Harold and Nancy LeMay loved classic and collector cars and the culture surrounding them so much that they gathered more than 3,000 vehicles and thousands of pieces of memorabilia and built the largest private collection of its kind in the world. In an effort to preserve this important collection and share it with the world, they decided they must build and endow a museum.
Harold died unexpectedly in 2000 during the early stages of planning but his widow continued to lead a dedicated team that shared the vision through a variety of difficulties, including the worst downturn in the U.S. economy since the Great Depression. That crisis dried up funding, particularly relating to suchh not-for-profit projects, and the very survival of the project was uncertain for a few years.
But the team surmounted those challenges and the LeMay Museum in Tacoma, Washington opened to the public in June, 2012, immediately becoming one of the premier auto museums in the country.
Close to a dozen special and permanent displays greet visitors as they wander through a parking-ramp style traffic pattern down and back up winding ramps. Interspersed, we find open storage of many of the LeMay collection’s vehicles that are not included in the themed displays.
Some of the current themes include: American Muscle, Ford F-Series trucks, Route 66: Dream of the Mother Road, British Invasion, Legends of Motorsports, Classics and Custom Coachwork and Alternative Propulsion.
Many of the special exhibits come and go as the museum presents new displays to keep the collections fresh and interesting.
The innovative and award-winning architecture came about as the team explored not just methods of displaying historic automobiles but what is being done in successful entertainment and retail venues as well. The result is a traffic pattern through the display space like we’ve not seen before, including interactivity and unusually effective art and annotation that both tell the related stories and add a large measure of interest to the special displays.
The museum’s curator, Scot Keller, was in charge of General Motors’ international auto show exhibits during an earlier career and has been with the museum since its first design explorations.
Different levels of memberships are available and some of the more high-end options even include the ability to display one’s own car in a special corner of the museum. A highly talented staff works with hundreds of volunteers to make a visit to the LeMay special including daily opportunities to ride around the extensive grounds in one of the museum’s special cars.
LeMay – America’s Car Museum is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, when it is closed.
For other details, see the museum’s website.
Photos by Steve Purdy