Off an otherwise unremarkable exit on US Highway 36, in the town of Clarence, Missouri, is what seems to be a working gas station from another time, perfectly preserved, complete with gleaming vintage cars at the pumps. But on closer inspection, the station is no longer in service and is filled with mannequins trapped in their moments.
The former filling station is actually a public display created by the former operator, Lyle Van Houten. After owning and running the station for over 40 years, Van Houten retired and instead of selling his little garage, simply turned it into a temple devoted to vintage cars and the classic era of American filling stations. The entire station has been immaculately preserved from the historic pumps to the original signage; all of it looks like it was just installed yesterday.
A vintage car collector, Van Houten has parked a small collection of historic vehicles outside the station as well, each driven by mannequins in appropriate costume. There is an old Clarence police cruiser with a handcuffs hanging from the mirror, a fancy couple out for a leisurely drive in their sedan, and perhaps most startlingly, a taxi filled with mannequins dressed as marching band monkeys, a scene for which there is no explanation.
The interior of the station can also be viewed from the large plate glass windows and it, too, has been lovingly restored with trinkets, photos, artifacts, and frozen attendants.
The small personal museum is a testament to an era when automotive culture was a bit more dignified. Although between the seemingly in situ staging of the sometimes odd figures, and the graveyard stretching out just feet behind the station, the inherent otherness of Lyle Van Houten’s Automotive Museum cannot be denied.
Know Before You Go
While heading east on US Highway 36, turn right on Shelby County Road 303. The museum will be on your left.