A Visit to LeMay – America’s Car Museum
By Kevin Miller
I consider myself a car guy to the core. That said, my knowledge of cars built much before the late 1970s is not very good. Most cars produced later than that I can easily identify by sight or sound, but the first eighty-or-so years of automotive history happened before I was born, and much like world history, I haven’t taken the time to learn about most early vehicles.
That being said, a visit to the LeMay Museum at Maryhill in Tacoma, Washington is a thrill, allowing me to experience unfamiliar cars from different eras in automotive design. The museum showcases vehicles collected by Harold LeMay, a Tacoma-area businessman whose primary businesses were towing and waste collection. Together with his wife, Nancy, the LeMays amassed the largest privately owned collection of automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, other vehicles and related memorabilia in the world. At its peak, the LeMay Collection held more than 3,000 vehicles and thousands of artifacts, and was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as such.
When Harold LeMay began his auto collection, it was housed in buildings on their family estate. As the collection grew, Harold LeMay began to store the cars in buildings around the Tacoma area. He eventually purchased the Marymount campus in South Tacoma from a Catholic order that ran a boarding school there. The school and its grounds have been the home of the collection for a decade, and now offer venues for group events and large concours-style car shows. The LeMay museum also has an in-house restoration shop, which restores cars from the family’s collection.
I was fortunate to be able to visit the LeMay museum with my five-year-old daughter on Fathers’ Day weekend, with fellow members of the Northwest Saab Owners Club. Heavy rain and cold temperatures kept turnout low, which gave our small tour group plenty of time to appreciate the cars on our private tour.
Most of the vehicles in the collection are in what the museum refers to as “viewable storage”, meaning that they can be seen but not walked around. These buildings keep the cars out of the weather and are equipped with lights, but are not heated, meaning visits to the museum during winter months are cold. Most of these vehicles are very clean, though certainly not in concours condition.
Our tour started off in the Green Building, one of two “viewable storage” buildings we were able to explore; it was amazing to see. The first cars inside of the door were a 1986 Zimmer Quicksilver, and a 1986 Pontiac Fiero. As it turns out, the Quicksilver is based on the Fiero, and shares much of its shape and interior. I had no idea- but then again I’d never seen a Zimmer Quicksilver before.
Other vehicles in the collection that interested me included: 1953 Kaiser Dragon, 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia Camper, 1964 Ford Econoline Wagon Travel Wagon, 1982 AMC Concord GT Sundancer (yes, a targa-topped AMC Concord 2-door), 1963 Imperial Crown Convertible, and the 1951 Frazer Vagabond (essentially the first hatchback car).
After touring the Green Building, we moved on to the White Building, which was completed within the last year and features storage racks along one side to store vehicles. This building also has space for processing vehicles being added to the collection; such vehicles seen there included a 1950s era Mercedes SL coupe, an amazing Ford Crown Victoria from sometime in the 1950s, a Citroen 2CV work truck, and a 1968 Pontiac Firebird Convertible.
Our tour finished in LeMay Hall, one of the Marymount school’s original buildings including auditorium, gymnasium, and swimming pool. Some very rare and beautifully restored vehicles are displayed in LeMay Hall, including a 1948 Tucker (the seventh Tucker made and one of 47 surviving), a 1912 Standard Electric (which got 100 miles on a charge at speeds up to 30 MPH, with a charger the size of a refrigerator a tiller for steering, and a price three times as expensive as contemporary gas vehicles), a 1906 Ford Model N, 1899 Baldwin Steamer, 1949 Kaiser Deluxe four-door convertible in Indian Ceramic (pink), and a 1947 Cadillac custom pickup (predating the Escalade ESV by about 60 years, built to a very high standard from a retired hearse or ambulance for use on an Arizona ranch).
While I still lack a strong knowledge of most cars built before the 1980s, my visit to the LeMay Museum exposed me to a huge collection of classic vehicles, many of which are huge, pointy, chrome-accented works of art. A photo gallery of some of the cars follows, though the collection is exceedingly difficult to photograph because of poor lighting in many of the rooms, and because most of the vehicles are parked so close together in their “viewable storage”. This is set to improve when the museum completes construction of its new facility in downtown Tacoma, which will include space to showcase many of the vehicles as well as grounds to host car shows and club gatherings. With projected completion by Autumn 2011, the LeMay Museum will be a premier destination for getting a close-up look at classic vehicles.