The Louwman Museum – a visit to one of the world’s oldest and most comprehensive car collection
I wanted to see the Louwman Museum since I had the opportunity to witness their equally funny and educational microcar collection at the 2016 Interclassics Brussels. The showcased midgets were rather cute, the museum in the Hague, however, is much more impressive, and in many ways, it is one of the world’s most comprehensive car collections (the detailed catalogue is available on their website). One small example of that is the bold claim to hold the biggest collection of pre-1910 cars, but it is arguably one of the most balanced collection in terms of geographic origin, era and category. So I travelled to the Hague last year to see it for myself and found a top contender for the world’s best car museum title.
The Museum was established and is still managed by the Louwman family, as their private collection. Initially, the collection was founded in 1934 by a young (then 20-year-old!) dealer of the Dodge Motor Company, Pieter Louwman, the current owner’s father. The collection has been expanding and integrating other collections ever since. The current owner of the collection is Evert Louwman, who has expanded the collection’s faible for exotic brands.
He is also a key figure in the Dutch new car market, as flagship dealer for Lexus, Toyota and Suzuki brands (there are many traces of his close ties to the Toyota Motor Corporation in the museum).
The museum changed name and location for a number of times, from the National Motor Museum in 1981 to the property of the Louwman family, and in 2003, it took up the name Louwman Collection. The current building in the Hague was inaugurated in 2010 by H.R.H Queen Beatrix, who lives next door by the way.
The building, showcases a modern and functional Dutch Architecture with red brick tiles and beautiful green park. The restaurant is worth a try, it is quite stylish and the prices are in touch with reality. My favourite was the Flammkuchen with truffle and Prosciutto di Parma for 8 euros, and delicious cakes await their fate for 4 euro. The restaurant hall is overseen by a Zeppelin cabin that is accessible from the first floor. Although the cabin was unfortunately locked, there is a window on the door of the flight deck to see what is outside. These are minor elements of the decoration to a world class collection, but shows the perfectionism and the love for details.
The modern building is full of architecture-finesse, conceptual brilliance and an eye for detail. Like that fact that all visiting cars are hidden to a functional underground garage, and those arriving by car should expect an extra cost of EUR 5.
At Louwman’s, the term museum is taken very seriously, the vehicles of the earliest Epoque occupy an entire floor, ranging from pedestrian-propelled litters and horse carriages – to strange three-wheel things to real four-wheeled cars with transmission and brakes, that are comparable to cars of nowadays in their concept.
Reaching to the light from the obscure corridor, I arrived at a long hall showcasing the accelerating pace of mobilization throughout the decades until the 40s. The strength of Louwman Museum is the extremely professional architectural presentation: the colours are effective, the lighting is functional, the rooms follow a clear choreography.
The Museum experience takes on a ride as if we were sitting on a cultural roller coaster, where the discreet twilight quarters allow to rest our mind until the next breathtaking extravaganza is coming. The museum follows a perfect choreography, and the layout somehow reminds me of the Mercedes-Benz factory Museum (e.g., an elevator brings visitors to the top floor, where the exhibition starts). The main difference from the Stuttgart or Munich museums is that the Lowman traded the cool professional techno style with a warm and colourful ambient of an Art Gallery.
The journey through the decades leads to a showroom of microcars mainly from the postwar period. In the aftermath of World War II, they were widely used throughout Western Europe. Of course, when the Trabant 601 came out, the Isetta and the Kabinroller were no longer an everyman’s car, but this section reminds us that the situation was not always so rosy in the West, as today.
Among the strangelings, I particularly recall the amphibious Amphicar and boat looking show car that would probably sink in no time.
Following the roller coaster, after the funny midgets, the Museum takes on a more serious topic, namely the history of alternative powertrains.
The hall kick-starts with dozen engines and drivetrain variants. It is quite impressive to see how many serious attempts have been made launched for using alternative energy sources, such as steam engines or electric motors.
This theme also gives Mr. Louwman a chance to show his fable for Toyotas, of course, there is a Prius parked there.
The technical section is followed by a hall, whose concept is really difficult to crystallize. It consists of cars like the Kübelwagen, and it’s rather a passage from the technical section to the next covering famous or celebrity cars (like Churchill’s Limo).
There is a car from the set of the Godfather Movie, a Low Rider Caddy from Elvis Presley’s collection or the legendary Aston Martin DB5 used by James Bond in the movie Goldfinger (the car was one of four original cars to promote the movie, and the car included all the gadgets from the movie).
After leaving the movie section, I arrived at the discrete darkness of an Art gallery and memorabilia collection that relaxes the stimulus and allows to gather our strength for the next showroom.
From the nimble dusk, a flamboyant and futuristic coupe stroke me when I hit the light, and for the next 20 minutes, the Museum doesn’t take back from the pace.
The next main hall contains so many curiosities and historical masterpieces, that would suffice for a whole museum.
On the right there are some exciting race cars, of course a Toyota (a Group B spec Celica) is also included. I was again reminded that once the Dutch royal police had the largest Porsche fleet in the world. I first encountered this fact in Amsterdam’s AutoRAI Car show, but also later at several occasions (e.g. at the Techno Classica) where avid collectors of the retired Dutch Porsche police cars were present. By the other wall, there is a line-up of unique concept cars and legends.
My personal favorite was the Sbarro Challange and the Maserati Medici concept, which was the precursor to the Quattroporte III (the latter was purchased directly from the Italdesign HQ). At the end of the set, the civilian version of the Le Mans-winning Jag XKSS and other glorious cars show the way to the next modern racing car section.
Here again, enters the Toyota connection: one of the crown jewels of the section is Toyota’s aspiring but unsuccessful Formula 1 car (the 2009 TF109, to be exact).
Personally, the six-wheeler F1 developed by March in the 70’s made a more lasting impression on me, but its really worth to take the detour to the deep end of the section to see legends from many more racing series, such as Indycar, NASCAR or Le Mans.
The theatrical climax of this floor was, without doubt, the featured set of Italian cars. The section was spot on, not just the wide and tasteful selection of cars, but the spectacular colour scheme and discreet humour (with Enzo’s well-known saying “Aerodynamics for people who can’t build an engine “).
I was not surprised for a second that the museum sported a perfect specimen of the first ever street-legal car with a prancing horse on the bonnet (the Ferrari 166), but the race cars included a couple of really interesting ones (such as the Grant Piston Ring 375 that failed Ascari, at Indy). Some of the road legal Ferraris (275 GTB, 500 Superfast) belonged to Prince Bernhard.
At this stage, it would be difficult for the Museum to take it higher. And they do not make that mistake to try. Thus the next stage is coming again with velvet twilight and showcases memorabilia and trophies. On the way out, you can observe the cabin interior of the “Zeppelin” that overlooked the restaurants.
En route to the ground floor, a segment dedicated to the defunct Dutch Spyker brand illustrates Dutch ingenuity. The 1903 Roadster was crowned with a dedicated space in the museum (filled with Ferraris, Bugattis and other exclusive rarities). The car was the world’s first all-wheel-drive car. I can’t help noticing the snake motives placed in the most peculiar spots on the Spykers.
The mammoths of the ground floor exhibition are introduced by one of my personal favourites of the Museum. The thing with the modest designation “land yacht” served as a company car for a major wall street broker. The land yacht also foreshadows the most astonishing part of the museum, where a number of giants are parked (even by today’s standards).
These monsters include fire trucks, luxurious coupés and limousines, from all sorts of epochs. Somewhere here did I reach the point of overload, where I started to run back and forth as a child in the toy store.
By today’s standards, being socialized in a different world of planned obsolescence, these luxurious monsters are like long gone dinosaurs, whereas their lockable air inlets invoke more engineering work than what some modern manufacturers delivered in their entire lifespan.
So far, I got to see rarities and extremes from all sectors of the automotive industry, unique one-off models, concepts and race cars from renowned manufacturers, encompassing all epochs sizes and proposed. Can this be topped?
Well, this is when the exhibition kicks in the afterburner, with one-off and high-end cars from the pre-World War II era. My personal favourite is the flamboyant 1910’s Swan Car, and if it was not enough to attract our attention, next to the car, we could see Jay Leno interviewing Mr. Louwman who is presenting all the peculiarities of the Swan.
It is interesting to see how well the two famous collectors connect and remain on the same wavelength, despite their very different background. The section encompasses about a dozen exotics, like the Mercedes SSK, and rare American luxury cars, each could build the crown jewel of any museum.
After all these excesses, we are hit by a pinch of sanity, in the form of the oldest existing Toyota in the world.
The quest for the acquisition of the AA was such an achievement that the Japanese manufacturer decided to award Mr. Lowman the personal desk to (the grandchild of the founder) of Shoichiro Toyoda, as a sign of their recognition (recommend to have a look at the desk of Ferdinand Porsche in Salzburg, for comparison).
In general, Toyota is very prominently present in the museum, in addition to the F1 car, there is a Le Mans prototype a Rally Celica in the second floor, and the beautiful S2000 in the entrance hall. Until the opening of the Mazda Museum and the Toyota Collection, the Louwman Museum was the sole reference in Europe for the fans of Japanese cars.
As we are approaching the finish line, and the visionary director will not disappoint those who count on a finale. At the end of the exhibition, some beautiful Talbots and a couple of old Bugattis are awaiting the visitors.
At the end of the good half a day hard walk, there was one big question left to answer: did I just find the best car museum in the continent? It is certain that Louwman is enormous and one of the most comprehensive and balanced exhibitions encompassing all ages and regions of the world. In general, the quality (layout, concept, the “script”) is comparable with the best factory museums (among the single brand museums, the point of reference for me is the Mercedes Museum), but without the cold corporate design language.
While the Audi Museum or the BMW world resembles a flagship dealer showroom, Louwman reminds me of an art gallery with cars. And this leads to the only critical remark I could make, as the museum is about as interactive as a traditional art gallery. But to be fair, those that excel in interactive elements (like the national car museum in Turin or Motormuseum in Riga) could not get any close to Louwman in content.