On a recent visit to the museum, located on the ground floor of the School of Industrial Design—a building that was once a Dodge-Plymouth dealership—Rob Fisher had a conversation with a student: “I parked out here the other day. [If you’re curious, Fisher drives an Audi R8 to work.] I spotted students sitting on a bench and asked, ‘Are you students here?’”
“Have you ever come to the museum?”
“No, but I’ve always wanted to.”
“‘Well, why don’t you come by?’ Two days later, they were here—and they brought a friend.”
It’s with a renewed sense of welcome and accessibility that Fisher hopes to drive a relaunch of the museum as its own nonprofit foundation. The collection of 245 rare and vintage vehicles, which started with a 1920 Kissel Gold Bug, was established by the late Richard A. Stephens, former Academy of Art University president. His impressive legacy has continued with his daughter, current Academy President Elisa Stephens.
Fisher first learned about and developed a close relationship with the Academy and Elisa Stephens while he was chairman of the Hillsborough Concours, an annual vintage car show that raises money for local charities—and a show where the museum has brought cars for a number of years. Fisher even sold one of his own classics, a 1970 robin’s egg blue Mini Cooper S. He’s kept his 1960 Austin-Healey, though, which he likes to take out for a spin on monthly drives he does with his car club.
The museum counts a similar Austin-Healey among the Bugattis, Jaguars and Alfa Romeos in its collection. And Fisher hopes to bring car drives and similar programs to the museum. Ultimately, he wants to leverage what he calls “one of the most impressive prewar and postwar car collections on the planet,” providing Industrial Design students with the opportunity to study classic automobile design and craftsmanship…as well as establishing the museum as a world-class destination for San Francisco locals and tourists—“something the city can be proud of,” he says.
The New York City-born car enthusiast moved to the West Coast with his family when he was a teen, graduating from Miramonte High School in Orinda, Calif., and going on to U.C. Santa Barbara for college. At the time, Fisher drove a silver 1980 Mustang—his first car—that he calls, “not a very pretty thing.” And while he began his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering before switching to economics, he says he’d still challenge a mechanical engineer to rebuild a car engine. “I love working on them,” he says. “I have a deep passion for how machinery works.”
Two weeks into the job, Fisher admits he’s still in the early stages of establishing the museum as a nonprofit foundation, developing its membership program, and setting up a docent team. Still, he says, there are plans to show a few cars from the collection at the upcoming Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in late August.
The Academy of Art University Automobile Museum is located at 1849 Washington Street in San Francisco. For more information, visit the museum website.