Rare cars, antiques at a surprising museum!

Rare early automobiles and thousands of collectible antiques can be viewed during a visit to the unique J. A. Cooley Museum in San Diego.
About two dozen antique automobiles and thousands of collectibles can be viewed during a visit to the J. A. Cooley Museum in San Diego.

Last Sunday I visited one of San Diego’s most surprising museums. It’s located in University Heights, at 4233 Park Boulevard. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it. It’s called the J. A. Cooley Museum.

The J. A. Cooley Museum shares its 10,000 square foot space with the Frank the Train Man hobby shop, which was founded by Frank Cox in 1943 and originally opened its doors in another building at the corner of Park and El Cajon Boulevard. Today’s store and museum are operated by Jim Cooley and his wife, Carmen, who’ve been avidly collecting antiques for well over half a century.

Jim, who can usually be found hanging around the museum entrance, is a friendly gentleman with endless stories about his passion for collecting and preserving bits of history. Step inside the museum and it’s immediately apparent that he really loves antique automobiles.

This utterly amazing museum, which doesn’t advertise or have a website of its own, contains a world-class collection of early automobiles, some of which are extremely rare or even one-of-a-kind. The museum also contains a treasure trove of other antiques, including antique phonographs . . . cameras . . . amazing Standard Gauge trains . . . cast iron toys . . . clocks . . . coffee grinders . . . railroad lanterns . . . irons . . . hardware tools . . . even old-fashioned spittoons!

Over the years, Jim has collected all sorts of objects that have interested him, often saving them from being thrown away. For example, he told me around World War II, when spittoons were being discarded in large numbers, he’d see some in a trash truck and retrieve them. Now he has hundreds of them!

The most impressive part of his museum, however, is the jaw-dropping collection of antique automobiles–many well over a century old–which he has patiently acquired over time without an enormous expenditure of money.

Even if many San Diegans are unfamiliar with the J. A. Cooley Museum, serious car aficionados seem to know all about it. People sometimes fly in from around the world to see the collection. The museum’s reputation is such that from time to time a movie studio will borrow a rare old car for filming–for example the 1914 Renaut that was used in Titanic.

I was told by Jim that when General Motors borrowed one his cars for an exposition, GM executives came out to San Diego to look at the museum and were so impressed, they donated their incredible Buick XP 2000, a fully automated 1994 self-driving concept car!

The funny thing is, when I swung by on Sunday and spent a good hour walking about the museum in a state of complete and utter amazement, I saw no other visitors.

I learned Jim wouldn’t mind having more people swing on by. So if you live in San Diego or are planning a trip, look up the Frank the Train Man hobby shop. Step through the front door and the absolutely amazing J. A. Cooley Museum, and possibly Jim himself, await you!

Upon entering the J. A. Cooley Museum, visitors walk past a row of very old cars. On the left is a 1914 Ford Model T.
Upon entering the J. A. Cooley Museum, visitors walk past a row of very old cars. On the left is a 1914 Ford Model T.
1910 Hunt Special, the only car ever manufactured in San Diego. This one car was produced by Mr. William Hunt of National City, ordered by Mr. Arnie Babcock, whose father built the Hotel del Coronado.
1910 Hunt Special, the only car ever manufactured in San Diego. Just one car was produced by Mr. William Hunt of National City, ordered by Mr. Arnie Babcock, whose father built the Hotel del Coronado.
1933 Franklin Olympic, produced one year before Franklin Motor Company ceased operations during the Great Depression.
1933 Franklin Olympic, produced the year before Franklin Motor Company ceased operations during the Great Depression.
1929 Franklin Model 135, produced the first year that Franklin offered a steel frame and hydraulic brakes.
1929 Franklin Model 135, produced the first year that Franklin offered a steel frame and hydraulic brakes.
1913 Cadillac Model 48. This car on display is the most original 1913 Cadillac left in existence today.
1913 Cadillac Model 48. This car on display is the most original 1913 Cadillac left in existence today.
1912 Carter Car. The body of the Carter Car is made of compressed papier-mâché composite panels over wood framing. This car on display is the only Carter Car Sedan left in existence.
1912 Carter Car. The body of the Carter Car is made of compressed papier-mâché composite panels over wood framing. This car on display is the only Carter Car Sedan left in existence.
Buick XP 2000, a fully automated 1994 self-driving concept car that was donated to the J. A. Cooley Museum because the designer was very impressed by the collection when GM executives visited the museum.
Buick XP 2000, a fully automated 1994 self-driving concept car that was donated to the J. A. Cooley Museum because the designer was very impressed by the collection of rare cars when GM executives visited the museum.
A couple of early cameras among a vast collection of antiques and memorabilia filling the J. A. Cooley Museum.
A couple of early cameras among a vast collection of antiques and memorabilia inside the J. A. Cooley Museum.
Behind some cars you'll find a rare WurliTzer Model 153 Band Organ.
Behind some cars you’ll find a rare WurliTzer Model 153 Band Organ.
An antique two-horn Duplex Phonograph.
An antique two-horn Duplex Phonograph.
An antique Edison Concert Phonograph.
An antique Edison Concert Phonograph.
An old photo of the Frank The Train Man storefront over an Edison Home Phonograph.
An old photo of the Frank The Train Man storefront over an Edison Home Phonograph.
One wall and a couple of glass display cases filled with fantastic old collectibles and Americana.
One wall and a couple of glass display cases filled with fantastic old collectibles and Americana.
Shelves and shelves of old cameras.
Shelves and shelves of old cameras.
Shelves filled with old irons.
Shelves filled with old irons.
Antique cast iron horse drawn toy fire engines.
Cast iron horse drawn toy fire engines.
Shelves and shelves of Standard Gauge toy train locomotives and cars from 1900 to the 1940's.
Shelves and shelves of Standard Gauge toy train locomotives and cars from 1900 to the 1940’s.
Lionel toy train accessories including buildings and railroad crossing signals.
Lionel toy train accessories including buildings and railroad crossing signals.
All sorts of old manual typewriters and calculating machines. (I must be an antique, too, because I used a manual typewriter when I was young!)
All sorts of old manual typewriters and calculating machines. (I must be an antique, too, because I used a manual typewriter when I was a young man!)
One corner of the J. A. Cooley Museum contains shelves of spittoons, coffee grinders, old lanterns and more!
One corner of the J. A. Cooley Museum contains shelves of spittoons, coffee grinders, old lanterns and more!
1895 E. A. Gardner Buggy, the only light weight horse drawn carriage that was built in San Diego known to exist today.
1895 E. A. Gardner Buggy, the only lightweight horse-drawn carriage that was built in San Diego known to exist today.
1885 Benz Model 1. The first vehicle in world history that used an internal combustion engine. They were produced from 1885 to 1926, when the company merged with Mercedes.
1885 Benz Model 1. The first vehicle in world history that used an internal combustion engine. They were produced from 1885 to 1926, when the company merged with Mercedes.
1895 Benz Velo. The world's first mass-produced vehicle. 67 were built the first year, 135 the second.
1895 Benz Velo. The world’s first mass-produced vehicle. 67 were built the first year, 135 the second.
1899 Mobile Steamer. Built under Stanley Patents from 1899 to 1903.
1899 Mobile Steamer. Built under Stanley Patents from 1899 to 1903.
A bunch of old-fashioned oil cans and various other objects.
A bunch of old-fashioned oil cans and various other cool objects.
Cuckoo clocks and a historical display of different California license plates!
Cuckoo and mantel clocks, and a historical display of different California license plates!
So many fantastic old objects and collectibles, my eyes almost popped out of my head.
So many fantastic old objects and collectibles, my eyes almost popped out of my head.
I believe these are cast iron coin banks.
I believe these are cast iron coin banks.
All sorts of cool cast iron figures and toys, including an awesome motorcycle!
All sorts of cast iron figures and toys, including an awesome motorcycle!
Two shelves containing railroad lanterns.
Two shelves containing railroad lanterns.
Some classic Coca Cola trays and even more antique collectibles.
Some classic Coca Cola trays and even more antique collectibles.
A bunch of jugs!
A bunch of jugs!
1900 Doctor's Buggy. The narrow, light body allowed for quick travel during medical emergencies. The tires are metal.
1900 Doctor’s Buggy. The narrow, light body allowed for quick travel during medical emergencies. The tires are metal.
1900 Crest. This extremely original car is also very rare, with few left in existence today.
1900 Crest. This extremely original car is also very rare, with few left in existence today.
1905 Cadillac Model F. This particular unrestored car was bought new by famed newspaper founder Ira Copley.
1905 Cadillac Model F. This particular unrestored car was bought new over a century ago by famed newspaper founder Ira Copley.
There's so much cool stuff inside the J. A. Cooley Museum your head might explode!
There’s so much cool stuff inside the J. A. Cooley Museum your head might explode!
1910 Brush Model D, just one of many amazing old automobiles exhibited inside the J. A. Cooley Museum in San Diego.
Front and center is a 1910 Brush Model D, just one of many amazing old automobiles exhibited inside the J. A. Cooley Museum in San Diego!

I live in downtown San Diego and love to walk around with my camera! You can follow Cool San Diego Sights via Facebook or Twitter!

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Published by

Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

6 thoughts on “Rare cars, antiques at a surprising museum!”

  1. The cars all look wonderful! There’s so much here, love all those model trains, and the cuckoo clocks look nice too, and look at all those old fashioned typewriter! Visiting this place must’ve been like stepping back in time, great photos 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the mere existence of surprising, highly specialized museums, tributes to the passions of whoever put them together. In this case, also love the content. What fun those early cars were, before anybody worried about aerodynamics and designed for the sheer artistic exuberance of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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