts. The more obvious half, the Museum, features mostly cars from the '30s and before. Row upon row of beautifully restored cars, most of which have names forgotten in the modern era. A few -- Fords, Dodge Brothers, Cadillacs, and Rolls -- speak familiar names.

Out back, a steam locomotive and single train car sit partially covered by an awning. They look like they match, even though the engine is several decades younger. The Pullman railcar was custom-built for the daughter of Lucky Baldwin. It shows the elegance and extravagance of 100 years ago, much as custom BBJs do today.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Across the street, however, is the even more impressive Collection. An oddly-shaped industrial-looking building with no windows, it belies the splendor within. Stepping through a lavish entryway, a dozen or so immaculate classic cars sit on polished marble floors, under three-story high ceilings and brilliant chandeliers. The interior is so incongruous to the building and location that your jaw can't help but drop.

All of those violins are played mechanically, at the same time. Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The rest of this building, however, is home to a far more eclectic assortment of mechanical oddities: Orchestrions. I had never heard of these before, and they weren't popular in the States. Essentially, they're like a player piano, except inside are multiple instruments, including violins, accordions, drums, and more. Most are big, cabinet-sized beasts, and some are even more massive.

Like everything in the Nethercutt, they all work. Seeing these 100-plus-year-old wooden behemoths fill a room with music was an unexpected delight.

At the end of the tour, the crown jewel of the Collection is given a dramatic reveal.

The organ console in the center of the room rises on a pedestal, and starts playing on its own. Curtains part, revealing the 5,000 pipes of one of the largest Wurlitzer theatre organs in the world.

The Nethercutt is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon for any fan of classic cars, or any of the oddball other devices found in the Collection (many more than I have space to cover). It's in Sylmar, which is still LA, but just barely.

Best of all, everything is free. For the Collection, though, you'll have to book a tour ahead of time.

In the meantime, checkout the gallery above for a sample of what they have.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET