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Behind the Scenes: LeMay -- America's Car Museum

A first look at one of the world's largest car museums ahead of the June 1 gala opening.

By Perry Stern May 31, 2012 9:17AM

LeMay - America's Car Museum. (c) Perry SternEditor's note: The new LeMay automotive museum has its gala opening Friday evening in Tacoma, Wash. MSN Autos' Perry Stern and a video crew got a sneak peek at the spectacular new attraction, which you can read about -- and watch -- below. Next week, Chuck Tannert will have an interview with museum curator, longtime automotive journalist (and occasional MSN Autos contributor) Ken Gross.

Most of the car museums in America appeal to hard-core car enthusiasts or are simply a way for some wealthy collector to show off his private car collection. But in Tacoma, Wash., a new car museum is having its gala opening on the evening of Friday, June 1st, and its purpose is to appeal to just about everyone. That's because LeMay -- America's Car Museum is intended to be more than just a stunning private collection; the museum also aims to tell the story and the history of the automobile in America.


We had the opportunity to take a sneak peek inside this beautiful building to see what makes this museum different. Scott Keller, chief marketing and communications officer for the museum, acted as tour guide.


As we walked through the main entrance, Keller pointed out that by some estimations, a mere 10 percent of Americans can be considered car enthusiasts. Rather than creating another destination for this small percentage, the organizers set out to create a museum for those interested in American history, with a focus on the large role the automobile has played in shaping the country.

 Photo by Perry Stern.

“Everybody remembers their first car, family driving vacations, a sports car they fell in love with as a teenager,” museum CEO David Madeira says. “Personal experiences with cars are at the heart of the American experience, and we’re going to showcase more than a century of automotive lifestyle and history as well as the future of transportation.”


Keller explained that the museum would be “engaging people on an emotional basis and bringing the cars into stories about America,” building on America’s longstanding love affair with the automobile.


It should be noted that the building that houses these stories is simply stunning. There are no pillars on the main floor, so the view of the cars is open and unobstructed, and is book-ended with a massive window overlooking downtown Tacoma.

Photo by Perry Stern.The main floor will house about 55 vehicles and will be dedicated to telling the story of the museum’s namesake, Harold LeMay. A local businessman, LeMay amassed what was once the largest private collection of vehicles in the world, at one time totaling more than 3,000 automobiles, according to Guinness World Records.

Keller pointed out that while many cars on display at the museum will be from the LeMay collection, several special vehicles will be on loan from other collections.


Two ramps descend from either side of the main floor, providing access to three lower levels. The entire route, sponsored by AAA, takes up about one-third of a mile and is referred to as the AAA Heritage road. Each ramp will feature a themed collection of vehicles and will provide information such as owner, price when new and current worth for each car on the adjacent walls. Web-based info will also be available, via smartphone, for those who want to drill deeper into a particular vehicle's history.


Plans call for collections representing custom coachwork, alternative propulsion, British invasion, Ferrari and vintage race cars.


Ultimately, 15 different galleries will be represented, rotated every 90 days or so. The idea is to constantly present something new, to encourage repeat visits.


Visitors shouldn’t expect to see just vintage cars, either. While Keller told us he expects a number of concept cars on loan, he also noted that some cars on display would never be considered collectible. These cars are picked for their emotional response factor.

Case in point: One of the cars that caught my eye on the tour was a 1982 Mercury Grand Marquis station wagon. Not a collector car by anyone’s definition, but if you grew up riding in the back of one of these classic wagons, seeing this car is bound to put a smile on your face.

Photo by Perry Stern. Keller expects that annual attendance at the museum will be around 425,000, with basic memberships starting around $50 per year. Those donating more than $100,000 will have access to a special club in the museum, as well as other perks. Months before the museum was scheduled to open, there were already more than 50 members of this exclusive club.


Of course, it’s not just the cars that make this a destination. Some of the onsite attractions include a café, slot car track, theater in the round, driving simulators, two private clubs and a show field that can double as an outdoor concert venue.


After the gala celebration, the museum will have its grand opening on June 2 and is sure to be a destination for locals as well as visitors from around the country.



Jun 2, 2012 9:01AM
This is truly an amazing collection. As a full time classic car appraiser, I look forward to spending a few days there later this summer to take it all in. The weather is similar there to our Michigan summers, except the hiking there is much better, which will also be awesome. It's a great concept to market the way they have chosen to, in an attempt to bring more people into the collector car world. I don't know if my wife and kids will do the whole 3 days, but there's tons of things to do in Tacoma and Seattle if they get bored. Tell everybody you know about this destination, as it's so important to continue to involve people, especially our youth in the classic and collector car hobby. As the older population of this hobby passes on, we need to continue to find new ways to "pass this torch". Jason Phillips 
Jan 23, 2014 4:09PM

It's now early 2014, and I can say that Lemay is a success, both as a stunning facility and a revenue generator for Tacoma.

I'm a car enthusiast from Vancouver Island who has watched the progress of ACM since its inception, and just visited for the first time on Halloween day, 2013. I was so impressed with the collection, the staff - many interesting conversations - and, as a fan of unique architecture, the building, that I definitely will be back.

With our destination visit to ACM from Canada, our two nights at a motel plus shopping/meals likely injected $1500 into the local economy.

I'd say a success on both counts. Congratulations to the people of ACM.

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