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A mecca for car lovers, a new landmark for Tacoma

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on May 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
May 31, 2012 6:14 pm

Doug LeMay, son of the late Harold LeMay, backs the family's treasured 1948 Tucker into the new LeMay-America's Car Museum in Tacoma. (Dean J. Koepfler / Staff photographer)

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Americans, it’s said, have a love affair with the automobile. Now they have a shiny new place to rendezvous for their trysts.

The LeMay-America’s Car Museum – the nation’s largest car museum and the second-most-visible structure as motorists drive through Tacoma on Interstate 5 – is staging its grand opening Saturday. It’s already getting national attention, including a splashy New York Times article headlined “A Car Hoard, Pruned to a Collection, Gets a Fitting Home,” complete with a photograph slideshow on the Times’ website.

If projections are correct, the 165,000-square-foot, $65 million museum will be a huge tourist draw – injecting $34 million a year into the local economy and drawing an estimated 425,000 visitors a year, equivalent to Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

A tour through the museum shows why those projections might not be pie-in-the-sky.

As visitors step inside, they’re greeted by an enormous black-and-white photo of a stretch of Pacific Coast highway, a car driving by in a blur. It’s the kind of image we envision when we dream about taking the ultimate road trip.

Inside, cars from Harold and Nancy LeMay’s enormous collection – it ranks in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest privately owned automobile collection – share space with loaned cars and rotating exhibitions. Among the seven exhibits on display now are “British Invasion,” “Ferrari in America” and “Motorsports/Indy Cars.”

But the museum is more than cars. It has a theater, banquet hall, meeting space, cafe, slot-car play area and simulators that, for an additional fee, allow “drivers” to compete against other players as if they were in a NASCAR race. Helpful, attractive graphics and photographs decorate the walls as visitors wend their way up and down wide ramps lined with vehicles.

And what a trove of classic vehicles they will see, including a 1930 Duesenberg Model J and a 1948 Tucker. Many makes and models will be new to visitors who aren’t hard-core car enthusiasts,  like the 1909 Hupmobile, the 1930 Durant, the 1937 Cord and the 1938 Crosley. There are several novelty vehicles, like the space-agey, three-wheeled 1986 Owosso Pulse; the 1976 Cadillac Brougham “Wailer Mobile”; and the 1994 “Flintmobile” – just waiting to take Fred, Wilma and Pebbles for a spin (using their own pedal power, of course).

Getting the museum to opening day has been a decade-long challenge for organizers and supporters. Raising money during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression wasn’t easy. The City of Tacoma is a key partner in the enterprise, providing $17 million in property and service.

Here’s hoping those dreams and investments pay off, and that the new attraction will be a popular addition to the city’s existing museums. But how can it miss? Not everyone enjoys art or history, but most people have been in love with a car at some point in their lives. The South Sound is fortunate that Harold LeMay was one of them.

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