elvis presley motor museum
the king of rock'n'roll had a passion for motorcars. jonathan crouch relives it all at the elvis presley automobile museum at graceland
"The first car I bought was the most beautiful car I've ever seen. It was second hand but I parked it outside my hotel the day I got it and stayed up all night just looking at it. The next day, it caught fire and burned up on the road...- Elvis Presley
For most who visit Graceland, former home of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, the focal point of interest is the house of the king of Rock'n' Roll. They picture him making breakfast in the huge Kitchen, entertaining in the Jungle Room or riding his horses in the paddock.
It's arguable, however, that greater treasures lie just across the road. Here, a former shopping mall that sold tacky Elvis trinkets has been purchased by the Presley estate and put to good use. The complex now houses a parking bay for the singer's two aeroplanes, a visitors centre and, perhaps most significantly, a motor museum.
Elvis, it turns out, was a car fanatic. He was always up to something, daughter Lisa-Marie remembers, running around driving golf carts and snow mobiles. He'd pull me in a sled and scare me to death. On that long, steep driveway that goes up to Graceland, he'd be pulling me up and falling at the same time
These are images brought to life around the museum through home videos shot by former wife Priscilla. This, more than the false splendour across the road, is what really brings the man to life. You see Elvis almost out of control on his Harley Davidson golf cart. Elvis off the ground in his VW engine snowmobile he later had converted to a grass mobile. Images like this bring the rest of the collection to life. There are three 'Supertrikes' all with 65bhp 1600cc VW engines. There's a pedal car and a Beetle-engined dune buggy. And of course, there are cars from his many films, some (like the Pink Willys Jeep with its pink and white striped seats and frilly white roof tassels) in appalling taste.
Yet Elvis didn't care. His was the classic 'poor kid made good' story and cars were a passion he was able to indulge. When I was driving a truck, every time a big shiny car drove by, it started me sort of daydreaming. I always felt that somehow, something would happen to change everything for me. I would daydream about how it would be.
The dreams became reality in 1955 when he used his first major TV earnings to purchase a Cadillac Fleetwood - the famous 'Pink Cadillac'. This car always remained his mother's favourite and it was one Elvis said he would always keep.
He couldn't leave it there, however. In 1956, a Cadillac Eldorado convertible and a Continental Mark 2 (later used by Priscilla for driving Lisa-Marie to school) were added to the stable. Other desirable cars were to follow though curiously in view of his wealth, Elvis had a penchant for buying second hand.
Not that he opted for just any second hand car mind you. His 1966 white Rolls Royce Silver Cloud had had three careful owners by the time it reached the gates of Graceland; actor Michael Landon and country music legends Charlie Rich and Charlie McClain.
His first Stutz Blackhawk meanwhile - a 1965 example was a car originally ordered by Frank Sinatra, but charmed form the dealer by Elvis. This, the very first Stutz ever delivered, was wrecked in California by a hired driver in July 1971, so he duly bought another in 1964 for the princely sum of $20,000. This one had a 230hp V8 engine and an 18-carat gold interior. It was also the last car he ever drove - a few hours before his death.
By then, there were of course other cars in the Graceland stable. A jet-black 1975 Ferrari Dino 308 GT4 for example, purchased second hand in October 1976 on a payment plan with one instalment at $20,583. And of course there was Priscilla's car, a white Mercedes 280SL, bought for her by Elvis in 1970 as a gift.
All these cars are of course on show in the museum, along with a collection of bikes that include a 1976 Electra-Glide, a Harley Davidson 1200 and a Honda 300. Having wandered around all of these, you can seat yourself comfortably in an authentic 1957 Chevy seat at a recreated drive-in movie house.
This is an opportunity to watch motoring clips from many of Elvis' films with the sound coming from vintage drive-in speaker boxes. It's also a chance (if you're a Presley movie fan) to relive some of those great lines. My favourite has to be the one where the leading lady flirtingly offers the suggestion that "maybe we'll meet some place by accident". Elvis' response is shot right back; just tell me where the accident might take place and I'll be there!" Maybe it's a fitting epitaph.
The Elvis Presley Automobile Museum is open on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee all year round.