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Highly Charged Collections - Ladue News: Living

Highly Charged Collections

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 7:00 am | Updated: 11:35 am, Mon Sep 9, 2013.

Whether you’re a car or motorcycle lover, or just appreciate their form and function, you’re in luck as St. Louis is home to two museums that honor the genius behind these vehicles.

The Moto Museum

Steve Smith, co-founder of the Lawrence Group, has traveled the world in search of motorcycles. He has spent time in people’s homes all over Europe, listening to the personal histories of the bikes he’s about to buy. Once, it took a barge, ocean liner, train and truck to get a motorcycle from Poland to midtown St. Louis, where it now resides in The Moto Museum, which Smith opened to showcase his extensive collection. “I think there’s a stereotype of the motorcyclist as a renegade, rebel biker, but I want to show the broader aspects of motorcycling and its importance in history, business and design.”

Smith’s love for motorcycles began at the age of 14, when he participated in off-road racing through high school and college before his architecture career and life led him down other paths. Fifteen years ago, Smith rekindled his affection for motorcycles and racing, and began attending swap meets where he’d “buy some of the old bikes I wish I could have had when I was young,” he explains. Smith has found eBay to be a valuable source for motorcycles from foreign countries, as he focused on collecting rare European bikes that were never imported into the U.S., as well as ones that were innovative in some way. “As an architect, I’m fascinated by the design of motorcycles and how different they each can be, even though they do the same thing. You can see the evolution of technology and design over the years from one bike to the next,” he explains.

In 2000, Smith bought a building in Grand Center to house his growing collection, and in 2005, he purchased the current location of the museum, with the intent to open a motorcycle exhibition. The Moto Museum opened in April 2007, with the connected Triumph Grill launching the next year in response to interest in the museum as event space.

The museum has about 80 of Smith’s estimated 110-bike collection on display, along with a few loaners. The oldest is from 1914, and many feature unique characteristics such as no brakes, no seats, or in the case of a 1927 Czech Bohmerland bike, three seats in a row.

While the museum has attracted visitors from around the world, as well as celebrities such as Dan Aykroyd and Jay Leno, Smith hopes he can continue to raise the stature of his collection as an asset for St. Louis and the sport. “Motorcycling is about adventure and I’ve been on many adventures the last 15 years. It’s exhilarating, and I want to share that.”

Kemp Auto Museum

Over a 30-year period, Fred Kemp amassed a collection of more than 40 rare and classic Mercedes-Benz automobiles. With a desire to display his cars for the enjoyment of the public, the well-known St. Louis home builder formed the nonprofit Fred M. Kemp Foundation, with the intent to open a museum. Unfortunately, Kemp passed away before the museum opened its doors in 2005, but the institution works to carry out his vision today. “Most cities our size don’t have automobile museums, so we’re very blessed to have a place where the public has the opportunity to see some really rare cars,” says executive director Rodger Van Ness.

The 41-car collection is largely composed of Kemp’s Mercedes, including a 1939 540K, one of only five originally built and once owned by a prominent German during World War II. The Chesterfield museum also boasts a 1931 370S Mannheim Sport, believed to be the only one left in the world, notes Van Ness, a Mercedes collector himself.

In addition to Mercedes, the museum showcases other automobiles such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar and Bentley, and invites local collectors to display their cars for the public. A number of the pieces in the collection have won top awards at the Concours d’Elegance car shows around the country, and the museum hosts its own Concours each year. The museum also has become a popular location for various social events throughout the year, from bat mitzvahs to weddings.

While many patrons of the Kemp Auto Museum are Mercedes and car lovers, Van Ness enjoys seeing how the beauty of the cars has an impact on every visitor. “The cars sit on a special black floor, so when you walk in, it looks like they’re resting on water—it’s rather impressive.”

With a focus on education and preservation of these rare automobiles, Van Ness and the rest of the staff look to keep the museum thriving in the future, just as its namesake hoped. “We’re quietly carrying on the dream for him.”

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