Buicks and Corvettes and Jaguars — oh my!

Newport Car Museum opens in former Raytheon building, Portsmouth

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PORTSMOUTH — Jason Fanion and his 11-year-old son, Blaise, peered into the interior of a bright-yellow 2016 Corvette Z06, a 650-horsepower supercar that Newport Car Museum founder Gunther Buerman calls “a monster.”

“He’s a super car nut,” Mr. Fanion said of his son. “We’ve visited Lamborghini of Boston, McLaren, we’ve been up to Ferrari. We’ve gone all over the place to different car shows.”

So when he read that the Newport Car Museum was opening for business Thursday inside a former Raytheon building on West Main Road, he and Blaise just had to visit. 

“We wanted to come on the first day, so we actually blew off school. It’s the end of the year so we figured, what the heck?” Mr. Fanion said.

Blaise said the Corvette Z06, along with a Lamborghini Countach, were his two favorites among the 50 cars in the 50,000-square-foot museum.

“I like the older cars,” said Mr. Fanion. “You know, the ones from back in the ’50s — the old Cadillacs and things like that. The craftsmanship of them and the sheet metal work … you just don’t see that today. There’s a lot of plastic and molded stuff these days.”

Mr. Buerman, who co-owns the museum along with his wife, Maggie, calls the new endeavor a labor of love.

Born in Germany, he came to the United States when he was 4 and later became a lawyer; he’s the retired chairman of a Rochester, N.Y. law firm. In 1997 he co-founded American Rock Salt Co. and has served as its chairman since 2003. He’s also chairman of USWatercraft, a yacht-builder in Warren.

Along the way, he collected vintage cars — lots of them. In fact, all 50 of the beauties inside this former missile manufacturing plant are his, although he’s open to switching out some to make room for others down the road. 

The idea to open a car museum came to him a couple of years ago.

“I had a bunch of cars, but I do some sailing and I was spending more time sailing than I was driving my cars,” Mr. Buerman said. “I woke up one morning and Maggie and I were having coffee and she said, ‘I know you’re thinking of something. What are you thinking of?’ I said, ‘I’m thinking of either selling the cars or maybe we should do a car museum.’ She said, ‘The car museum is a great idea. Why don’t we do that?’”

He originally thought of trying to establish a museum at Park Place, the storage facility for high-end vehicles that’s located within the Portsmouth Business Park. That didn’t work out, but a friend told him about a couple of vacant buildings fronting West Main Road that Raytheon was selling off.

He first toured the smaller, 46,000-square-foot building to the south because it was roughly the same size as Park Place. “Just as an afterthought they said, ‘This building is for sale, too. Do you want to walk through there?’ I spent about five minutes walking through this space and I said, ‘I’d rather have this than that,’” he said of the larger, 114,000-square-foot structure that now houses the museum along with private storage space, offices and room for special events.

He ended up buying both buildings, and Raytheon tore down the smaller one. The Buermans plan to use that space for future outdoor car shows. “We can put tents there and once the grass comes in we can use it for car events, rallies and car club stuff,” he said.

The couple spent six months designing and transforming the space into the museum of their dreams. 

“I was really concerned about having a car museum where everyone sees cars right next to each other with a little placard in front and velvet ropes. We decided to do turntables and video and artwork,” he said, adding that even the seats inside the building reflect his tastes. “I like mid-century modern furniture.”

‘Eclectic collection’

Mr. Buerman said the collection reflects his opinion that these vehicles are true works of art.

“I was born in the ’40s but I grew up in the United States in the ‘50s,” he said. “It seemed to me that after the Second World War and all of the mayhem than occurred that from the late-’40s to the early ’50s, the cars were all green and black and dark blue. And then, all of a sudden, in the mid-’50s it seemed like the flowers came out again with coral and pink and red and yellow — these wonderful colors.”

He pointed to a gleaming, white 1954 Corvette revolving on a turntable in the center of the museum’s largest room. “That’s the second year that they built them. I think it’s a work of art,” said Mr. Buerman, who also mentioned the Shelby Cobra 427 and a white 1956 Jaguar as two other cars that are particularly pleasing to the eye.

He compared the stylists and designers for the automobile industry back then to Renaissance sculptors. “Cars were individuals in those times and American was a pretty rough-and-tumble individualist place,” he said. “They had GM, Ford and Chrysler to do these wonderful industrial designs and works of art — these sculptures — that became the cars of the ’50s probably until the early ’70s. That’s an era where you could probably tell the makes of cars as they were coming down the road, unlike today where Hondas and Hyundais look much the same.”

However, there are also several modern cars on display as well.

“We have cars that go from that era up until 2017 cars because the whole idea here is to be able to have the grandfather, his son and the grandson all come and see things that are of interest to them,” he said. “We have every Corvette model that was ever built — from the C1 to the latest C7.”

Some of the others include a 1965 Ford Mustang, a 1965 Shelby 427 SC Cobra and a 1954 Buick Skylark, the latter one of the “big fin” cars that were popular from that era.

“The fins got crazy because that was the rocket age,” Mr. Buerman said.

The museum also displays several iconic European cars, such as a red 1969 Lamborghini Countach, a silver 1993 Jaguar XJ220 and an olive 1985 British Army Land Rover Defender.

“It’s an eclectic collection,” he said.

And no, he can’t pick a favorite. “I have three children, and if you asked me who my favorite was I couldn’t answer that. I actually love all these cars, or I wouldn’t have bought them.”

Since all of the cars are his, Mr. Beurman has made it so he can take any one of them out for a spin whenever he wants. As for his everyday car, he drives an SUV, but not just any SUV.

“It’s a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S — 550 horsepower,” he said.

We looked up the list price: about $160,000.

‘Don’t touch’

There are only two rules for visitors, Mr. Buerman said: “No food and please don’t touch the cars.”

A docent who’s worked in similar museums told him that young children usually aren’t the problem. “It’s old people who touch them,” he said, adding that the museum has more than 20 docents, with four or five patrolling the building on each shift. 

Photography is always permitted. “It’s like a Ponzi scheme,” he said, adding that the spread of photos through social media can only help business.

Although Thursday was a “soft opening” because it wasn’t heavily advertised, Mr. Buerman said he was encouraged by the number of people who trickled in throughout the day — including a Brazilian couple that somehow found the museum while driving from New York to Boston.

“We hit double digits just in the first couple of hours,” he said. “Some people are driving by and they just saw the signs, and other people have been planning to come here for a while. But, I think we’ll do better when it rains.”

As for the number of visitors he expects to see once word of the museum gets out, Mr. Buerman shrugged. 

“As I said to Maggie, if it’s only our friends and us going through, I’m happy because I love the cars.”

The Newport Car Museum, located at 1847 West Main Road, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $18 for adults and $5 for children ages 5-15, with discounts available to groups, seniors, military personnel, AAA members and students with identification. For more information, call 401/835-2371 or visit https://newportcarmuseum.org.

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