Automobile Museum director reflects on 38-year career

Jackie Frady stands by the Ford Thomas Flyer
Jackie Frady stands next to the Thomas Flyer, her favorite car in the National Automobile Museum’s collection. Photo: Tabitha Mueller

By Tabitha Mueller

For Jackie Frady, cars are not just for transportation. They are a vehicle for storytelling as well as an emblem of historical moments. Frady, who retired Nov. 2 from her role as president and executive director of Reno’s National Automobile Museum, spent nearly four decades sharing those stories and celebrating the histories of cars.

When in 1981 she accepted one-week assignment at Harrah’s Automobile Collection preparing the cars for sale after Holiday Inn acquired the hotel-casino company, Frady had thought her work would be temporary. But that assignment turned into a 38-year career she never could have anticipated.

Frady stayed on to facilitate the transition of the private auto collection into a nonprofit. In doing so, she successfully led a campaign to build a museum for the cars in downtown Reno, overcoming $10 million in construction debt and ultimately creating one of the most lauded automobile museums in the world.

Frady’s enthusiasm for cars and the stories they embody was evident; her eyes lit up and she shared engaging tales as she walked me through the museum, showing off the collection and explaining the history behind each automobile.

Early on in the tour, we stopped in front of her favorite car in the collection: the 1907 Thomas Flyer, the first car to drive around the world from New York to Paris, in 169 days.

1907 Thomas Flyer
1907 Thomas Flyer, winner of the 1908
New York-to-Paris Automobile Race.
IMAGE: National Automobile Museum

“This is a time when there weren’t roads; there weren’t road maps, there weren’t motels and restaurants along the way…[The Thomas Flyer] was the only American entry, and when it claimed that victory, it changed the whole mindset about automobiles. It was a form of transportation that was here to stay. But to me, it’s a story of the American spirit,” said Frady.

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Yes, I do know something about cars

The tenaciousness of the team that drove the Thomas Flyer to victory is not unlike the tenaciousness Frady had to employ to achieve success in an industry dominated by men.

Frady recalled that when she became the director of the automobile museum she would get calls asking for Jack, or, after hearing her voice, a Mr. Frady. She would then patiently tell them that her name was Jackie, and she was the museum director — not an assistant.

Jackie Frady
Jackie Frady.
Photo: Tabitha Mueller

Her no-nonsense, slightly rueful explanation of these encounters acknowledged the bias of people working within the automobile industry but did not fault them for it.

“[Callers] would ask, ‘Do you know anything about cars?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, I do know something about cars.’ But I never took offense. I thought, you know, I’m going to be engaged in the conversation and eventually they knew that I was qualified. I thought it would be better to focus on the purpose of my work,” she said.

Although many questioned Frady’s knowledge of cars, she quickly dispelled any doubts about her competency and established herself in the world of automobiles, forming the National Association of Automobile Museums, judging various car shows, and paving the way for other women in the industry.

It always boils down to people…This museum is here because of the community.”

Building a community of car lovers

Frady knew that not everyone is an automobile aficionado, so she set out to attract a broader, more diverse audience to the museum and show them the artistry and history behind the cars. She created changing exhibits, new programs, and featured human interest stories about the men and women behind the vehicles. “The automobile is a way to talk about history in a different format,” she explained.

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Towards the end of our conversation, Frady emphasized that her work has been part of a team effort and would not have been possible without the community in Reno.

James Bond car at the National Automobile Museum
James Bond car at the National Automobile
Museum.

“The job has been challenging, it’s been rewarding, but I think it always boils down to people. This museum is here because of the community.”

“When there was that huge public outcry to save the collection, the community fought for it. When we would go to city council meetings, and when I went to the state legislature and spoke before the senate finance committee asking for support, the room was packed with citizens that wanted this museum. And because of that, I felt a tremendous obligation to make sure that we endured for years.”

Frady shared that for the last 38 years, even though her heart and attention were wholly absorbed in her work and the community that surrounded it, she is looking forward to retiring and spending time with her family.

In the future, she plans to stay connected to the museum, but this time as a patron. She hopes people remember her as a person of integrity with devotion to the community.

“If I were to be remembered for anything, I hope they’d say I had integrity. And that is fairness, honesty, doing what’s right, sometimes taking the path that’s not the easiest, but in the end, you did it well, and you’re respected for it. And people joined you along the way.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Ford Flyer. The true name of the historic car is the Thomas Flyer.