Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography by Karen Fallon and Courtesy of Martin Auto Museum and Event Center
People-watching has become one of Mark Fallon’s absolute favorite things to do at the Martin Auto Museum. In addition to being evidence of the ardent appreciation that exists for automobiles, one can really learn a lot about a person by seeing which vehicles they gravitate toward and the amount of enthusiasm or even emotion they exhibit.
“We have so many cars from so many different eras,” says Fallon, who serves as the Martin Auto Museum’s social media manager. “It is really neat to see people come in and point at certain vehicles. There is usually some attached memory for a visitor in a group to a particular car and it is usually a very different vehicle from one person to another.”
Dedicated to the preservation of collectible and rare automobiles for educational purposes, the Martin Auto Museum is the brainchild of 91-year-old real estate developer Mel Martin.
“Mel has been involved with cars and the car industry throughout his entire life,” Fallon says.
Martin moved to Mayer, Arizona at age 16 and started his own auto-repair garage there the very next year. He later moved to Phoenix, where he opened another garage and started a towing business.
“A lot of his business ventures have been car-related,” Fallon adds. “He has always had a love for cars of all different vintages and types.”
Over the years, Martin’s love of cars led to a substantial collection and, in 2005, he founded the Martin Auto Museum as a means to showcase vehicles that represent significant periods in automotive history. The museum operated for 17 years off Interstate 17 at Bell Road.
However, as Martin’s personal collection continued to grow, it became clear that the museum needed a new space to house his vehicles. At its maximum usage, the location could only showcase roughly 60 cars or so.
“And he now owns somewhere near 150 cars that span the generations,” Fallon says.
So a new site was chosen on the northwest corner of 43rd Avenue and Thunderbird Road, which originally operated as a Gemco department store and was more recently utilized by Safeway. Over the next year, museum board members and volunteers renovated the space and slowly began very carefully moving automobiles and automotive memorabilia — such as antique gas pumps and neon signs — into it.
With its targeted opening set for this month, the new location benefits the museum in more ways than just being able to accommodate more than 100 cars.
“One of the things that set this particular location apart from the previous location is that we have three spaces of significant size that can host corporate events, weddings, birthdays, reunions, car clubs and what have you,” Fallon says. “We are rebranding it as the Martin Auto Museum and Event Center. Being a nonprofit, the museum could not continue to thrive based solely on its visitors so the new event rooms will help maintain its operation.”
And that operation is to the benefit of not only automobile enthusiasts but also the future of the entire automotive industry. After all, we must first appreciate the road that has already been paved behind us in order to create one worth driving on ahead of us.
“One of the things that Mel is really focused on is educating the next generation on the history of cars,” Fallon explains. “If all they ever see is the cars that their parents drive and the occasional cool hot rod that goes down the road, they may not have in their minds the brass era cars or the Model T’s and the Model A’s and all of those things that gave birth to the automobile industry in the United States and throughout the world.”
The Martin Auto Museum immersively illustrates a progression of vehicles through time, with the oldest representation dating way back to 1886 — a replica of Carl Benz’s first automobile with a high-speed internal combustion engine.
“We have got a room that is dedicated to Corvettes from the 1950s through the 2020 Corvette, which is the first mid-engine Corvette,” Fallon says. “They are all in one room so you can see how those cars advanced and changed through the years. The collection spans generations of automotive history.
“Older visitors come in and are able to reminisce whereas the younger folks may have never even seen some of the vehicles that are in the museum. We are trying to grow an appreciation of these older classic cars in that next generation.”
The Martin Auto Museum and Event Center facilitates that appreciation through complimentary lesson plans, available on its website, specifically designed for students at all grade levels. Younger visitors may also enjoy a ride on a carousel or a turn at the museum’s collection of driving and racing games.
Of course, the Martin Auto Museum and Event Center will also make many older visitors feel like they are kids again, fueled by nostalgia.
“There are people of an age who drove these cars at one time in their life and have a great appreciation for them,” Fallon says. “So we really do have a built-in audience in these large retirement communities in the Valley.
“There is also a really large car show community here. Almost every weekend, you can find a car show somewhere around the Valley. So there are a lot of collectors who go to those car shows and can come to the museum to see an even broader collection in one place.”
In fact, the Martin Auto Museum and Event Center has plans to periodically host its own car shows in its new parking lot — another thing that it was unable to do at its former location.
The museum sees an uptick in visitors near the beginning of each year, around what has become known as auction season here in the Valley. Of course, those auctions also afford Martin an opportunity to explore the purchase of additional vehicles.
“Every year, it seems that Mel goes to one or more of those auctions and we add a car or two — or 10 — to the museum’s collection,” Fallon says.
Of course, the expense of maintaining each car is ongoing. All automobiles are lovingly cared for, often hand-washed, polished and given vanity tweaks as needed. The museum, therefore, offers automobile enthusiasts the opportunity to sponsor a vehicle’s care through its Adopt-a-Car membership program.
A yearly $250 donation ensures a car’s continued care for future generations of visitors. Each adoptive guardian also has the added benefit of advertising their benevolence in protecting the remarkable history of that automobile.
“In fact, my wife Karen and I have adopted the 1930 Duesenberg Model J Boattail, which is probably one of the finest cars in all of Mel’s collection,” Fallon says. “One of the interesting things about that car is that it was built the year that Mel was born. He bought it as an 80th birthday present to himself. What a great gift that he has now turned around and given to the community.”
The Duesenberg is one of two cars that Fallon says are among his favorites at the Martin Auto Museum and Event Center, with the other being a 1965 Shelby Cobra SC. That car is signed by American automotive designer Carroll Shelby and has only 14 miles on its odometer.
Having said that, Fallon — who is a member of the Martin Auto Museum and Event Center’s board as well as Martin’s stepson — acknowledges that there are a lot of cars in the collection that have really interesting stories and he has far too many favorites to count. His friendship with Martin has not only strengthened his appreciation of automobiles and automotive history but also shown him that he still has much to learn and discover.
“Mel’s knowledge of cars throughout history is just amazing,” says Fallon, noting that Martin, who still goes to work every day at 91 years old, uses his career as a real estate developer to support his love and passion for collectible cars. “He can look at a car that might be unremarkable to the average person and know that there was maybe only a handful of those made in that year with that specific equipment which makes it special. If we could bottle him and put him in the museum to talk to folks every day, I think that people would be blown away.”