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A 1930 American Austin sits in the lobby of the Manitoba Antique Auto Museum.

Ed James/Handout

Blink and you’ll miss it – but you’ll be missing plenty.

Along the Trans-Canada Highway at Elkhorn, Man. – heading west, the last community before the Saskatchewan border – is a collection of rare, antique automobiles, vintage agricultural equipment and quirky memorabilia so unique that you’ll cease second-guessing the sanity of your decision to drive across the Prairies in the heat of the summer.

Your introduction in the lobby is a bit odd. Although a red 1930 American Austin miniature car assures you that you are in the right place, a taxidermy two-headed calf, a butterfly collection and vintage photos of local curling and baseball teams, 4-H clubs, threshing bees and Royal visitors to Canada may cause you to think otherwise.

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Through a second set of doors is when the automotive-history experience begins: An exotic collection of 80 vehicles awaits, including a 1902 Holsman, a 1909 Hupmobile and one of the largest collections of original McLaughlin Motor Cars in Canada. Never heard of them? These were important marques in the first half of the 20th century. You’ll also find a horse-drawn hearse on skis for the winter, a 1955 Packard and plenty more.

The 80-vehicle collection includes this 1909 Metz.

Ed James/Handout

This museum owes its existence to founder Isaac (Ike) Clarkson – a local farmer who passionately wanted to preserve a mechanical record of his times.

“After the Second World War, Ike saw the crushers coming through looking for steel,” museum manager Richard Hainer says. “Rather than let the farmers give up these treasures, Ike asked if he could have them.

“Most of the cars were given to him, or he paid next to nothing and took them home and started putting them back into original condition. In 1966, he approached the village of Elkhorn and said if they would put up a building he would donate all his cars, and that’s how the museum came about.”

As you walk among the cars, the feeling of stepping back in time is amplified by the fact that many of these autos are not trailer-queen restorations with shiny paint and new parts, but maintained in their original condition.

And that’s just the way Ike wanted it. “He said that’s our history being thrown away, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. He was smart enough to realize that,” Hainer says.

And you may be surprised to know that increasingly, that’s the way collectors want their cars, too.

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“A preservation vehicle in excellent condition typically sells for the same as a fully restored example and in many cases will sell for a premium,” says McKeel Hagerty, chief executive of Hagerty, the world’s largest insurer of collector vehicles.

The museum also displays vintage farm equipment, such as this tractor.

Ed James/Handout

Continuing your tour back in time, a second building houses agricultural equipment which will be entrancing for even the most experienced of car nuts. Vintage tractors and threshing machines, some well over a century old, are fascinating for their collection of pulleys, belts, and motors that reflect the quantum changes in farming technology.

Now step out back to the boneyard, where, unbelievably, guests have picking privileges. For a donation, visitors can leave with parts, or even whole vehicles. I coveted an intact 1968 Jaguar still on a trailer; two years ago a visitor from New Zealand left with a prewar Hupmobile that museum staff had to dig out of the dirt.

A visitor from New Zealand once left with a prewar Hupmobile like this one.

Ed James/Handout

In addition to the cars, there’s also an 1896 schoolhouse and a 1912 pioneer home filled with antique household and kitchen wares and children’s toys.

Ike died just four years after the museum opened, but staff continue to build on his vision. Canada Day 2018 saw a parade, barbecue, threshing bee, strawberry social, beer garden, fireworks and even a ‘spark show’ where sawdust was thrown into a steam engine.

“I’ve talked to the car clubs in Brandon and Winnipeg, and they all say the same thing: This is the best kept secret in Manitoba. And we’re right on the No. 1 highway,” Hainer says.

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But while the museum waits for a pending highway sign, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled to find it.

The museum is open May 1 to September 30, relying heavily on a dedicated staff of enthusiastic volunteers. Funding comes from the village, municipality and admission fares.

What would Hainer do if a benefactor donated a million dollars? “First, we’d build another building for the cars, one that’s heated,” he says. “That’s why we aren’t open in the winter.”

Jay Leno, are you listening?

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