Cover: This is the top-rated tourist attraction in Columbus, Ohio

Joel Oliphint

There’s a long, narrow building at the corner of East Kossuth Street and South Washington Avenue, a couple of blocks west of Parsons Avenue on the South Side of Columbus. If you’ve ever driven by it, you probably didn’t notice it.

The concrete block on the building’s exterior is a dull gray-brown, stained black in spots, and the boarded windows are painted white. There’s no business sign, but next to a garage door there’s a small placard with a phone number and three words: “Open by Appointment.”

Since last summer, that nondescript building has been the No. 1 attraction in Columbus on TripAdvisor, beating out the travel website’s 120 other listings, including destinations like Ohio Stadium, Franklin Park Conservatory and Easton Town Center. “This is a must do for everyone in Columbus or visiting,” raved a visitor last month, awarding another 5 out of 5 rating to this secretly popular spot: the Wagner-Hagans Auto Museum. 

Technically, the TripAdvisor listing is out of date. For the past year and a half, the museum’s official name has been the Wagner-Jaybird Auto Collection (more on that later). But you won’t find either name on the Experience Columbus website. In fact, until a recent phone call, reps from the city’s tourism bureau didn’t know the place existed.

For the past couple of years, Columbus has landed on a new list seemingly every week. Recently The New York Times named Columbus among 52 places to go in 2019, touting the city’s trendy restaurants, a driverless shuttle along the Scioto Mile and a “booming downtown.” Food and Wine called Columbus a place to go and eat in 2019.

TripAdvisor also recently listed Columbus as one of the top 20 places to visit in the United States in 2019, which means a former Schumacher Place auto body shop has somehow become one of the website’s don’t-miss attractions nationwide. So how, exactly, did this car collection rise to the top?

There was no secret marketing blitz. No one gamed the TripAdvisor system or mounted a prank-vote campaign a la “Boaty McBoatface.” It’s merely the result of free tours given by a friendly 69-year-old mortgage lender named Steve Wagner.

In the early afternoon of the first Friday in January, a young couple from Cincinnati is finishing a tour of the car museum. The two are heading to Canal Winchester for a weekend stay at the Doghouse, BrewDog’s new craft beer hotel. But this is their first stop. 

“Thank you so much. That was a wonderful tour,” the man says to tour guide Steve Wagner. “Next time we’re up here I’m bringing my dad.”

As the couple is leaving, I ask how they found out about this place. “I looked up things to do in Columbus, and this was the first thing that popped up on Google,” the woman says.

“We never get people from Columbus. People in Columbus don’t look up things to do in Columbus,” says Wagner, who recommends the couple stop by Schmidt’s Sausage Haus for a cream puff and then gives them a short history of German Village.

Walking into Wagner’s museum feels a bit like Dorothy waking up in Oz. The exterior grays and whites give way to vibrant reds, blues and greens. Thirteen vintage cars create a corridor of chrome, while gas station paraphernalia, road signs and hundreds of colorful license plates from all over the world wallpaper the white cinder block. 

Wagner loves cars, of course. His collection boasts a baby blue 1956 Chrysler Imperial, a navy blue 1956 Cadillac, an ember red 1958 Edsel Ranger and a white 1956 Lincoln Mark II, the most expensive American-built production car that year. But the license plates get just as much attention on these one-hour tours.

Wagner collects single-digit plates from around the world, and he owns the rights to two such plates from Ohio — “U” and “E.” “To actually have the ownership rights to the plate is really, really, really hard to do,” Wagner said. “I had ‘J,’ but my buddy John really wanted it bad, so I let him have it. I’m a nice guy.”

Wagner displays plates from all over the globe (organized by continent), mistake plates (blanks, wrong colors) and Ohio plates from every year, plus license plates from the days when cities, not states, issued them; a 1906 brass Cincinnati plate would likely go for thousands on eBay.

“When you collect license plates, you’re supposed to collect them from every state in the union and Canada the year you were born. This one was really hard to get,” Wagner said, pointing to a Louisiana plate. “Louisiana makes you turn in your old plates before they’ll give you new plates, and they’re literally not out there. That was very expensive, unfortunately. But you can’t have all but one! What would people say?” 

Wagner grew up poor in Southeast Ohio and loved cars as a kid. His parents insisted he and his siblings go to college, so he found his way to Bliss College, a former business school in Downtown Columbus, and got his first job with Huntington Bank. Over time, he found he could afford to buy more than one car. “Before you know it, I’m out of control on cars,” he said. “Your garage is full, so you buy a small warehouse. And then that’s not big enough, so you buy a bigger warehouse. I’m not married, you see. I do as I please. So I just buy what I want. But you get to the point that you got to stop because there’s no place to put them.”

Back in 1988, Wagner closed a mortgage for Mark Hagans. The two hit it off and became friends, and in 2008 they bought the 4,100-square-foot, 1930 former auto body shop on East Kossuth Street for $130,000; Hagans said they spent about $20,000 rehabbing the space that would become the Wagner-Hagans Auto Museum.

“I’d always wanted to open a museum since I was practically a teenager. It was kind of a pipe dream. This was my chance,” said Hagans, a used car dealer, auctioneer and vehicle appraiser. “I thought, ‘Well, this would be a nice place, and I can bring my friends down here.’ I just never thought it would go any further than that.”

From the start, Hagans said Wagner was more focused on visitors than he was, so Wagner handled most of the occasional tour duties. Then, about five years ago, a couple from Boston toured the collection and asked Wagner if they could put the museum on TripAdvisor. “I said, ‘Go ahead!’” Wagner said. “Well, my God. The phone just rings.”

The TripAdvisor listing provides the museum’s address and Wagner’s cellphone number (no email) and indicates the tours are by appointment only. A photo gallery gives the flavor of the place, which has earned a “Certificate of Excellence” from TripAdvisor — a designation given to spots that “consistently earn great reviews from travelers.” In May of last year the museum was in the No. 2 spot, and sometime over the summer it hit No. 1. According to TripAdvisor’s Molly Burke, the ranking is based on “an algorithm which factors in traveler reviews — including quality, quantity and recency of reviews — and the consistency of those reviews over time.” (The museum had 137 reviews as of early February.)

Wagner has hosted visitors from 31 countries, and he said he gives around 300 tours a year — all free, though there’s a donation box. As the tours picked up, Hagans felt ready to break out on his own. He owns 28 cars, 18 of them Packards, which were made between 1899 and 1956. It’s an older, history-based collection, and he wanted more room for his cars. He also had a different vision for the museum than Wagner. 

“I wanted it to look more like an old dealership. He just wanted to wallpaper everything,” Hagans said. “He wanted something to look at everywhere.”

And the tours. There were just so many of them. “It went crazy, and I was kind of like, ‘Maybe we should put the brakes on this a little bit,’” Hagans aid. “He just went to town with it.” 

About four years ago, Jay Borman and his wife were interested in purchasing a house near the museum. “When we first looked at the house I was like, ‘Oh, God. What’s that dingy warehouse building next door?’” Borman said. But after noticing the door open and then touring the space, his fears were assuaged. He and his wife moved in and got to know Wagner and Hagans. 

About a year and a half ago, when Hagans was itching to move his collection to a new, larger space about 20 miles north of Polaris (Packard Columbus: The Hagans Auto Museum), the partners approached Borman about becoming Wagner’s new partner. He enthusiastically agreed, so the museum became the Wagner-Jaybird Auto Collection. But there was a hiccup: Nobody could figure out how to change the TripAdvisor listing without losing years of reviews. So the old name remains, and nobody seems to mind.

Borman’s military-influenced collection takes up the back end of the museum. After finding out his grandfather drove a jeep in World War II, Borman, his dad and his brother bought and restored a 1943 Ford GPW jeep, and the collection grew from there to include other jeeps, motorcycles, a weapons carrier and more.

“Steve has a lot of veterans who’ve come through, and they’re not really expecting to see some of that stuff,” said Borman, who works for Express in the marketing department.

Borman happily plays a behind-the-scenes role. Wagner, who looks every bit the part of a 60-something mortgage lender in loafers, dark pants and a button-down, remains the face of the museum, giving visitors pretty much the same tour filled with stories behind the cars and pieces of memorabilia, some of which are personal to Wagner, like his speeding ticket from the Autobahn in Germany. 

During the tour, a gutted 1948 TV plays eight hours’ worth of vintage car commercials as Wagner moves from item to item, segueing between stories with “Anyway, so…” or “So, anyway…” and wrapping up the tour with, “So, that’s all I know.” 

He doesn’t quite know how to explain the sky-high online ratings. “They seem to like my personality, my enthusiasm,” said Wagner, who often posts on Facebook about new, interesting visitors to the museum. 

“It’s not just the tour,” Borman said. “It’s also this collection of people that have come to visit over the years. He collects cars, and he collects visitors.”

Hagans can’t account for the popularity of the museum aside from the “over-the-top friendly” nature of his friend. “It’s a great little place,” Hagans said, “but I think the difference is Steve. They like him.”

The experience Wagner has created is as DIY and personal as it gets. Even at No. 1, it’s still a secret. It feels like a surprise. And it’s not a commercial venture.

“If you look at the other things on TripAdvisor in the top 10, it’s the Arena District or Easton or whatever. They’re all bigger, institutional destinations. This is Steve talking to people and telling them stories,” Borman said. “In many ways, he’s like a shaman back from 200 years ago who’s going to verbally tell stories, and that one-on-one connection, people really respond to that. … To just focus on this one person telling these stories like they would have back in the day, I think it hits this human communication thing that resonates with people.”

There’s something quaint and small-town about an amiable mortgage lender talking about his cars landing at the No. 1 spot above Columbus’ titans of tourism. It’s not exactly the image the city is trying to project. But in a call with Experience Columbus staffers Amy Tillinghast and Megumi Robinson, they suggested the collection could be a microcosm of Columbus itself — a hidden gem within a hidden gem.

Perhaps that’s giving the city too much credit, perhaps it’s not. Columbus has long been cursed by its generic name, but that lack of name recognition also allows it to hide in plain sight, not unlike a roomful of shiny cars gift-wrapped in stained concrete. And inside that unassuming structure, with fluorescent lights hanging from a polystyrene foam ceiling, visitors don’t get glossy brochures or promotional USB sticks. The place isn’t part of a marketing campaign that’s trying to put Columbus “on the map.” It’s just some cool cars and an affable guy with some extra time and money and an encyclopedic knowledge of license plates, and he wants to tell you some stories.