TACOMA — One of the largest car museums in the country has opened in Tacoma as a tribute to how the automobile has shaped American culture and society.
The $60 million LeMay-America’s Car Museum opened Saturday featuring an exhibit of about 150 vehicles, some rare and many from the private collection of the late Harold LeMay.
The self-made Pierce County millionaire who made his fortune in refuse collection and real estate had a vision for the museum before he died in 2000 at age 81, the News-Tribune reported.
LeMay at one-time had an eclectic collection of some 3,000 cars, trucks and motorcycles — recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest private automotive collection. About 43 of his vehicles are on display during the museum’s grand opening, but most of the other vehicles are loaners from other collectors, museums and corporations from as far away as Michigan, Southern California and Florida.
The four-story, 165,000-square foot museum is located on a nine-acre campus in downtown Tacoma, Wash. Officials expect about 500,000 visitors a year.
Originally incorporated as the Harold E. LeMay Museum (and jump-started with $15 million from the LeMay family), the museum now is called the LeMay-America’s Car Museum, or simply ACM, much to the dismay of some longtime LeMay loyalists, the newspaper reported.
Museum backers, however, decided that the facility needed a national profile, as well as a local one.
“If all this thing was about was Harold LeMay, nobody would care after a while,” David Madeira, the museum’s president and CEO told the News-Tribune. “I told everybody as soon as I got here, if that’s what this is about, you’re throwing your money away.
“What this needs to be about is America’s love affair with the automobile.”
As a result, the museum will display a reinvention of the automotive museum concept.
LeMay and his eclectic collection will play a supporting role, with a main floor display that includes a 1917 Simplex Crane Model 5 and a rare Tucker 48, bought by Nancy LeMay after her husband’s death and on loan for the grand opening.
Other high-dollar automotive classics should wow the most discriminating enthusiasts — a 1935 Hupmobile Model 527 from the collection of jeweler Nicola Bulgari collection and a 1949 Ferrari Touring Barcatta.
“The challenge with a car museum is, ‘How do you make it appealing to a broader range of people?”’ said Scot Keller, a former General Motors executive who’s the museum’s chief marketing and communications officer.
“Only about 10 percent of the population are car nuts,” he said. “We want to be as relevant and accessible as we can be.”
The museum’s success, Keller says, depends on attracting visitors not just once, but over and over as exhibits change.”
To that end, the museum’s galleries are set up to present different automotive-based narratives that Keller says will change every 60 to 90 days.
The museum chose Ken Gross, a widely published automotive journalist and museum consultant who’s the chief automotive writer at Playboy magazine, as a guest curator for the opening shows.
One of the grand opening shows Gross came up with is “The British Invasion.” It notes that the fascination with British music in America in the 1960s was accompanied by a fascination with British automobiles: MGs, Triumphs, Aston-Martins and Minis.
Some of the museum’s most unusual aspects won’t be in plain view.
The facility intends to tap into far-flung regions of automotive culture: vehicle restoration classes, an auto-related cafe, an educational center and library, slot-cars and racing simulators, auto clubs and car storage, a show field for car parades and concerts, even drive-in movies projected on the museum walls.
The City of Tacoma put up some $17 million worth of public property and services, and thinks the museum can help accelerate downtown revitalization and create national interest and prestige.
“From our perspective as an organization that recruits primary businesses into this market, the LeMay is very important because it adds to the quality of life in the South Sound and downtown Tacoma in particular,” Bruce Kendall, CEO of the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County told the newspaper.
Eric LeMay, Harold’s grandson who ran the museum effort in the early years, said that before he died, Harold had begun to appreciate the difference between a “museum” and a “collection.”
“Is the new museum exactly the way Grandpa would have done it? No. Is it exactly how I or the rest of the family would have done it? No. We all probably would have done some things differently.
“But you don’t get really big projects built thinking that way. You do the best you can, in good times and bad, to get as close as you can to the vision.”