By Joe Kirchmyer
Their website says that “Jim Sandoro and his wife, Mary Ann, have spent more than 45 years collecting memorabilia, antique vehicles and historic artifacts to visually display the rich transportation history of Western New York.” That statement says a lot, yet somehow, it doesn’t come close to capturing the enormity of that collection, a portion of which is on display at the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum in downtown Buffalo.
After making my first jaw-dropping visit to the museum last week, I was able to return just a few days later to interview Jim about his impressive collection and everything from his childhood in Buffalo — the birthplace of the majestic Pierce-Arrow automobile — to his plans for a major expansion along Seneca Street. I left with no doubt that his passion for automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, advertising and Buffalo history is the driving force behind this Western New York treasure.
JK: For those who haven’t visited the museum before, how would you describe this facility?
JS: Eclectic, in a way, because I don’t want people to have the perception that we are just a Pierce-Arrow museum. We are the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, and now we also have the Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station. It’s not just Pierce-Arrow cars … we have muscle cars, the new GT (2017 Ford GT ’66) until Christmas, bicycles, motorcycles and Buffalo history. We also have posters and different things that are tied somewhat into transportation, and every day is Christmas with people bringing us more and more stuff because they know the items would be better kept with us than left in a damp basement or a hot attic or in the hands of kids who don’t know what they’re doing with it and might not appreciate it as much as the public would.
It’s just been wonderful. Every day people bring things in here and for the most part donate them to the museum. We do take some things on loan and we buy things, too, but over $10 million worth of items have been donated to us this year — everything from Corvettes and Pierce-Arrows to bicycles and memorabilia.
JK: You’ve been collecting for decades. Do you recall the one piece that started all of this?
JS: I don’t think there was any one piece. The story has been told before: When I was a child the man next door was a chauffeur for a wealthy family. His granddaughter and I would play in their two-car garage with other kids in the neighborhood and I still remember the smell of mothballs and stale gas. There was a tarp that separated two cars. Being inquisitive I pulled the tarp back and there was this magnificent Pierce-Arrow Town Car up on blocks! It was so majestic and was the biggest thing that I had ever seen. We had a ’46 or ’47 Chevy at the time and here was this monster that was three times bigger. It was a 1918 and we would go in the garage and slide down the fenders.
Well, it was taboo to even be in there, and once he caught me I kept asking, “Well, why can’t we play on it?” To shut me up he would give me a button or a pin or a program from a car show in the early days and I’d take it home and show my mother. I thought, “Wow, this is like Halloween!” So, I thought, there are a lot of old guys in the neighborhood and I’m going to go and ask them if they worked for Pierce-Arrow or worked as a chauffeur. Sure enough, I got more stuff because I bugged them until they gave me something.
By the time I was nine the basement was filled and my mother said, “What are you going to do with all these things?” I said I was going to have a car museum and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life — play with old cars. At 18 I moved out of the house and did exactly what I wanted to do, restore cars. It started with 60 bucks and the man who owned the building held paper for me so I could buy it over a period of years. I started to restore cars when no one else was doing restoration. If you wanted a car restored back then you took it to a collision shop where they’d work on it when they had a chance and it might take four or five years to complete. I hired some people who were laid off and had shown me their own cars so I could see the quality of their work. At one time I had nine men working for me full time.
JK: There is so much to see here, so much history on display. Which piece would you say you’re most proud of?
JS: There’s two guys racing on a high-wheel bicycle in a showcase over there, a German bronze that I bought in New York City in 1972 from the window of an antique shop. It was $1,000, which was a lot of money in 1972, and I carried it home on my lap. A month later I was back there doing appraisals and found another one, twice the size, that’s over in another showcase … and I brought that back on my lap on an Allegheny Airlines flight. Nothing here is for sale, but if I did sell anything the two men racing on the high-wheel would be the last piece that I would sell.
Every piece in here excites me. That’s what keeps us going to the flea market at five in the morning and going into people’s homes to clean out basements. I think we have about 350,000 pieces of memorabilia right now. In here we have about 20 percent of that and the rest is still in storage. In the future, with the new building (planned expansion along Seneca Street), we hope to show it all. We’ll be six times bigger — over 300,000 square feet. We’ll be one of the biggest car museums in the world.
JK: Of all the pieces currently on display, what was the most difficult to acquire?
JS: Well, the Thomas Flyer car is because there are only 32 in the world. I bought mine in 1974. Those are a million to a million-five, minimum, and we never would have been able to afford one now.
Our 1902 Buffalo Electric Automobile is the only one known to exist. Over 100 vehicles were made here in Western New York and ideally we’d like to have one of every car but we’ll never do that because some were one-offs, but we’re trying to assemble as much Buffalo history as we can from all over the world.
JK: Were you familiar with the American Pickers television show before they contacted you about acquiring the Jell-O wagon for the museum?
JS: Yes, I was a fan of the show and knew the boys. I met Mike (Wolfe) and I actually sold him a motorcycle engine a couple of years ago, not part of the show but as a friend. I also got to know his brother Robbie. They told me about the wagon and I went out to Iowa to buy it. They keep repeating that episode all the time and it enabled us to bring in Danielle (Colby) for the unveiling. Three hundred people came to see Danielle which helped us to raise funds that will be used for the conservation of the wagon. It’s just been unbelievable.
JK: You obviously have a good eye for the classics, but what do you think about today’s vehicles? Will anything on the road today be on display in a museum like this a century from now?
JS: Every generation says no, but of course they will. The GTs and all these other cars that cost five or six hundred thousand dollars now will end up being in museums and bringing millions some day because there’s always a market for something that’s rare, unusual or breathtaking. Someday none of us may be driving — it may all be automated — and that’s all the more reason people will want to save that history.
The Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, located at 263 Michigan Ave. in Buffalo, is open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is also available for special events. For more information, please visit www.pierce-arrow.com or call 853-0084.