Like most car collectors, Harold LeMay started out small by bringing home something that caught his eye and joining a local club. As the story goes, the car in question was a Ford Model T, but Harold had mistakenly signed on with a club for Model A owners.
Undeterred, Harold kept both the car and the membership. But he didn’t stop there. He bought another car, and then another. By the time he passed away at 81 in 2000, Harold had amassed what The Guinness Book of World Records then listed as the largest privately-held car collection on the planet, reportedly numbering more than 3000 vehicles. Among those were about a dozen Model A Fords.
To say that Harold had eclectic taste is something of an understatement. He didn’t stick to early Fords, Chevrolets, Packards, or anything else. The collection mushroomed to include domestics and imports, encompassing everything from exotics and one-offs to sports cars, retired racers, and ordinary family sedans. As non-discriminatory a collector as you’ll find, he also found room for motorcycles, trucks, buses, tractors, bicycles, semi trailers, the odd locomotive, and whatever else caught his fancy. There’s even a Cold War-era Soviet Gaz Chaika limousine, a couple of vintage bumper cars, and a 1959 Opel built to be a gas mileage champ. (And it was, recording a claimed 376 mpg.)
Most of the collection is spread among the buildings and grounds of the former Marymount Military Academy in Tacoma, Washington, which he purchased in in the 1980s after its closing.
Not to be confused with the newer and glitzier LeMay – America’s Car Museum that is also in Tacoma, the LeMay Collections at Marymount is grittier, more cluttered, and arguably the more interesting of the two. While both institutions house cars from the LeMay collection, America’s Car Museum (ACM) features more of the jewels, carefully arranged and lit behind velvet ropes.
But the variety, presentation, and sheer number of vehicles at Marymount make it unique among car museums. It’s more like a gigantic barn find treasure trove. Many cars are in as bought condition, just as Harold found them decades ago. And they’re crammed door handle to door handle, some stacked three high on pallet racks stretching the length of a hangar-like space. You’re likely to encounter a certain amount of dust, and more than a little rust at Marymount. But the overall effect borders on vintage sensory overload, with at least one of almost everything you can imagine from the world of automobiledom. Where ACM is sanitary in its presentation, Marymount is like visiting a friend’s garage, with a more personal view of Harold and Nancy and their tastes and personalities.
“We really are the family’s collection,” Marymount spokesperson Sarah Allen says.
Many of the Marymount vehicles still wear the license plates of former owners, and some even contain their possessions. A busy collector with a business to run, it seems Harold didn’t always have time to clean out his new acquisitions.
“We’re finding stuff all the time,” Allen says. “One car actually had boxes of salt and pepper shakers in the trunk, something like 300 or 500 pairs.” Marymount staffers reached out to the former owners to try and reunite them with their shakers, but they politely passed. So the collection now includes an impressive array of salt and pepper shakers as part of its extensive assortment of other stuff.
A self-made man who spent his life in and around vehicles, Harold started working right out of high school. After starting a trash collection business with one truck after WWll, he eventually grew the business to include a fleet of trucks, buses, and tow trucks employing some 475 people. In addition to proving profitable, the day job kept Harold out on the roads and byways of greater Tacoma, where he often came across vehicles that eventually ended up in his collection. It didn’t hurt to have access to his own trucks to bring the cars home. And he wasn’t always selective.
“If it was a good deal or free, it was likely he would get it,” Allen says.
Commercial success did nothing to change his habits, only to enable more purchases. As time and resources allowed, his quest for cars took him further and further from Tacoma, and Harold became a regular at swap meets and auctions distant as Hershey, Pennsylvania. A recent tour of Marymount included a stop at one tractor trailer loaded with vehicles, including a second generation Ford Thunderbird, a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, and a 1961 Buick Electra Convertible still wearing signage from when Harold bought it. Our guide explained that Harold had brought the whole rig home from an auction in the mid 1980s, but he never quite got around to unloading it.
According to Allen, Marymount is currently home to about 500 of the 1800 vehicles remaining in the LeMay collections. The rest are stored in various area locations and warehouses nearby. Many are restored to concours condition, while others look like time capsules that have been parked indoors for 30 or 40 years. That’s because they have.
Marymount includes a restoration shop, and a hard working staff of volunteers keeps the place going by performing maintenance, leading tours, staffing the gift shop, and bringing out the operable cars for periodic exercise. Harold’s wife, Nancy, and son, Doug, are also actively involved, and can regularly be found at museum events.
If you’re a collector or enthusiast in the area or planning a visit to Tacoma, Marymount should be on your itinerary. Just make sure you allow plenty of time. The museum is open six days a week and hosts a series of special events throughout the year. More information can be found at lemaymarymount.org.