Classic collection: The autos at the LeMay museum celebrate more than perfection

Apr 13, 2009

Vistors tour the LeMay in Tacoma. The extensive car museum is expanding this year. (Photo by Jeff Layton)

Tucked away on the grounds of a former military academy in Tacoma may be one of the best-kept secrets in the automotive world.

LeMay -- America's Car Museum, part of the most extensive private automobile collection in the world, lies just south of Seattle, although few know much about it.

Shortly after World War II, Harold LeMay founded a trash-collection company that grew into a Northwest garbage and recycling empire. He funneled his profits into a car hobby that evolved into a collection of more than 3,000 vehicles spread out over 45 locations in five states. That became the cornerstone of the museum, which displays some of the best and most interesting automobiles in the portfolio.

The collection really excels when it comes to American vehicles made between 1930 and 1960. While many museums feature exotic sports cars, the LeMay Museum is the kind of place where visitors can reminisce about the old family Studebaker or cruising in their first Fairlane.

If you go
  • LeMay -- America's Car Museum, located at 325 152nd St. E. in Tacoma, is open year-round Tuesday through Saturday. Guided tours (required) are $15. Go to for more information.
  • Special events:
  • 32nd Annual LeMay Car Show and Auction, Aug. 29. The museum's biggest event of the year features more than 300 additional automobiles from the LeMay collection. A shuttle runs from the museum grounds to the family homestead.
  • Auction to benefit the LeMay Museum, Sept. 11-12. The car auction takes place at Hotel Murano in Tacoma.

I expected -- and got -- rows of brightly painted classics. What I found most interesting was the hodgepodge of fire trucks, forklifts, movie props and farm machinery that crowded the space, as well as oddballs like the 1932 Ford fitted with an experimental turbine engine from Boeing.
In other words, the museum breathes Americana.

That's not to say that there aren't some beautifully restored gems, European cars and rarities like the Tucker 48 that round out the collection. Several cars are worth well over $1 million. But the heart and soul of the collection lies in wistful nostalgia, tailfins and chrome.

Not all of the collection is in pristine condition. In fact, many of the vehicles on display remain just as they were purchased -- with scrapes, dents and the occasional bad paint job. But that only adds to the personality. It's hard to separate the collection from the man who did the collecting, and LeMay was ambitious and aggressive when buying his cars.

He bought vehicles he liked, rather than worrying about what a collector "ought to have." According to my tour guide, when something caught LeMay's eye -- sometimes in an alleyway or rotting on the side of the road -- he would often track down the owner and make an offer.

Many times, he didn't know exactly what he was getting, as in the case of the 1918 Liberty truck, which turned out to be the first vehicle with military specifications and interchangeable parts that could be produced from several manufacturers.

The LeMay Museum won't be a secret much longer. The museum is breaking ground this year for an ambitious new building adjacent to the Tacoma Dome. Plans include interactive displays, storage for collectors and a show field. It is sure to be a cornerstone of Northwest auto culture.

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