ON THE OUTSKIRTS of downtown San Rafael sits a large brick warehouse. Though its exterior may not draw much attention, inside is a wonderland of vintage tchotchkes and classic automobiles. It’s not exactly a secret but enigmatic nonetheless; there’s nothing in Marin quite like the Rafael Auto & Collectible Museum.
Did you know there’s a Batmobile in town? We’re not talking about a toy; this is the real thing. If you turn the ignition, it drives. If you push a button, flames shoot from the rear. Perhaps you’ve seen collector Sheldon Donig driving the streets in this faithful replica of Batman’s wheels. If not, you’ll find it at the Rafael Auto & Collectibles Museum — Donig’s warehouse devoted to pop culture ephemera from the last century. Now 72, Donig has been collecting things since he was a teenager; his museum artifacts include smiley-face curios and dangerous toys once marketed to children. The longtime Fairfax resident is also notably gifted in his ability to repair and refurbish complex machinery. Often working without a guide of any kind, Donig has rebuilt everything from Lamborghinis and Ferraris to a car with propellers that he once successfully drove and floated at Lake Berryessa.
To step inside his museum is to be transported. The sensation is surreal. One moment you’re in San Rafael, standing on the sidewalk. The next, you’ve entered a cavernous space stuffed wall to wall with cars, display cases and neon signs. And each of the thousands of items has a story behind it. In some cases, the tale of how he came into possession of it is as memorable as the thing itself.
It would take days if not weeks to catalog every item lovingly crammed into Donig’s menagerie of toys, relics and ultra-rare cars. Fortunately, his focus on a few specific categories makes it possible to offer a detailed overview.
As for what constitutes the centerpiece of this collection, the answer is clear. In total, Donig owns around 80 cars. Though only a fraction are on view at any given time (he rotates them regularly), each vehicle offers an insightful or eccentric glimpse into the evolution of the automotive industry.
Take his 1911 Cadillac hearse. As far as Donig knows, it’s the earliest Cadillac hearse still in existence. He found it behind a movie house in Texas and rebuilt the engine. “I drive it around on Halloween,” he says. Another highlight is his 1913 REO Speed Wagon, a model introduced by Ransom E. Olds (aka REO) after he was ousted as head of Oldsmobile.
The story of how Donig came to own a 1921 Locomobile begins with a series of mysterious faxes from someone in Chicago. “We faxed back and forth for probably six months,” he recalls. “Finally, he told me to come out to Wilmette, Illinois.” After agreeing to a price, Donig flew there. It wasn’t long before he began to suspect this particular Locomobile had almost certainly been in a Mafia shoot-out. Eventually, the son of the mobster in question would confide that his late father had dearly loved the car and the son had sought out Donig to try and get it into worthy hands.
Other notable displays include life-size replicas of a Hot Wheels racer and the before-mentioned Adam West–era Batmobile with a “KAPOW” license plate.
Of all the things Donig has meticulously amassed, perhaps the strangest are his display cases full of dangerous toys — for instance, small propane-powered ovens and electric grills intended for indoor use by young children. “I call them my unsafe toys,” Donig says, “because you plug them in and the coils get red hot. Everything here is either electric or it has propane power. One time, I had a party at my house and I let people go all over my house and plug these in so they could all bake their own desserts.”
Another area of the warehouse holds vintage chemistry sets containing all manner of risky and volatile components. One especially unfathomable example provides an opportunity for a child to pour molten lead into a mold; another is a miniature barbecue kit with lighter fluid and coals. “Imagine getting coals and lighter fluid in a box that says ‘safe for indoors,’ ” Donig marvels. “That company went bankrupt.”
KITSCH AND ODDITIES
Donig’s museum also features carefully curated curiosities like Garbage Pail Kids sticker cards and items from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Another section is devoted to radios that don’t look like radios; still another holds vintage circus equipment, including a majestic pipe orchestra car once used by Ringling Bros. Sitting nearby is a carnival racer, a small vehicle that staff at fairs would race for patrons to bet on. “Of course,” Donig notes, “the one that had the most bets somehow always magically lost.”
Toward the rear of the warehouse, a massive case is packed entirely with smiley-face paraphernalia — over 200 items in all. Buttons, flags and figurines together form a cosmic burst of bright yellow.
Reaching for a smiley-face vase, Donig says he plans eventually to modify it into an urn for his own remains; he already has a space reserved at San Francisco’s Columbarium. Ever the curator, he knows exactly how he wants his resting place to look. “I’m going to have a ceramicist make this a little bit bigger so it’s large enough to hold my ashes. It’s also going to have my dreads. I’ve had these dreads for probably 35 years. People recognize me that way. And then a ski cap on top of that.”
One wishes there were a way to fast-forward to that scene, to see Columbarium visitors react as they come upon a smiling urn with matching dreadlocks. It is truly fitting that when all is said and done, the most singularly incredible thing from Donig’s collection may one day be the man himself.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “A Rare Find”.
Zack Ruskin writes on music, cannabis, and culture. His bylines include Vanity Fair, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Merry Jane, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Danielle, and their cat, McCovey.