Sam McManis

Discoveries: Antique car museum sprouts in ag country town of Bard

Johnny Cloud poses in front of his father’s 1926 Model T truck at the Cloud Museum.
Johnny Cloud poses in front of his father’s 1926 Model T truck at the Cloud Museum.

Never underestimate the power of deep familial feeling, coupled with gnawing regret and a healthy fear of boredom. It can lead to certain extreme behavior and creative flights of fancy, make you lose any sense of proportion and engage in an activity others might find inexplicable.

Such as, well, opening your own roadside attraction, on a road deep in the heart of Imperial County’s ag fields that even Google Maps has trouble locating, dedicated to nothing but antique cars and assorted automotive accessories.

Johnny Cloud, whose eponymous museum sits on a significant wedge of land surrounded on all sides by row upon row of lettuce, says on the phone that you can’t miss the place, once you finallyfigure out where York Road starts somewhere outside of the (by comparison) metropolis of Winterhaven. A large, hand-painted sign greets you: “CLOUD MUSEUM: Over 120 Vintage Vehicles.” So, too, does one of Cloud’s border collies, Jack, who’s lying in the mud just off the roadside.

You pass through a corrugated tin fence and, here it is, rows of old-timey vehicles, some rusted and rickety, others refurbished to a gleam. Here, too, comes Cloud, adjusting his straw cowboy hat and kicking mud off his boots.

His handshake is firm, and you can feel the rough callouses that denote years of toil. Truth is, though, Cloud, 71, doesn’t farm anymore. His days of growing cotton, alfalfa and wheat are long past. He leased the acreage out to big national agriculture companies almost 25 years ago. That, it turns out, is one reason he turned to collecting antique automobiles. The others – preserving the memory of his father, and trying to reclaim his lost youth – he’ll gladly tell you about.

“I got a Model-T Ford out back that belonged to my father,” he said. “I collected two or three Model Ts when I was in school and stuff and on the Indian reservation in the desert. And I sold them when I started chasing the girls. I always regretted it. They’d sure be worth a lot more (now) than what I sold ’em for. One I sold for $75, a complete Model-T.”

A rueful head shake, but he continues.

“You ask why I built this? After I leased my farm out, I just about went crazy with nothing to do. So I started collecting junk, and this is what I ended up with after 25 years collecting.”

Junk? Hardly. Untold dollars went into these early-model car purchases, so there’s got to be some pride of ownership there. And Cloud, like the archetypal laconic farmer, nods and says, “Proud of all of them.”

That’s when Cloud leads you past muddy rows of rusted cars into the covered portion of the “museum,” where rebuilt and lovingly detailed cars from the 1920s and ’30s reside, safe from the elements.

He stops in front of an off-white truck with black fenders, grill and trim and a polished wooden bed behind the boxy enclosed cabin. A sign draped around the hood ornament reads:

“Make: Ford

Model: ‘TT’ Closed Cab Truck

Year: 1926-27

Price New: $515

History: This truck belonged to my father in Yuma, AZ.”

Unbidden, Cloud launches into an anecdote.

“Eighty-one years ago, my parents lived in the Yuma valley, southwest of Yuma. My mother started labor one night. My dad jumped in the old truck, started it up, went into town, told the doctor. The doctor came up to the house and delivered my sister – she’s 10 years older than me – and, luckily, it was a moonlit night because his headlights were all burnt out. That’s a true story. My dad couldn’t afford headlight bulbs.”

He only laughs when you ask if the truck is rare and valuable.

“Oh, no,” he says, “it’s not. It was just my dad’s.”

Which, actually, makes it not only rare and valuable but one of a kind. But Cloud doesn’t seem the kind of guy bent on introspection or into philosophizing, so you don’t argue.

“Here is one of my rarest, a 1922 Chevrolet Model T truck,” he said, moving down a row of gleaming chassis. “When I found the thing, I contacted the Chevy club, and they said they only knew of five still in existence. There may be more that they don’t know about, but it’s still rare.”

You keep wanting to bring up monetary figures, but Cloud won’t bite.

“Yeah, it’s probably worth something,” he said. “I just find (cars) anywhere and everywhere. You never know. I don’t do the Internet. I go to four swap meets a year in California – San Diego, Long Beach, Riverside and Bakersfield. These are put on by antique car clubs. They have the old stuff. I have no idea how much I’ve spent. I keep no records. It’s a hobby. I just buy something if I like it and put it in here.”

Interesting that Cloud eschews the Internet, because his museum has a handsomely designed website touting his collection and giving all-important directions to the place.

“I don’t know anything about computers or the Internet,” Cloud said, “but a neighbor down here, his grandson came to visit down here (in 2007). He came to the museum. He likes old cars, and he just put a Web page up there. He does Web pages for congressmen back in Washington, so I guess he knows what he’s doing.”

Has it drawn visitors to his attraction?

Cloud shrugged, and scratched the wet coat of his other border collie, Jill, tagging alongside.

“Guess so,” he said. “It’s not really about drawing people.”

For Cloud, it’s all about the memories, of his father and of his own youth, and a way to spend his present and look forward to the future.

Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145, @SamMcManis

If you go

Cloud Museum

1398 York Road, Bard