Tacoma’s LeMay museum is a must for car lovers

For gearheads who want to ogle hundreds of cars without the hassle of a trip to see lesser collections in faraway museums, you can find automotive nirvana in Tacoma.

LeMay — America’s Car Museum, is the largest car museum in North America with 165,000 square feet of display space. It sits next to the Tacoma Dome with an oblong entry that resembles a giant hood scoop to drivers passing by on I-5.

The LeMay, which opened to the public in June, gathers hundreds of cars — and some glorious oddities — from the vast collection of Harold LeMay, an industrious Pierce County entrepreneur.

LeMay’s first business was a wrecking yard. In 1942, he bought a one-man garbage route. After World War II, he started buying up other garbage routes and used garbage trucks for the growing business.

At the time of LeMay’s death in 2000 at age 81, Harold E. LeMay Enterprises Inc. was the 10th largest private garbage collection business in the U.S.

A display on LeMay’s life explains that LeMay bought cars that he found interesting, not for their investment potential. He was heard to say, “I don’t go for just the dollar-value car. If it is unusual, I like it. So I am kind of a maverick, since I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Chevy, Ford or Duesenberg man. I see it, I like, I buy it.”

And so it went for decades.

LeMay had cars and trucks, thousands of them, stashed all over Pierce County. By 1998, LeMay’s 3,500 vehicles earned him a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest private antique and vintage vehicle collection.

That year, LeMay and his wife, Nancy, created a 501(c)3 charitable organization, The Harold E. LeMay Museum, now called LeMay — America’s Car Museum, and committed themselves to donating the LeMay collection to the museum for the public’s benefit. The museum’s board of directors approved the building’s design in November 2003.

Renee Crist, collection manager for the museum, said there are about 350 vehicles on display on any given day. The museum itself has fewer than 300 cars in its collection. The remainder of the cars are loaned by individual collectors, and the LeMay Family Collection, which has its own separate display of about 500 cars on the grounds of the former Marymount Military Academy in south Tacoma.

LeMay — America’s Car Museum has four floors of display space. Parked in the expansive main gallery are a few dozen cars from the LeMay Family Collection.

Check out Detroit muscle cars and pickups, brass-era relics, the seventh of 51 1948 Tucker Torpedoes and a gorgeous Duesenberg. See the excesses of a Kaiser Dragon and its mock “bambu” vinyl top, a gaudy 1958 Buick Century Caballero pillarless hardtop station wagon, and a hulking, lurid red Chrysler 300 G coupe with its oddly slanted headlights.

Round the corner and head down the first of six display ramps that link the exhibit floors. On our visit, the ramps held exquisite custom coachbuilt cars from the 1920s and ’30s, 11 cars from the collection of Italian jeweler and Buick lover Nicola Bulgari, 10 Ferraris in America (including the world’s oldest documented complete Ferrari, a 1947 166 Corsa racer), alternative propulsion cars, cars linked to the Indy 500, and a tribute to the British Invasion of the 1960s.

Crist said the Ferraris and Bulgari’s cars will be on display through the summer and possibly until the end of the year. The ramp exhibits will change regularly, she said, and museum staff are working on long-term plans for the types of cars it wants to display over the next several years.

One noteworthy car that will go on display later this year is the first 1963 Studebaker Avanti, a dramatic coupe by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy that didn’t save the Indiana carmaker from financial doom. Crist said a Tacoma dentist donated the car, which is now undergoing a full restoration to its original specifications with help from the Bellingham Studebaker Museum.

The LeMay has space to do light mechanical work on the cars the museum exhibits.

“Our primary job is preservation,” Crist said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

We spent more than two hours wandering among the cars and we still didn’t get to everything. Somehow, we missed the movie playing in the theater, the slot cars and video race simulator in the Speed Zone and the Indy 500 display.

With 350 cars to see, you need to set aside more time than we did to take in the LeMay in one trip or you’ll miss things.

It’s well worth a lingering visit.

Johnny Fink, 88, of Newton, Kan., was standing in front of a 1956 Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria and a 1965 Ford Mustang on the main exhibit floor when he recalled his first car.

“It was a 1937 Dodge,” he said wistfully. “This brings back a lot of memories. I also owned a Nash Ambassador, one of the bathtub-shaped ones, and the small Nash. Oh, what was it? A Rambler? Yes, a Rambler.”

Fink’s daughter Gerre, of Edmonds, smiled as she remembered childhood camping trips in the Nash, whose seats folded flat into a makeshift bed.

Fink proudly declared that his current car, a 1977 Datsun, is old enough to qualify for Kansas “classic car” license plates, which he recently installed.

If you go

LeMay — America’s Car Museum is at 2702 E. D St., Tacoma. From southbound I-5, take exit 133 for I-705 north toward City Center and take the first exit for the Tacoma Dome. Turn right onto E. 26th Street. Take the second right onto E. D Street. Onsite parking between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. costs $5 for three hours, $10 for six hours.

The museum is within walking distance of Sounder and Amtrak train stops.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, Memorial Day through Labor Day. Winter hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

Admission is $14 for adults; $12 for seniors (age 65 and over), students or military; $8 for youths (ages 5 to 12); free for children under 5.

See www.lemaymuseum.org/ for group rates and special discounts.

A video racing simulator costs $8 and the slot-car track is $3.

Upcoming events

LouieFest 2012: This festival celebrating music, arts and crafts will be held July 28 and 29. Special attractions will include the LeMay car collection, the 1,000 guitars event, children’s activities, food booths, vendors, and music. Go to www.louiefest.com.

Kirkland Concours d’Elegance: After 10 years, the event moves from Kirkland to its new home at Haub Family Field at LeMay — America’s Car Museum on Sept. 9. The concours features important collector cars, boats, hydroplanes and motorcycles.

Kurt Batdorf is community business editor for The Daily Herald and The Herald Business Journal. He’s also a car nut. Call 425-339-3102 or email kbatdorf@heraldnet.com.

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