The first time I heard that Harold LeMay’s car collection would be featured in a to-be-built facility in Tacoma, Washington, called America’s Car Museum, I was a bit skeptical. The name seemed a bit of an overreach. But AMC finally opened on June 2, 2012, and America’s Car Museum is both appropriate and perfect.
Harold LeMay was, to put it mildly, an avid car collector. When I first visited his collection about 6 years ago, it was spread all over the Marymount property (lemaymarymount.org) and the staff told me that there were between 2,400 and 2,500 vehicles left of the 3,500 this car fanatic purchased over the years. Harold, who got wealthy in the “garbage business” according to his bio in the museum, died in 2000, and the plan became to auction off yet more and put the best in a museum (lemaymuseum.org) next to the Tacoma Dome.
The second biggest surprise I had when Ruth & I visited ACM last week was that Marymount is still open. Once a military academy, it’s now home to the LeMay Family Collection Foundation and an Event Center. The new LeMay can only display about 450 cars so Marymount remains a visitable storage facility with a very different presentation. I’ll check it out again the next time I head to Tacoma, which is guaranteed.
The biggest surprise was the stunning new building, a grand design that pulls of the trick of seeming both expansive and intimate at the same time. As is the case in many auto museums, the cars in ACM are not crammed together. Many, like the thrilling Tucker, just one of Harold’s gems, are stand-alone. A huge window at the far end of Level 1 frames Tacoma’s entire downtown.
LeMay’s cars are displayed on 4 descending floors. Ramps on either side of each level are used for temporary displays. The current ones include “The British Invasion” (classic MGs, Jaguars, Triumphs, etc.), the fascinating “Alternative Propulsion” (almost everything from a Stanley Steamer to a Nissan Leaf), and my favorites “Ferrari in America” (male fantasies realized) and The Nicola Bulgari Collection (this jeweler doted on Buicks!).
The LeMay is well-thought-through. Ruth is usually done with car museums hours before I am, but not at ACM. She loved it every bit as much as I did and that seemed true of other women I talked to. The Miller Slot Car Circuit where younger visitors gather made me drool. Unlike other car museums, ACM’s avowed mission is to display vehicles and have special events for the “important younger demographic” according to Open Road. I had to be dragged away from the Auto Care Center where I watched a lucky staff member work on a four-wheeled beauty. ACM is bent on reinventing the car museum and will always have a Guest Curator, currently Ken Gross.
Be warned. You may think you’ll spend a couple of hours here, but plan for most of a day. We had to leave and come back to see it all. Also, the current thinking is to change out the LeMay cars and keep temporary exhibits for only 3 to 6 months. So if you want to see the sensational “opening” ones, and you should, act fast.