If you’re an enthusiast of automobiles and motorcycling, then chances are you’ve heard of the Occoneechee Speedway. Named after the Algonquin Indians, a Native American tribe most notably known for their chief, Odjibwa, the Occoneechee Speedway is an open-air museum located in Rockford, Illinois. It was officially opened in 1976 and currently features seven unique cars and motorcycles that are fully functional, as well as three others that are only partially functional. It is definitely a bucket-list destination for anyone who loves old cars and motorsport.
The Historic Context
The Occoneechee Speedway is part of the larger Rockford Auto-Museum, housed in the Edgar Rice Burroughs Building. The original site of the museum was originally a dairy farm owned by Frank King, who also happened to be a successful race car driver in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1953, after retiring from racing, King decided to build a museum to show the public his collection of vintage vehicles. The first collection of cars was housed in a 14-bedroom mansion on the property, which was demolished in 1971.
Following the success of King’s original museum, Edgar and Maud Rice Burroughs (better known as writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and his wife, the poet and artist Maud), along with William DePew and Mary Jane Rice Burroughs, the children of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, established the Occoneechee Speedway at a new location in downtown Rockford. Like their father, the younger Burroughs were big champions of old cars, and the museum was opened to the public in January 1976. The four-lane,.75-mile oval was converted from a grassy infield to an asphalt parking lot after the mansion was demolished in 1971. It was here that the Burroughs family and friends could come together while witnessing the artistry of old-time auto mechanics and drivers as they worked on their vehicles.
The Iconic Cars
The museum’s centerpiece is the Indian Chief, a 1925 Thomas Auto-Mower Company roadster that served as the inspiration for Marvel Comics character, Captain America. According to William DePew, the founder of the museum and a great-grandson of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, the roadster was the last major project Edgar Rice Burroughs worked on before he died in December 1974 at the age of 91. This iconic vehicle will forever be linked to its creator, who is buried in an elaborate tombstone next to the car.
The King Kong Car
While the Indian Chief was the first vehicle featured in the museum, it wasn’t the last. Next to arrive were the King Kong Car, a replica of the famous 1933-1938 Ford Super Deluxe that was built to honor the 75th anniversary of King’s professional career. According to Ford historian, Robert P. Miller, this particular vehicle was the culmination of a lifelong collection of vintage automobiles that King used as a billboard to attract sponsorship and interest from the automotive industry. In a 2013 interview with Miller, King recalled the days when his collection of cars spanned nearly every genre: “I had a Lincoln, I had a Pierce-Arrow, I had a Tucker, and I had a Stutz. And then I had a King Kong car. One of the great things about the super-deluxe era is that everybody knew what a king-sized car was. So when I had something that was made in that size, people would know what it was.”
In 1934, a young woman named Shirley Muldrow rented one of King’s luxury apartments at the Drake Hotel in Chicago to save for her own wedding. The 19-year-old bride would go on to have a long and successful career as a publicist for the Walt Disney Company and other corporate clients, and was instrumental in bringing the King Kong Car to life. Now fully restored, the car is driven regularly on special occasions and tours around the country are organized to coincide with the anniversary of its debut.
Other notable vehicles in the museum’s collection include:
- A 1938 Ford Tudor
- A 1941 Dodge Truck
- A 1941 Willys Knight
- A 1942 Packard Clipper Roadster
- A 1943 MG TD
- A Studebaker Lark
- A 1924 Thomas Auto-Mower Company roadster
The Harley Davidson Van Cleef
Another important vehicle in the history of the Occoneechee Speedway is the Harley Davidson Van Cleef. This particular motorcycle was inspired by the movie star’s famous ‘50s look, and was completed in 1985 by the same company that built the Indian Chief, Thomas Auto-Mower Company. The bike is currently on display in front of the mansion, and although it has seen better days, the Burroughs family continue to ride it regularly, showing it off to potential sponsors and visitors alike.
Other unique vehicles in the museum’s collection that are worth a drive or a walk include:
- An 1894 Horsecar
- A 1912 Ford Tandem Coach
- A 1933 Thomas Auto-Mower Company roadster
- A 1954 Studebaker Super Deluxe
- A 1915 Harley Davidson
- A 1913 Ford Model T
- A 1918 Harley Davidson
- A 1934 Ford Tudor
The Amazing Musicians
Like old-timey music lovers, the Burroughs family was drawn to the sound of old-timey instruments, and the museum is filled with playable brass instruments, including:
- A 1920s Savoy String Quartet
- A 1926 Mason & Hamlin ‘Sober” Piano
- A 1921 Gibson Guitar
- A 1930s Ludwig-Wagner Viennese Horn
- A 1931 Baldwin Steam Pump Organ
- A 1924 Mason & Hamlin ‘Sober” Piano
- A 1930s Wurlitzer Piano
- An 1895 Horsecar
- A 1915 Harley Davidson
The Hot Rods Galore!
The grand opening of the museum’s second location in 1976 also marked the unveiling of the Midget Automobile Garage. This is where hot rod enthusiasts can come together and show off their custom creations, as well as those of other members of the community. The cars are hung on the walls alongside pictures of famous racing drivers and other vintage automobiles. This is definitely the place to be if you love old cars and racing. The cars in the museum are in various stages of completion, and all will be revealed throughout the year. The Midget Automobile Garage is currently open to the public Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The cars in the museum are not only stunning works of art, but they’re also very functional. The reason for this is that the owners of the vehicles often drove them and needed something that could be used daily. This is also why all of the vehicles have their lights on, as it makes it much easier to see what you’re doing when working on them. The cars themselves are not only important historically, but the stories behind them are what make them worth coming back for. This is especially true for the Indian Chief, which serves as a shrine to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his passion for old cars.
What Is The Occoneechee Speedway?
If you’re an enthusiast of automobiles and motorsport, then chances are you’ve heard of the Occoneechee Speedway. Named after the Algonquin Indians, a Native American tribe most notably known for their chief, Odjibwa, the Occoneechee Speedway is an open-air museum located in Rockford, Illinois. It was officially opened in 1976 and currently features seven unique cars and motorcycles that are fully functional, as well as three others that are only partially functional. It is definitely a bucket-list destination for anyone who loves old cars and motorsport.