Collection connection

Story & photos by Andrea Louise Thomas

At Arthurs Seat, atop a 15-acre pastoral property surrounded by rolling hills and the sound of neighbouring cattle lowing, is a surprising place, Charlie’s Auto Museum. It’s the culmination of a dream for Charlie Schwerkolt and at 85 years, he is still living it in this extraordinary place. While there are now over 120 assorted motor vehicles in this museum, the collection goes way beyond cars.

Automobile enthusiasts will be wowed by the sheer variety of vintage, rare and unusual cars, but also by the comprehensive scope of the items on display. There are petrol bowsers, licence plates, engines, model cars, advertising signage, car parts, car badges and even motor-themed teapots! In addition to the cars and auto memorabilia are bicycles, bottles and beer cans, keys and playing cards, replica planes and boats, old cameras and radios, even vintage sewing machines, record players, washing machines, fans and a player piano complete with rolls.

This place is a real museum full of history. The collection spans over 100 years. It’s a step back in time and a reflection on progress. There are so many things to see and contemplate that it’s hard to take it all in with just a single visit. The displays are thoughtfully arranged. Each car has a sign explaining where and when it was made. Many of the displays also have quirky stories attached to them. And if there isn’t a sign for it, Charlie can probably fill you in. His encyclopaedic knowledge of cars and everything that relates to them is quite incredible.

Oldest in the car collection is the 1914 Studebaker SC14, though he also has a 1911 Studebaker horse-drawn buggy. In fact, it all began with Charlie’s love of the Studebaker. He and a handful of friends set up the Studebaker Club in 1967. This is where his collection started, with a few Studebakers and a dream to set up a car museum. Studebaker made many an interesting vehicle and Charlie was always on the chase for the rarest of the rare. “In the Studebaker Club, we always wanted to have something no one else had; mine was the US Mail Truck,” he says. It occupies its own corner of the museum. 

Charlie’s dream was also his destiny. He had owned and operated a thriving forklift business for many years, but once technology came in, Charlie decided to make a hasty exit. He didn’t want a bar of it. Charlie left the forklift business in the hands of his son (also named Charlie) and moved to Arthurs Seat to set up his car museum. It’s been open since 1988 and all that time, Charlie has been adding to the collection. He’s greeted thousands of curious visitors over the years with his cheeky grin and boyish charm.

Opening the museum made many differences in Charlie’s life and all of them were positive. He had the opportunity to pursue his real passion, the thrill of the chase finding new and interesting things for the collection and a chance to meet new people. On one occasion a lovely Dutch lady came into the museum with her family. She definitely caught Charlie’s eye. He was determined that she was not leaving until he had her phone number. She gave it to him and suggested he call her in two weeks. He called her two days later and within a year they were married right there in the museum. They are still married. Though she has now moved into a nursing home due to advancing Alzheimer’s Disease, Charlie visits her every single day taking their beloved dog Lucy to give her comfort. That’s love.   

At the real heart of Charlie’s collecting is a desire to connect with people, in a place where he feels at home, where he always knows the language and where he has something to offer that often could not be found anywhere else. It’s the ultimate show and tell experience. It’s not that he needs to have things. He likes to share what he has found. “I collect things to give other people the benefit of seeing something interesting,” he says. The museum was never about making money; it’s about people. Having this museum gives Charlie a raison d’être, a sense of identity and the opportunity to share what he knows with others. The collection is the ultimate conversation starter for a man who is actually quite shy underneath. 

This museum is a place of memories for Charlie and for everyone who visits. His very first car is there, a 1954 Hudson Super Wasp, and the tales it could tell, well, just imagine. Imagine that every single piece in that collection of hundreds of thousands of individual things has its own story of how and when it was made, whom it came into contact with and the things that it has seen. The din of conversation inside those sheds would be deafening – you see, it’s just like people – everyone has a story and the museum is Charlie’s.

Charlie’s Auto Museum is at 185 Purves Road, Arthurs Seat.

First published in Peninsula Essence – May 2019