Art cars

Robert Cinkel

Robert Cinkel stands next to his painting of the start of the New York to Paris Auto Race of 1908.

Robert Cinkel stands next to his painting of the start of the New York to Paris Auto Race of 1908.


The National Automobile Museum is open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m..

In 2012, Autoweek magazine ranked the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection), 10 S. Lake St., among the top five museums of its kind in the United States. But locals who’ve not taken the time to visit the museum may be unaware that it’s not just an attraction for car enthusiasts. It’s also a hidden gem for art lovers—thanks in large part to the museum’s resident artist, Robert Cinkel.

76-year-old Cinkel has been an artist since childhood. He grew up in Southern California and spent 45 years working as an advertising artist there and in Reno. In the early 2000s, he retired and took a part-time job at the National Automobile Museum, where he designs signage and interpretive texts to accompany the museum’s exhibits. Over the course of the last decade and a half, Cinkel has also filled the museum’s walls with several series of his large oil on canvas paintings featuring vintage automobiles, including many from the collection housed there.

“Well, you need something to do when you’re retired,” he joked.

Cinkel, a self-described history buff, often relies on vintage photographs and written accounts for the initial inspiration behind his paintings. However, his method for creating the historical scenes is distinctly modern. While many artists will draw up a study before starting a new painting, Cinkel creates his concept sketches using Photoshop. He uses the software to isolate elements from several existing photographs and combines them into a single image, which he prints on transparency film, and then magnifies and overlays on his canvas using a projector.

“You scan a bunch of pieces, and in some paintings you’ll have maybe 15, maybe 20 pieces, or more, in a painting,” Cinkel explained.

The resulting works—many on canvases measuring four-by-five feet or larger—are at once realistic and imaginative. The impressionist influence they suggest is something Cinkel first picked up while serving abroad in the Army during the late 1950s.

“We got out to Paris, France, for about four days,” Cinkel said. “About this time, I got interested in the impressionist painters, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and those guys. I was pretty impressed with the impressionist gallery in the Louvre there, and whatnot. That was a big influence on my life.”

One of Cinkel’s collections that remains on permanent display at the museum is a series he painted for the museum’s 100-year-anniversary celebration of the Great New York to Paris Automobile Race of 1908. Some of the paintings are based on old black-and-white photos taken during the race. Others Cinkel created from imagination after reading the journal kept by the driver of the winning car—the 1907 Thomas Flyer, which is also on display in the museum. The paintings depict the Thomas Flyer in locales ranging from the desolate Nevada desert to Japan, where the car was nearly as wide as the roads it traveled. An accompanying book can be purchased in the museum’s gift shop.

A few of Cinkel’s other collections are rotated in and out of the gallery located in the museum’s entry hallway. “The Century Series” features 18 paintings based on a collection of more than 5,000 vintage black and white photographs Cinkel purchased from antique stores across the West. The series was recently cycled out of the gallery to make room for another of Cinkel’s collections. “Even in Africa,” features cars from the Harrah Collection in places around the globe, including local spots like the Mackay Stadium football field and distant locales in India and Africa.

There are dozens of Cinkel’s paintings spread throughout the museum. With their large dimensions and intriguing natural and man-made backdrops, they deliver the singular impression of gazing through windows onto different scenes in both place and time.