America’s Car Museum Opens Its Doors
The Pacific Northwest collection promises to connect with the car lover in us all
You don’t collect 3,000-plus cars without picking up a few stories along the way. Like the time the late Harold LeMay and a friend drove his double-decker London bus cross country, home to Tacoma, Washington, and they stopped in rural Kansas to buy five cars, plus the barn that housed them. That was Harold LeMay, hugely successful in the refuse collection industry and a car guy to his core, with the resources and inclination to pursue the cars that interested him — often on a whim — simply because of their stories.
LeMay — America’s Car Museum opened its doors in June. The event was a long time coming — 14 years, if you’re keeping score. And in that time, countless volunteers worked long and sometimes uncertain hours to build a fitting home — not just to hold the cars of Harold E. LeMay, but to pay tribute to him. But the realization of a $65 million facility fit to call itself “America’s Car Museum” is a far cry from just dreaming of it.
LeMay-ACM is an impressive structure, with an exterior of curved polished aluminum that is at once hard to define and also recognizably automotive in its basic shape: an air scoop. You enter the building as air would the scoop and there you stand on the topmost of four floors. Oregon Spruce timbers curve floor to ceiling the length of the long, open room, and brilliant light floods the space from the far end, with downtown Tacoma and Commencement Bay just beyond. This is the Grand Gallery, home to a small selection of Harold LeMay’s cars.
In all, the museum houses nearly 350 cars, which come from Harold’s own collection, now culled to a more manageable 1,500, as well as those on loan from other collectors and museums, plus cars donated to LeMay-ACM by automotive good Samaritans. The cars of the Grand Gallery are connected only in the sense that Harold LeMay owned and appreciated them: a 1907 Pierce Great Arrow, a trio of postwar pickups from the Big Three, a Hurst Olds, a 1942 “blackout” Chevy coupe devoid of brightwork due to WWII-era metal shortages, an AMC Marlin, a Duesenberg Model J, a Tucker 48. A wall display near the Marlin educates visitors on Harold LeMay and illustrates a key point not only about LeMay the man, but about the museum that bears his name: He bought his cars based not on their value or potential value, but because of their cultural and historical significance and, most importantly, the ways in which those elements affected him personally.
“Harold LeMay collected the cars of America,” says David Madeira, LeMay-ACM President and CEO. “His were the cars that tell the stories of the American experience.” That experience, says Madeira, has broad appeal. And the museum’s goal is not only to be relevant for the 10 percent of the population who consider themselves “car people,” but for the 90 percent who don’t. Because the impact of the automobile is so broad, it’s safe to say that 100 percent of us have some sort of car story.
Laid out among the four floors and six ramps that connect them are 15 galleries and seven distinct exhibits. Displayed along the ramps for the next six-or-so months you’ll find exhibits featuring cars of the Custom Coachworks (LeBaron, Dietrich, Hooper, etc.) cars of the British Invasion, cars of the Indy 500, Ferrari in America, Alternative Propulsion and more, each accompanied by informative and entertaining interpretive displays. Guest Curator Ken Gross worked closely with ACM and collectors to develop the exhibits, with an eye always toward telling a story. “The LeMay-ACM’s audiovisual effects are unlike anything you’ll see in an automotive museum,” Gross says. “Historic cars remind us of our most memorable life experiences,” he says, and his hope is that the overall result “will interest and intrigue the wide audience we anticipate will be attracted to this museum.”
LeMay-ACM staff plan to rotate exhibits and change out cars on a six-to-nine-month schedule, but they are mum on what those future exhibits might be. Future events, however, are already in the works. In addition to showing off great cars, the museum is designed with a view to hosting events in the open spaces and many meeting and conference rooms, as well as outside on the 3.5-acre Haub Family Showfield. The space has already been adopted as the new home of the Kirkland Concours.
Collections Manager Renée Crist has been instrumental in assembling the cars, and her sentiments about the classic car experience reflect those of Harold LeMay: “Everyone asks me which car is my favorite,” she says. “All of them. Each new one I get in or do the research on. I just love being around them all and the way they look and sound and smell.”
Given the size of the collection and the variety of the exhibits, if you can’t decide on your favorite car, either, a visit to America’s Car Museum should be part of your plans. If you still can’t decide after viewing hundreds of Chevrolets, Fords, Packards, Cadillacs, LaSalles, Plymouths and more, just keep returning until you can.
For more information on the museum, including location, educational opportunities, hours and admission, visit lemaymuseum.org.