Some women want jewelry. Some want a handbag. But when it was Janet Cussler’s birthday, her husband, the late author Clive Cussler, knew just what he wanted to get her.
It was a 1917 Ahrens-Fox fire engine.
“I was very excited,” she says when he gave her the surprise. “And I was very appreciative. But I said, ‘It doesn’t fit in my jewelry box.’ Without missing a beat, he says to me, ‘Well, get a bigger box!’”
And so, the couple, who met in 2005 and married in 2008, did just that—in a way.
Clive, an adventure novelist known for his thrillers and who was often listed on The New York Times best-seller list, had long been an avid automobile collector. At the time the couple met, he already owned more than 150 classic cars and ’50s convertibles, a collection now owned by his children and housed in the Cussler Museum in Colorado.
Janet’s background was in fine art and art history, and after Clive introduced her to the collectible car world, she was soon also “bitten by the bug.”
“It’s not hard to go from a Picasso or a Calder to a rolling piece of artwork like this,” she says. “And I did. I just got bit. I got very enthusiastic.”
By the time Clive gave her the fire engine, the couple had also already amassed an extensive collection together in Arizona. In fact, they had put up temporary tents on their sport courts at their Paradise Valley home, where they were living full time—Clive was from Colorado—to house some, while others were in storage.
“We’d just put them into storage, and I hadn’t thought much about it,” Janet says. “But then when the fire engine came, I looked at him like, really? I mean, what does one do with a ginormous 1917 fire engine?”
Their answer was the unique location that is now the Janet Cussler Car Collection, located in nondescript buildings in the Scottsdale Airpark.
“We got one space, then outgrew it, got another, outgrew it, and now have three,” she says, laughing.
Today, the space houses 50 rare and collectible cars, grouped by era—and the fire engine, of course. There are also strategically placed mannequins, dressed in authentic clothing of the era of the vehicles (which Janet curates), displayed throughout.
Included in the collection are a 1902 Oldsmobile, a 1906 Packard that’s the 22nd oldest known Packard, and an unrestored 1914 car that still runs.
“It has its own electrical system and is one of the first cars that had an electrical starter in it,” she explains.
Janet says that she and Clive, who passed in 2020, enjoyed sharing the cars, so they turned this area into an event space.
Available for rent, the space fits 125, although she notes that they’ve held dinners for up to 200 by using the alleyway space between the two buildings.
“We’ve done board meetings and cocktail parties, and I also like to provide the space for charity events,” she says.
A small library area—stocked with Clive’s books, of course—also provides a perfect locale for a more intimate gathering, such as a small meeting or a VIP meet-and-greet before a gala.
Janet still collects cars and is very involved in the collectible market. She oversees the restoration of the cars she owns, a process that can take years per vehicle, she explains.
And, she continues the practice she and Clive had of taking the cars out on the road. Yes, they are road-worthy, and you can sometimes find her driving them around the Airpark or down Shea Boulevard, heading toward Fountain Hills.
Over the years, the couple enjoyed attending classic car auctions together—although their mutual love of cars wasn’t always advantageous, Janet shares.
“Once, [we were] at a Gooding auction, and the auctioneer was very well known, very proper, very British … Once he gets a room going, he never stops,” she recalls. “And during this auction, he actually stopped. He leans forward and says, ‘Everybody, just wait a minute’—and you just don’t do that in the middle of an auction—and he leans over the podium …” Janet pauses for emphasis. “And he says, 'Mrs. Cussler, you are bidding against Mr. Cussler!'"
The Cusslers did get the car.
“I really enjoyed [the auctions], and I enjoyed watching him and his passion,” Janet says. “And I think that was part of it because he loved them so, and you could see the passion, and I could, too. It was wonderful. We had a good time.”
“It’s not hard to go from a Picasso or a Calder to a rolling piece of artwork like this,” Cussler says.