A Lifetime of Stories Behind the Cars at the Tupelo Automobile Museum
Story by Jennie Bradford Curlee
The Tupelo Automobile Museum boasts 120,000 square feet of over 100 antique, classic, and collectible cars. At first glance, it is a visual realization of the historical progression of the automobile. But, delve a little deeper into the collection and you will find the story of a true renaissance man’s passion and a lifetime of tales behind the wheel of each car.
Frank Kyle Spain was born with a fascination for electronics and what makes them work. Armed with an electrical engineering degree from Mississippi State University, Spain moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for NBC, and helped with the first live television feeds from the White House, Capitol, and the 1949 presidential inauguration of Harry S. Truman. He then moved to New York City, where he designed television and microwave relay equipment, helping create the technology standard for U.S. color television. It was these experiences that led Spain to successfully petition the Federal Communications Commission to allocate channel 9 to Tupelo, MS. With an antenna, transmitter, cameras, and more built by the hands of Frank Spain, today’s WTVA went on the air March 18, 1957.
In 1974, Spain restored his first automobile and a hobby that would last a lifetime was born. He loved the art of restoration – yet it was the death of William Harrah, founder of Harrah’s Hotel and Casinos, in 1978, that made Spain a true car collector. Harrah amassed the world’s largest vintage automobile collection, with over 1,400 pieces. Following his death, the vehicles were sold, breaking up the finest automotive history display on the planet. Frank Spain bought 12 of Harrah’s cars and never looked back.
Spain saw each car as a new adventure with a fresh set of problems to solve. Together with his wife, Jane, he traveled the globe, experiencing the wonders of the world, each time bringing home a trip souvenir on four wheels.
A walk through the museum, that opened December 7, 2002, is like flipping through a vacation photo album for Jane Spain. Each vehicle holds an extraordinary memory of an exploit with her husband.
One such memory began in the early 1990’s when the couple traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, to pick up a 1954 Mercury Sun Valley. The seller assumed that the automobile would be transported by ship to Seattle, before being dispatched by truck to its new home in Mississippi. Frank Spain had another idea. His plan was to drive the 4,000 mile trek in his new purchase. Having grown up in Canada, Jane knew what she was getting into and piled the back of the car with water, food, blankets, and flashlights for the trip that would take them through the treacherous Yukon.
“The car had a Plexiglas half roof. You could see the Alaskan mountains through the roof,” shared Jane. “Frank always assumed the car would drive. Thankfully, I’m a gauge watcher.”
The couple began to have generator gauge issues almost immediately upon entering the Yukon. Prior to the reign of mobile phones, rather than chancing a breakdown, they backtracked 20 miles to the last gas station, checked into a single-wide mobile home that doubled as a motel, and Frank spent the better part of the night underneath the vehicle working on the defective generator.
With a renewed spirit and fully charged generator, the Spains once again embarked on their transcontinental journey. Almost immediately, the charge was no longer at full capacity. The Sun Valley limped into White Horse, Yukon, where the staff at the local Ford dealership put them in the capable hands of a French Canadian mechanic who was able to determine that two new parts were needed to ensure that the generator would hold a charge for the duration of the trip. With the help of Frank’s longtime friend Max Berryhill, who also served as the first curator of the Tupelo Automobile Museum, parts were located at NAPA Auto Parts stores in Miami, FL, and Atlanta, GA. The components were flown by bush plane into White Horse. Frank and Jane took the time while they were there to sightsee and experience such wonders as Lake Louise in British Columbia.
Once both parts arrived and the Sun Valley was in drivable form, Jane recalls that their departure from town was almost like being in a parade as the local folks who had taken such great care of them during their stay, came out to bid farewell to the Southern visitors who graced their community for a short while.
Adventures seemed to flock to Frank Spain. Jane recalls picking up a 1949 Triumph convertible in Maine in October. As they headed towards New Hampshire, it began to rain, and the car was without one essential working component: windshield wipers.
“Frank never saw something like that as an issue. It rained for four days and we could not see,” said Jane. “Frank just assumed everyone would get out of the way.”
From exotic cars picked up on European trips, to quick jaunts a few communities away to garner a hidden treasure, Frank Spain’s quest to chronicle automotive history was far from ordinary.
“He was truly an adventurer,” shared Jane. “I consider myself very lucky to have memories of crazy things. Nobody else would have such experiences.”
The Tupelo Automobile Museum is a testament to the incredible man that Frank Spain was. His charismatic life ended too soon in 2006, yet his legacy will always live on at the official automobile museum of the state of Mississippi. The epic adventures he shared with his wife were like fairytales, yet they were just another part of their special life together.
“I had an amazing life with Frank. Years ago, when we were in England, I saw an old engraving picture of Cinderella and bought it. It reminds me of how incredibly lucky I am to have met Frank. And, I assure you, if pumpkins could really turn into coaches, Frank would have driven one of those, too.”