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May 25, 2012

News & Features

LeMay's grand opening will be a celebration of Americana

Special to NWautos

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LeMay employees stand among the classic cars in the new museum's main hall. It opens June 2. (Photos by Jeff Layton/Special to NWautos)

There's a $1.5 million Duesenberg sitting in the lobby of the new LeMay auto museum in Tacoma. But it's cars like the collection's 1983 Mercury station wagon that tend to stop people in their tracks.

That's because the collection at LeMay — America's Car Museum appeals to the heart as much as the head, staffers say.

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A LeMay employee preps a car before the museum's grand opening. The museum takes pride in its diversity of vehicles, and displays autos from different eras next to each other.

"It's America's story," says museum CEO David Madeira. "It's about Americans. 'Grandpa had that car. I took a road trip in that car. I made out in that car.' "

The new museum, a $60 million, 165,000-square-foot structure that sits next to the Tacoma Dome, opens to the public on June 2.

The spruce-and-glass shrine to the auto will show about 170 vehicles at a time. The museum owns or contracts 700 autos, and displays will rotate. The complex also has space for driving simulators, an on-site service area, a movie theater, a slot-car race track and, outside, a 3.5-acre show field.

Most of the vehicles inside come from Harold LeMay's personal collection. Before his death in 2000, the Tacoma garbage tycoon earned the Guinness Book of World Records title for largest personal collection of vehicles, topping more than 3,500 at one point.

If you go
  • Opening weekend events include a car show and go-kart races outside the museum. There will be a free concert by Asleep at the Wheel June 2 at 5 p.m. Museum doors open at 11 a.m. on June 2 and 10 a.m. on June 3.
  • Admission: $14 for adults; $12 for those 65 and older; $8 for children ages 5-12; free for children under 5.
  • Online: lemaymuseum.org
  • View more photos of the LeMay's $60-million venue.

He was known to pull over on country lanes and buy someone's car simply because he liked the way it looked. And his interest in diversity means the museum is stocked with vehicles that evoke strong emotions.

Strolling the ramps of the museum, you'll see a 1930 Ford Model A sitting near a 1945 Willys military Jeep. A 1949 Crosley Hot Shot is down the hall from a motorized car used in "The Flintstones" movie. A 1915 Crane-Simplex once owned by John D. Rockefeller is a short walk from a pair of DeLoreans and a vintage scooter.

Madeira says it's challenging for car museums to survive into the second generation: "Many people see a collection and say, 'That's great, now I've seen the cars,' and they never go back."

By providing a place for visitors to relish in nostalgia, the LeMay museum hopes to attract visitors for generations to come.

"Everybody has that car memory — the car you took to college, or the car that was the bane of your existence," says Scot Keller, chief marketing and communications officer.

"We are loath to say, 'This one's important and this one's not,' " he says. "You decide."

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