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A uniquely American museum

Hundreds of vintage and historical automobiles on display at Tacoma’s LeMay America’s Car Museum

Published: 04:24PM June 7th, 2012

A light blue 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis station wagon, complete with wood panels on the side, sits next to a beige 1963 Studebaker Avanti coupe at the new LeMay America’s Car Museum, and not by accident. Museum curators used their senses of humor when placing the nearly 500 cars in the 165,000 square foot space, placing big cars next to small cars or old next to new. Sometimes it was two similar cars from different eras, sometimes it just happened. But the cars aren’t there to just ooh and awe over, they are there to tell their story, and the story of all cars on American roads whether foreign or domestic.

“You’ll see the car you went on a family road trip in. You’ll see your first car,” David Madeira, president and CEO of the museum, said.

The museum, which opened Saturday, has been an idea since the 1990s when local businessman Harold LeMay met with his attorneys to discuss the future of his extensive car collection. Many car collections are sold or disposed of after the proprietor dies, but LeMay and his family did not want that to happen. Over the years they have showcased cars in Western Washington and wanted to keep their legacy alive. But the vision for what is now the LeMay America’s Car Museum only came to be in the last 10 years.

Madeira describes an early meeting he had with the original members of the committee.

“If all we build is the story of Harold LeMay, no one will come. They will visit once or twice,” he said. “But you have something here. (LeMay) collected the cars of America and the American experience.”

So began the idea of telling the stories of the cars, not just showcasing the exceptional models.

Of Lemay’s 3,300 cars, only 770 are on loan to the museum; of those, only about 200 are on display today, but that will change over time. Museum staff plans to rotate the rest of the collection in and out of the space over time, but also bring in new exhibits with vehicles from private collections and other museums.

The first six exhibits feature cars from Edsel Ford, Nicola Bulgari, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and private collectors. One exhibit tells the story of the Ferrari, a car that Harold LeMay never owned.

The museum’s four floors are connected by six 276-foot ramps, which Madeira describes as a “road” that ties everything together. Each ramp features a different exhibit, while the main gallery space on each floor is comprised mostly of cars from the LeMay collection. Other features include a slot car raceway, theater and race simulators. Eventually there will also be a Family Zone with interactive displays for visitors of all ages, mainly children.

Cars are parked at varying angles, allowing visitors to see the interiors from behind a short, roped barrier. Plaques and wall-mounted televisions tell the story of the car and its history. A 1907 Pierce Great Arrow was driven on a cross-country trip and has a window decal for each state the family passed through. Others, like the Flintmobile, was created for the 1994 Flintstones movie, and the Edsel Ford Model 40 Speedster was custom designed for the son of Henry Ford and recently restored to its original colors and glory.

As Madeira said, “Who else gets to see (all) of these?”

The museum might sound as though it’s only for car enthusiasts, but the sheer beauty of the vehicles and stories will make a car fanatic out of anyone, at least for an afternoon. It’s hard to not reminisce about your own road trips when looking at family cars or favorite movies that feature a Ferrari or Aston Martin.

Over the coming year, the museum plans to host car shows and drive-in movies on their adjacent lawn. Staff hope to work with groups at JBLM for military car shows and special events.

“We don’t just want a military get-in-free day,” Scot Keller, chief marketing and communications officer, said. “We want to make (military families) feel like it’s their (museum) too.”

If you go

Mailing Address

2702 East D. St.

Tacoma, WA 98421


Individual Entrance Fee:

Adult - $14

Senior (Age 65)/Student/Military - $12

Youth (Age 5 to 12) - $8

Child (Under 5) - Free

Members - Free

Group Entrance Fee:

Adults (10 or more): $10

School (10 or more): $5


Winter: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Wednesday to Sunday

Summer: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

7 days a week (Memorial Day to Labor Day)

Public transportation

The Tacoma Link Light Rail transports visitors from the dome district, to the theatre district.

Seattle’s Sounder Train stops at Frieghthouse Square, blocks from ACM.