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Tacoma Car Museum tells history of the American automobile

TACOMA – The most important car in Tacoma’s spanking new LeMay-America’s Car Museum isn’t the 1930 Duesenberg Model J or the ice-blue 1951 Studebaker that welcomes visitors through the lobby like a gleaming, four-wheeled family pet.

It’s the one that draws you to it for reasons you don’t quite understand at first. A latent childhood memory. A loved one. A time. One glance and the back of your life opens up like a garage door. And you’re gone.

“It’s the memories, the stories,” said Scot Keller, chief marketing and communications officer for the new museum. “The audience experience is set up to stir the emotions, not the head.”

Oh, but this shiny new shrine to the American automobile has been stirring up interest nationwide, and for years, as planning and funding have sputtered and restarted.

On June 2, the best of the collection owned by the late waste-management magnate Harold E. LeMay finally pulled into a new home that city and museum officials hope will draw some 425,000 visitors a year to Tacoma.

The four-story, 156,000-square-foot LeMay-America’s Car Museum is set on 9 acres of land smack across the street from the Tacoma Dome.

From the street between the two buildings, the LeMay looks like an upstart – a sleek, shiny, structure that is almost conical, but wider and flat on the bottom.

“A quarter-panel? A hood scoop?” Keller said when asked to describe the building’s exterior. “It reflects ‘automotive,’ but you can’t define it.”

The inside clearly evokes the Northwest: High, rounded ceilings of exposed Oregon spruce that look both warm and industrial.

LeMay, after all, has a long history here.

Before he died in 2000, Harold LeMay turned a good part of his waste-disposal fortune into four-wheeled fancies. He bought practically everything that caught his eye – entire fields of metal, sometimes – eventually amassing some 3,000 cars and a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest privately owned automotive collection.

They were kept in all manner of storage just a few miles from here, on the grounds of the Marymount Military Academy.

In 1998, LeMay and his wife, Nancy, established the Harold E. LeMay Museum nonprofit and set about building a new automotive showpiece.

But it was a frustrating venture that continued long after LeMay died in 2000. Both the state and the city of Tacoma had to approve plans for the $100 million project. Tacoma provided $10.7 million in land and improvements, and obtained a $1 million planning grant. The state provided $11 million for the museum.

Ground broke on the 9-acre site in June 2010.

Meanwhile, museum officials worked to raise funding and find sponsors. Nancy LeMay, who still sits on the museum board, gave $15 million. The AAA car club gave $1.6 million. Boeing is one of the 53 corporate sponsors, as is Napa car parts and State Farm Insurance, which has given enough to get its name on the museum’s theater.

The museum will house 700 automobiles, most of them LeMay’s and some on loan or on contract, according to CEO David Madeira.

More importantly, the exhibits will be rotated to keep things fresh and interesting.

“It’s a living, breathing entity,” Madeira said of the museum, which he hopes will be a destination similar to Disney’s Epcot Center or Universal CityWalk.

The potential is there, with 15 galleries for cars, trucks and motorcycles; a banquet center; a cafe; a gift shop; an educational center; a theater; and a 3.5-acre show field for car shows, concerts and drive-in movies.

Madeira expects the museum to bring $34 million to the area annually, through ongoing events, including the annual Kirkland Concours d’Elegance, which will move to the LeMay ACM from Carillon Point in September.

Upcoming, themed events will focus on the British Invasion, the Indianapolis 500, Ferrari in America and the collection of jewelry magnate Nicola Bulgari, who is lending ACM his collection of American cars, now stored in Allentown, Pa., and Tuscany.

“He loves American cars,” Keller said. “Buicks, Chrysler Town & Countrys …”

The museum will feature three high-tech racing simulators and a club where members can sit back and enjoy wine that they will be able to keep in storage here, if they’re so inclined.

“It’s a place where you come together and get involved around the automobile,” Madeira said. “We want to evoke the memories and the engagement that bring people back.”

Of course, it is still all about the cars: The 1969 Ford Thunderbird, the 1932 Chevrolet “Huckster Truck.” And there’s an AMC Pacer.

“We consider ourselves Switzerland when it comes to cars,” Keller said. “If you like it, we like it.”

The most important car for Keller? The 1963 Corvette with the split window.

“See? It doesn’t have to be a special car,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

It’s the memories, the emotions that museum officials are counting on to keep people coming back.



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