Jeff Lane was just 10 years old when he helped his dad take apart a dilapidated MG TF in their hometown of Romeo, Michigan, 30 miles north of Detroit. Two years later, when his father, an accountant who owned an automotive supply business, asked him what he wanted for Christmas, Lane replied, “An MG TF of my own.”
Lane spent the next four years restoring pieces of the 1955 British two-seater and eventually took his driver’s test in it. “The [family] business was cars and our hobby was cars,” he says, noting the legacy of his retired grandfather, who at one time owned a Ford dealership. “So I was kind of immersed in it.”
Over the years, as his career took him from government work back home to the engineering department of his dad’s company, he began to acquire classic cars. When he moved to Nashville in 1989 to start a vending company, his collection kicked into high gear. “I had a few rental houses and I would never rent the garages because I’d want to fill them up with cars,” says Lane, 58. “After maybe five or six years, I had 75 to 80 collector cars. I never really had a grand plan. This just kind of happened.”
At car shows, his peers marveled at his extensive collection. When he parked his Amphicar in front of his house after driving around Nashville, strangers would knock on the door, asking to take a look.
He occasionally gave tours, which was difficult because his automobiles were housed in five different buildings. Eventually, he says, “I came to the realization that either I needed to stop collecting or I needed to put them together in one entity and do a museum. There are people that want their collection to be private, and they don’t want people to see it unless it’s maybe just a private tour. But I always wanted to share mine with other people, so the museum was the perfect way to do that.”
In 2003, Lane renovated a 1950 Sunbeam Bread Company building four miles southeast of downtown Nashville and opened Lane Motor Museum with approximately 100 cars. He soon sold his vending business to run it fulltime.
Today, the museum houses 500 cars, plus about 15 airplanes, 80 motorcycles, 75 bicycles and a handful of boats and canoes. Most have been restored to near-original specifications, some are in showroom condition, and 80 percent of them run. (Lane and his staff take them out for a spin at least twice a year, sometimes to rallies and shows across the eastern U.S.) The vehicles were manufactured in 15 countries—primarily Europe, but also Asia and North and South America—and date back to 1924. About 150 unique autos, from the 1932 Helicron discovered in a French barn to the lightweight 2002 PCD Saxon racer, are on display at any given time.
A tour reveals four primary themes, beginning with the toy-like microcars, three of which greet visitors at the entrance to the museum. Manufactured in Europe after World War II as a short-distance alternative to bicycles, scooters and walking, the miniature autos offered at least some degree of weather protection without a high price tag. “A lot of the ideas didn’t work out, but some of them were actually quite interesting,” says Lane, whose collection includes 75 to 100 of the vehicles, from Messerschmitts to bubble-topped Peel Tridents. “Most people liked microcars because of the tininess. Kids come in here and they love them because they’re like, ‘Oh that’s small, so I can drive it, right?’”
Propeller-driven cars (and, for good measure, a propeller-driven bicycle) make up another category of novelty vehicles. “It never really took off,” Lane says of the no-transmission
cars. “They were just too loud. They were too windy. And they had no hill-climbing ability whatsoever. They make no sense now, but back in the ‘20s in France, in a place where it’s flat and there are no stop signs or red lights, when there’s not much traffic you just get up to whatever speed you want to go and cruise along. It’s kind of like an airplane without wings.”
Also on display are 24 high-end Tatras, which Lane says comprises the largest collection in the world except for one in a museum in Koprivnice, Czech Republic, where the cars were made. The fourth category showcases 100 French-made Citroens demonstrating various innovations over the years.
Lane’s first MG TF, the one he restored as a teen, is also on display in the museum. “I have an emotional attachment to that car, so I would have to pick that one [as my personal favorite],” he says. Other faves include the “goofy and quirky” Peel P50 microcar, the adaptable Amphicar, and the propeller-powered autos.
As an engineer, he admits that it is the technology, not aesthetics, that fascinates him, along with the rarity of one-of-a-kind prototypes like the 1928 Martin Aerodynamic, 1946 Hewson Rocket and 1967 Gyro X. “You can’t get any rarer than that, other than being nonexistent,” he says.
Sometimes, it takes a little persistence—or a lot—to acquire a one-off automobile. When Lane found out that a Michigan collector possessed two of only 16 three-wheeled, aerodynamic Davis cars made in America between 1946 and 1947, he set out to contact the owner. For several years, Lane’s Christmas cards and letters went unanswered. So when he learned of a classic car show coming up in Ypsilanti, he drove his Tatra T-97 there and finally met the elusive Davis collector in person. The two men hit it off and even swapped cars for a bit, with Lane driving a Davis and his new buddy at the wheel of the Tatra.
Two months later, Lane received a letter from the Michigan collector that read, “I’m thinking about selling one of my Davises and this is how I’m going to do it. I’ve picked three people that I might sell it to.” Inside were 10 detailed questions meant to determine the buyer’s sincerity and intent. “In a way, it was a little bit funny,” Lane recalls. “He ended up accepting our bid, and he actually even brought the car down here.”
Exhibits at Lane Motor Museum change four times a year. The next switch-out takes place in February and will include a gallery comparing older and newer versions of the same models.
Like the cars, no two visitors are alike. Some are vaguely interested in the classics, while others are obsessed with them. Even the fanatics are intrigued by a gamut of features, from shapes, sizes and colors to technical performance and history. “We have more people than I could ever imagine that come from Europe and say, ‘This is a really great museum. Even in Europe, there’s not this collection of cars together.’”
In 2018, the facility began offering self-guided and customized Learning Lane tours, activities and demonstrations for K-12 students. Adults can enjoy their own hands-on experiences when the museum gives five-mile rides around Nashville on two designated days each summer.
“Part of our philosophy is that cars are meant to be driven,” says Lane, “That’s what they were made for. I mean, it’s nice to look at them statically, but to really appreciate a car, you need to drive or ride in it.”
For more information, visit lanemotormuseum.org.