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Letter From The UK: Frank James’ Gun

Letter from the UK

At the time of writing this, Automoblog’s esteemed Managing Editor, Carl Anthony, was in the air taking in the latest car shows for our benefit. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it. He has to travel great distances that we here in the comparatively tiny British Isles cannot comprehend.

As the crow flies, the length of the British mainland is six hundred miles approximately. Americans will drive further for a good burger. Nowhere in the UK is more than seventy miles from an ocean, yet I imagine there are people in the USA who have never experienced the soft sough of a salty sea breeze.

Historic Locations

History runs rapidly away from us down the long corridor of time until it becomes nothing more than a myth or legend; something to be learned from the movies or modern political interpretation, and then eventually forgotten. Here in the UK, we can visit all manner of historic locations in a day yet we envy America’s vast sprawling history, which to us, seems somehow more romantic.

We have never really had a frontier.

This was why, just a few years ago, my wife and I took a drive, deep into the historic English county of Somerset to visit the American Museum in Britain. The American Museum takes you on a journey through the history of the United States, from its early settlers to the 20th century. With its remarkable collection of folk and decorative arts, the Museum shows the diverse and complex nature of American traditions. The only museum of Americana outside the United States, it was founded to bring American history and cultures to the people of Britain and Europe.

It has succeeded. It is a wonderful institution.

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The American Museum in Britain opened to the public in 1961 – the achievement of four colleagues: Dr. Dallas Pratt (an American psychiatrist and collector), John Judkyn (a British born antiques dealer, who had become a United States citizen), Nick Bell Knight (a furniture restorer employed at nearby Freshford Manor, Judkyn’s business base in Britain) and Ian McCallum, the Museum’s first Director. Photo: American Museum in Britain.

Porsche Power

We visited the Museum for two reasons. One was that, at the time, I was the proud owner of a red Porsche Cayman and I wanted to stretch that 2.7 liter “flat-six” to the limit on what I knew would be some testing, winding country roads. My wife, Beverley, said nothing but she did that raised eyebrows thing that ladies are wont to do when presented with the mystery that is man.

For once the weather was benign. The sun was out and the highways were dry, and we encountered a strange and rather wonderful automotive experience. We were on a blissfully empty dual carriageway. The road unfurled before us as my foot slowly pushed the pedal to the sumptuous German carpet.

The engine roared right behind our heads reminding us of the power of Porsche. Suddenly, at a certain speed, everything went strangely serene. The car had found its sweet spot, that moment when all the mechanical parts come together in perfect harmony. It was as if we were floating above the blacktop on a magic carpet ride.

Unfortunately, the maximum speed limit in the UK is just 70 mph. The sweet spot on my Cayman was 105 mph. You can see my problem. Reluctantly, I lifted and we continued to the American Museum untroubled by the cops.

Photo: DriveWrite Automotive.

Frank James’ Gun

In addition to the remarkable permanent exhibits on show, the Museum was, at the time, hosting a traveling exhibition entitled Gangsters and Gunslingers in a newly opened facility. This was the purpose of our visit.

Well, it was fascinating. The rooms in the new building were beautifully laid out with all manner of artifacts that, most importantly, were a genuine part of history and not just some made-up movie romantic notion.

History came flooding back down that corridor of time and confronted us directly.

I cannot account for why one exhibit took a hold of me specifically. It was, allegedly (and I don’t see why this august institution should invent this story), a revolver dropped from the hand of outlaw Frank James as he ran from the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, after the aborted raid by the James-Younger gang in September of 1876.

Of course, American Western legends take a hold of British boys of all ages, thanks to the magic of moving pictures. We’d seen the film. We know what happens.

This though was the real thing. Frank James may have fired this gun with intent to harm the townsfolk who were fighting back. What I can say though is that I was transfixed, almost in awe of the small, insignificant piece of history placed right before my eyes.

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Northfield’s First National Bank as it would have looked during the time of the robbery in 1876. Photo: Northfield Historical Society.

American History Made Real

I won’t labor the point. The American Museum in Britain has many fine and interesting historical items, including a series of rooms dedicated to home furnishings over the centuries which is much more interesting than it sounds.

There is, however, one room I found oddly unsettling. It was filled with decorative arts and it was in this room I felt history pressing on me more than ever before. There were many things that would likely be unacceptable to modern sensibilities today, including a small naive painting – that could just be imagined on a cabin wall – of a settler pointing a long rifle at a Native American. There was another showing military workings at a Civil War battle.

Some exhibits were strange to the point of wondering how folk ever found this artwork attractive. They didn’t get this stuff out of the Sears catalog. The room felt constricting and I was glad to leave it. Maybe it’s just me? On the journey back, I relished the open, modern road and the drive home.

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Photo: Porsche Cars North America, Inc.

More Porsche Power

Just a few days before writing this back in the here and now, I was once again driving a Porsche Cayman, this time the very latest 718 model. The engine is still mid-mounted but has been reduced to a turbo-charged 2.0 liter four-cylinder. Despite this, it is faster, more economical, and so much better to drive than my earlier Cayman, long gone and forever disappearing up that historical automotive road.

The new model is, without question, a masterpiece. The Porsche people almost had to wrestle me to the ground to get the keys. Even Beverley, who looks at me in a kind of wonder when I wax all lyrical and poetic about a car, had to admit it was superb. Luckily, we featured a full review of that glorious 718, long before the memory of that auspicious week faded into history.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite