An Unusual Place For America's Biggest Car Museum
Museum aims to reach 400,000 visitors per year
None of the fancy cars, however, are necessarily visitors' favorites. Believe it or not, that honor more often belongs to a regular 1983 Oldsmobile station wagon.
"Just last week, I saw a family stop dead in their tracks at that one," said David Madeira, the museum's executive director. "People stop at that car all the time."
As much as visitors appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see exquisite vehicles they could never dream of owning, they equally appreciate seeing cars they've already owned, cars of their childhoods, the ones they took to a drive-in movie and the ones that perhaps provided shelter for a first kiss.
In the spirit of its eccentric namesake, this is a museum for the everyman. Situated off the southern end of Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Wash., this collection separates itself from many car museums in that it houses as many common clunkers as it does classic cars.
The fledgling museum, which opened last June, tells the story of the car in America. Harold LeMay, whose collection curators draw from, tried to buy at least one of every American car ever produced, and his 3,500-plus inventory is a Guinness Book of World Records for largest private collection.
Four stories tall, the museum will soon feature major exhibits on NASCAR and the 60th anniversary of the Corvette within its 165,000 square feet. It also provided parents with a "shriek-free zone" while Justin Bieber performed at the Tacoma Dome next door.
This spring, the ACM -- not to be confused with another, smaller nearby LeMay museum -- will feature a major exhibit of Route 66 memorabilia. And more. By design, curators frequently change exhibits and showcase a variety of cars.
If the museum didn't change out its exhibits, Madeira said the museum could become stale. "You do that, and then people visit once or twice and never come again," he said.
Only a fraction of the collection is on display at any one time, so curators can regularly swap cars from his collection. LeMay, who died in 2000, was a self-made millionaire who owned a garbage-hauling company in Washington. He started collecting after returning from World War II, seemingly buying every rusty car he could get his hands on.
Soon, his obsession stretched beyond himself. He instructed his garbage workers to spot cars for sale along their routes. Once, on a trip to Florida, LeMay bought a London-styled double-decker bus. On the cross-country drive back to Tacoma, he rode upstairs. A pair of binoculars in hand, he eyed every barn along the way, hoping to find more old cars hiding inside.
LeMay lived and died in Tacoma, which is how the largest car museum in North America wound up in a place that isn't exactly known for automotive prominence.
Geography remains a key hurdle for curators, so they're trying to develop a reputation that broadens the museum's appeal beyond its physical structure. It has hosted everything from dealer conferences to a motorcycle festival. This summer, they are planning three movie nights at the on-site drive-in theater.
They're also taking the show on the road, organizing events along the West Coast, from track days at Laguna Seca to classic-car caravans from Seattle to the Pebble Beach Concours d' Elegance. And they're starting clubs in many U.S. cities where, for an annual membership fee, car enthusiasts can store their cars, transport their classics to clubhouses in other cities and connect with others who share a passion for automobiles.
"We're not your dusty car museum," Madeira said. "We want to be a gathering place to celebrate the automobile."
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