Don Laughlin's Classic Car Museum - Atlas Obscura

Don Laughlin's Classic Car Museum

Laughlin, Nevada

The gambling entrepreneur who built a city was also an avid collector of classic cars. 

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If you ever wanted to live in a town where everyone knows your name, then the story of one self-made Nevada billionaire should inspire you. Don Laughlin built his namesake city from a dusty patch in Nevada’s Tri-State region into a gaming metropolis, all the while indulging his passions for ranching, aviation, and classic cars. Today, you can visit his Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino not just for a piece of gambling history, but to browse a unique and generous collection of cars on display.

Don Laughlin was born in 1935 on a farm in Owatonna, Minnesota. A high school dropout with a love of slot machines, he saved up enough money from trapping and gambling to move to Las Vegas in 1953 after the Johnson Act of 1951 broadly banned gambling devices in other states. Laughlin bought and ran a club in North Las Vegas, but grew restless after a decade, looking for another place to strike it big. An aviation enthusiast, he spotted an abandoned motel while flying near the California-Nevada-Arizona border. In 1966, the then-isolated Riverside Resort opened to the public as a small casino in a vast desert.

The casino was an instant hit, attracting visitors from across the Tri-State region. Workers began moving to the area, enough to name a town. A postal inspector came by to meet Laughlin, demanding that he provide a name for the town. According to Don, he suggested a few options, and the postal inspector responded that Laughlin was a good name. The inspector was Irish too.

Over the decades, the town and its sister city, Bullhead City, Arizona, grew into a thriving micropolis. The Riverside Resort would be joined by other casinos, and by the 1980s, Laughlin had passed Lake Tahoe to become the fourth-largest gaming market in the country. Laughlin became fabulously wealthy, returning some of the profits to his namesake city, building the town’s airport and the bridge connecting Nevada and Arizona. And of course, the resort’s family-friendly vibe contrasted with Las Vegas, including a bowling alley, karaoke club, and what is now known as Don Laughlin’s Classic Car Museum.

The museum was originally a collection of cars owned and displayed by Don, which meant that many of the collection pieces would go on sale. Today, the museum includes both automobiles from Laughlin’s personal collection and those donated by others, as well as some other highlights, such as the motorcycle that Emilio Scotto used to set the Guinness World Record for the longest motorcycle ride. There’s also a display dedicated to Laughlin Motorsports, the racing company set up to support his off-road racer grandson, Matt. Don Laughlin, who died in October 2023 at age 92, would visit the museum well into his 80s, often just to chat with his resort patrons. They, of course, knew his name.

Know Before You Go

Don Laughlin’s Classic Car Museum is free for casino patrons with a card, but otherwise charges admission. Check the website for details. The museum is located on the third floor of the casino, and an additional showroom featuring several race cars can be found near the casino's entrance.

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