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Air-cooled desert luxury

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Photography by author.

Nothing about Tucson’s Franklin Museum was what I expected.

Not least of these: It’s in Tucson. You might think that a museum for the storied marque might be located near Syracuse, New York, where these air-cooled luxury cars were built between 1902 to 1934. Roughly 150,000 Franklins were built, although thanks to wear, wartime scrap drives, and the inevitable march of technology, just 3,700 remain. You might expect the bulk of these to have remained around New York, or at least in New England; though there might be some there in garages and barns dotted around the state, one man saw fit to collect more than two dozen around his Tucson home before his passing a quarter-century ago.

1908 Franklin Model J

This 1908 Franklin Model J 1 1/2 ton stakebed is the only Franklin truck known to survive.

Somehow I had it in my head that it was located off a busy street in downtown Tucson; something about the wording, with the mailing address on Kleindale Road but the parking entrance on Vine Avenue, suggested it. Boy was I wrong. Vine Avenue, at least in this part of town, is a dirt road with traffic circles–as if dirt roads have enough traffic to require traffic circles?

The museum is spread through a number of out-buildings on what was Thomas Hubbard’s property. Other than a few “Franklin Service” signs inside the property, you could easily mistake it for anything other than a car museum. There is something to the property’s understated charm, which also includes a period-correct adobe-style house.

Inside, visions of an antiseptic, floodlit presentation were quickly replaced with a far more homespun feel. Thoughts of parquet floors were replaced with carpet, which manages to look like marble or wood in pictures. There is a certain ’70s feel within, which combined with the even-older cars gives it a warm, sealed-in-amber feel.

It’s only open half the year, from mid-October (following Hershey) through Memorial Day weekend; traffic drops off in the months when it’s 120 degrees out, so they just shut the place down for the summer.

1929 Franklin

1929 Franklin Model 135 convertible coupe.

And the story, which appeared across four pages in the May 2019 issue of Hemmings Classic Car, ended up having very little to do with the Franklin marque, despite a comprehensive history that can be told among the decades of cars and illustrations of advancing technology. I figured that the piece would be a dry recitation of the history of the brand, something that the museum could do more comprehensively than I could in the four pages I was allotted in the issue.

Somehow, and despite this author penning the story, I have no earthly idea about how this happened, it turned into two stories linked together–neither of which was a history of the Franklin marque. The first was a short biography of Thomas Hubbard, whose childhood experiences drew him to the Franklin marque; the second was a lesson about how a small, independent car museum, championing a brand that has been dead for 85 years, located off a dirt road in the middle of the desert, manages to not only survive but thrive.

1930 Franklin

1931 Model 153 sport phaeton.

And don’t kid yourself, the museum is doing just fine. When making arrangements to visit, we had to play phone tag with museum director Bourke Runyon, whom we eventually spoke to in between tours.

That’s right, despite the place’s relatively diminutive size, guests are given a tour, either by a docent or by Bourke himself. (Docents and volunteers run from teens to guys in their 80s, and beyond.) The day we were there to shoot, in February, we managed to come in on the tail end of one 15-person tour and shoot before another 20-person tour started; while we were in the main building shooting, there was a fashion photo shoot happening out in the courtyard (for shoes, as it happens).

Franklin’s air-cooled six-cylinder.

Bourke started out as Mr. Hubbard’s business manager, a career that morphed into museum director after Hubbard’s passing in early 1993. And though he displays impressive knowledge of the marque and its place in automotive history, Bourke was by no means a “car guy” when he started with Mr. Hubbard; he didn’t live and die by horsepower numbers and production figures the way some of us do. But he’s doing the job he was tasked to do: to keep the Franklin Museum alive in perpetuity. (And succeeding handsomely.) Bourke’s advice could well keep some other smaller museums from closing their doors. We hope his words are taken to heart.

Nothing about the Franklin Museum is what we expected. That made our brief visit all the more refreshing.

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