Ladies and gentlemen, start your turnstiles!

An estimated 10,000 people launch the $65 million LeMay — America’s Car Museum, and Tacoma’s dream becomes a shiny reality, visible from space


The Gods smiled on 15 years of hard work in Tacoma, Wash., on the first Saturday in June, as 3,000 people and 500 cars assembled outside the LeMay — America’s Car Museum for opening ceremonies, under a threatening sky.

Divine providence intervened promptly at 10 a.m. (not for the first time, backers would say), and clouds and intermittent rain were replaced by bright sunshine. The plenipotentiaries were all seated under cover, but the common folks got a better experience, which is as it should be at a museum that is directed at them. In all, an estimated 10,000 people attended opening day, with about 1,000 at three parties the night before

The LeMay museum (named “America’s Car Museum” to distinguish it from the LeMay family’s remaining small collection) will be a test of reach and grasp. Of its reach there is no doubt – a $65 million, 165,000-square-foot building on four floors, whose avowed aim is to illuminate the link between Americans and their  cars through individual stories. The grasp will be how to keep visitors returning.

The new building is arresting – a collapsed worm of corrugated aluminum that looks like Ridley Scott crashed a spaceship alongside Interstate 5, just missing the Tacoma Dome. Its gleaming roof is a symbol of the hard-scrabble port city’s revival. Harold LeMay began his 3,500-car collection (at one time the world’s largest) by salvaging cars from people’s backyards and fields in the course of his garbage and scrap business.

Lots of people have a stake in this. Harold LeMay’s delightful widow Nancy gave $15 million to jump-start the project, the City of Tacoma donated the land and the State of Washington gave $3 million in job credit funds. Perhaps the biggest coup, as it turned out, was snagging David Madeira as President and CEO. Previously known for raising $1 billion (yes, that is a B) for the University of Illinois, Madeira was intrigued with the challenge of finding $65 million to build the museum. On Saturday he was able to say he had done it.

So much for the Promethean task, what about the museum? It’s a remarkably sensible layout by architect Alan Grand of Grant Price in Los Angeles. The four levels are accessed by sloping galleries at the side, like the interior of a parking garage, which makes changing exhibits relatively easy. Walls are covered with history and Getty images about cars, designers and drivers. There are audio and video programs, and angled benches make for level seats, which a good idea when the museum walk is a third of a mile.

Ken Gross selected the opening display of about 100 cars. Formerly the curator of the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, the avuncular Gross has been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for 24 years and is a fixture at top-class shows. A respected 40-year automotive journalist – who explains cars to the readers of Playboy – Gross has a “pretty terrific Rolodex” and his connections led to vehicle loans from mega-collectors like Bruce McCaw, Jon Shirley and Nicola Bulgari. Gross snagged the unique 1934 Edsel Ford Model 40 Speedster for the opener, and Jay Leno popped by for dinner.

Gross presented Madeira with 50 ideas for themed exhibits that connect Americans to automobiles – even the Ferrari show ties Enzo to his biggest market through Luigi Chinetti. Likewise, the British Invasion focuses on the 1950s and 1960s Jaguar, MG and Triumph sports cars as part of the American experience.

The Indianapolis Speedway museum loaned six racers, including two jewel-like Millers from 1925 and 1930; the Cummins diesel that ran the 1931 500 without refueling; Harry Miller’s last design, the rear-engine 1938 Gulf Miller; and Smokey Yunick’s mindboggling 1964 “offset” roadster, in which the driver sat to one side in a sidecar.

Designer Nicola Bulgari lent a 1934 Art Deco Studebaker and 1935 Hupmobile, displayed not far from the “heavy metal” custom coachwork category that included a 1931 Duesenberg, 1933 Mercedes Benz 380 SS roadster, 1934 Bugatti and 1934 Cadillac V-16 coupe.

Harold LeMay’s own cars have been trimmed to the 1,500 best, which will rotate through the central galleries. Visitors will see 100 years of cars and trucks that they might have owned (though probably not the 1948 Tucker, 1924 Rickenbacker or 1953 Kaiser Dragon with the “bambu” trim). Count the times you hear people say, “I had one of these …”

There’s also the Club Auto, a platinum membership for collectors who can actually keep cars there, and the overall donor list is impressive. Upcoming events include a huge August motorcycle gathering, involving London’s Ace Café, and the Kirkland Concours in September.

Visitors should begin with Michael May’s 17-minute film about the museum, shown in the basement theater. Board members tell delightful stories, and perhaps the best comes from Larry and Diane Bloomer, discussing the restoration of one of their longtime cars.

Such bright spirits have brought the project this far, but there’s a long road ahead. Target attendance is in excess of 400,000 visitors a year, with $34 million anticipated annual income.

However the LeMay America’s Car Museum is probably visible from space, and as Nancy LeMay said: “I think Harold’s looking down and saying, ‘Well done.’”

LeMay — America’s Car Museum
Address: 2702 East D. St., Tacoma, WA 98421. Tel. 253-779-8490
Summer: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 7 days a week (Memorial Day-Labor Day).
Winter: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Admission: Adult – $14; Senior (Age 65)/Student/Military – $12; Youth (Age 5-12) – $8; Child (Under 5) – Free. Group Entrance Fee: Adult Groups (10 or more) – $10; School Groups (10 or more) – $5. The museum is wheelchair accessible, but does not offer wheelchairs for use

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