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Vintage vehicles
Museum traces the evolution of the automobile
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This sporty French roadster is a 1937 Peugeot Darl’ Mat.

PINELLAS PARK – Who says the automobile was an 1890s invention? Certainly not Alain Cerf. His new museum contains a full-scale, working replica of a Fardier de Cugnot steam-powered car built for military use in 1769.

It’s just one of 40 unusual cars in the new Tampa Bay Automobile Museum that opened in March at 3301 Centre Blvd. They’re all from Cerf’s personal collection.

When Cerf was a young man in 1950s France, gasoline was expensive, and most people couldn’t afford it because the French economy hadn’t fully recovered from World War II. Everybody wanted new, fuel-efficient cars but Cerf couldn’t afford one, so he had to settle for the prewar gas guzzlers that could be bought for a song because nobody wanted them. Each time he upgraded, he would keep the old car, instead of selling it, and that became the nucleus of his collection.

Two-thirds of the cars on display were brought from Europe by Cerf. The rest, both European and American vehicles, were bought by him in the United States, with an emphasis on cars that had made a major contribution to the evolution of the automobile.

Most of the cars are European, with just a sprinkling of American models. There are race cars, sedans, roadsters and military vehicles.

“Only five or six engineers in the world were responsible for automobile evolution, so we started collecting cars associated with them,” Cerf explained. “We wanted cars with innovative technical ideas because it’s a very technical collection, and we try to make a connection between automotive design and architecture.”

The emphasis on technology is natural because the elegant showrooms for the antique cars take up only half the building. The other half is a factory for Cerf’s high-tech company, Polypack Inc.

“We manufacture packaging machines that we sell all over the world,” Cerf said. “The museum is a sideline.”

The lobby and administrative offices of the museum and factory look like an art museum. Artwork covers the walls, and sculptures are liberally scattered throughout the floorspace.

“All the artwork is from the Tampa Bay area,” Cerf said. “The artists are all local people.”

Cerf has been in this country for 30 years. But his thick French accent gives the impression that he has been here a much shorter time.

“My accent sounds like I’ve been here 30 days,” he joked. “But I’ll never get rid of the accent. It’s too late.”

The automobiles include Tracta, Citroen, Panhard and Voisin (France); Tatra and Aero (Czechoslovakia); DKW and Mercedes (Germany); Alvis, Allard and BSA (England); DeLorean (Ireland) and Willys Knight and Ruxton (USA).

Groups and car clubs are welcome and facility rental and catering packages are available. Educational tours are being developed for the new school year.

Admission is $8 per person, $6 for seniors and $5 for students or groups of 12 or more. Children under 6 are free.

Admission to the museum costs $8. The museum is closed Tuesday and holidays. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

“Most other museums are closed on Monday, so we wanted to give people someplace to go on Mondays,” Cerf said.

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