If you are among the 10 percent of America who considers themselves car nuts, you’ll most likely have your nose pressed to the windows of LeMay–America’s Car Museum when it opens Saturday. Bring your Windex.
But if you are the spouse/kid/friend-who-got-talked-into-going, you just might be wondering: “What’s in it for me?”
That’s the question I had when I took a preview tour of the museum.
I like cars well enough, but I’ve never felt cool enough or known enough about them to be a car enthusiast. Occasionally, I’m forced to take my car to a garage, where the mechanics use amusing made-up words like “carburetor” and “anti-freeze.” I just nod and humor them.
I tried to keep my mind open when my car wheezed up to the new building across from the Tacoma Dome.
It’s hard to miss the museum, even from space, I suspect. Its rounded shape, covered in shiny metal, reminded me of a large toaster oven. But then all of downtown Tacoma’s landmarks remind me of kitchen appliances: Tacoma Dome (upside-down salad bowl), Museum of Glass (juicer), Washington State History Museum (outdoor pizza oven) and Tacoma Art Museum (mini fridge). This could explain why I’ve gained 10 pounds in the past few years.
Glowing like a beacon just inside of the light-filled lobby is a neon Mobil Pegasus. On a wall above is a cinematic-size photo mural of Highway 1 cutting through California’s Big Sur coast. A very pretty yellow car with white tires that I incorrectly identified as being an “Old Mobile” is actually something called a “Lincoln.”
On another wall hangs a race car placed there like a giant’s toy. It’s an Indianapolis 500 spec car, I was told, once driven by Marco Andretti. He is a young, handsome, Italian-American race car driver, and grandson of a legend. I will never be as cool as he is.
Just beyond the lobby is a gift store. I noticed some very attractive chrome vintage race cars. They would make great gifts. They are also the only cars in the building I could afford.
Though the museum will set an adult back $15 for entry, you can visit the gift store without paying admission.
Also in the free-to-enter category (but you’ll have to pay for the food) is the museum’s restaurant.
The eatery is built on a balcony overlooking the main show floor. Not only does it offer a view of dozens of cars, but the window at the far end of the hall spectacularly frames the skyline of Tacoma.
The restaurant is run by Gordon Naccarato, owner of downtown Tacoma’s Pacific Grill. It’s a great space to grab a bite and enjoy the views – of the cars and downtown – without paying admission. Naccarato still was working out details this week, but said he eventually will offer sandwiches, salads and sliders. The restaurant will keep the same hours as the museum.
Back down on the main floor are parked some of the gems of the museum. They make up the Harold LeMay exhibition. About half are owned by the LeMay family and the other half by the museum with a few loaners thrown in.
One fact became undeniable as I walked by the cars: By the 1930s America was making some of the most stylish and beautiful cars that have ever rolled on four wheels. These were the days well before cost engineering produced Gremlins and Yugos.
The Tucker 48 lent by Harold LeMay’s widow, Nancy, shines in the light. Nearby is a red 1930 Duesenberg Model J convertible that’s sometimes credited with inspiring the phrase, “It’s a Doozy.” It made me want to drop to my knees – I didn’t feel worthy of being in this grand car’s presence.
Whether your taste runs toward historical, romantic, muscle or practical, it’s here. The one aspect of the hall that troubled me was the artificial lighting – it’s bright, but it’s better suited for a high school gymnasium than a museum.
From the main floor, a pair of 280-foot-long ramps take visitors down to the next level. Those inclines are lined with displays that highlight particular automotive themes: Ferraris, IndyCars, the British Invasion.
On the day of my visit, guest curator Ken Gross was parking a maroon 1965 Austin-Healey 3000 convertible in the British display. I know those details only because Gross told me. Gross, I learned, also test drives new cars for Playboy magazine. I’ll never be as cool as he is.
Using photos, text and the actual cars, the ramp covers British autos and culture from 1960 to 1965. The Rolling Stones, Land Rovers, James Bond, Jaguars and more are represented. It’s an easy-to-digest primer on the influence of U.K. car culture.
I was feeling down at that point – mainly because I don’t have a cool British accent – when I came across something that took me right back to my childhood: Fred Flintstone’s car. It’s a prop from the 1994 movie. No doubt, it will be the scene of many future “Yabba dabba doos” delivered by enthusiastic fathers to their puzzled children. It also, at one fell swoop, squashes any notion that ACM is Snootyville.
When I reached another level of the museum it finally hit me: This is one huge parking garage. Not the claustrophobic garage where TV movie murders take place, but a pleasant space filled with one drool-over car after another.
Whether you’re a minivan-driving mom, a design student, a young hipster or movie buff, there’s something for everyone here. I recognized a DeLorean upon sight, but couldn’t see a flux capacitor inside.
The museum will have 130 to 150 cars on display at any one time. Another 200 are in “storage” on lower levels and also will be viewable. That still might not seem like many compared with the LeMay Family Collection in Spanaway with its warehouses of cars, but I wasn’t left wanting. Just about every car here is a gem or at least worth a look.
I did miss Harold LeMay’s eclectic collections chock full of ephemera. Fortunately, that museum will remain open – just in case I need to see a fleet of shark-finned 1950s Cadillacs.
Just when you think ACM is all look and no touch, it has two surprises for you. Two different entertainment alcoves will allow visitors to test their race car driving skills.
A slot car track still was being installed on my visit, but three race car simulators were up and functioning. Roger Leary of CXC Simulations buckled me into the seat of the robotic looking device. The machines have more than 1,000 different cars programmed into them along with every race track you’ve ever heard. Motors and seat belt tension give drivers instant feedback.
Visitors will race the clock, or each other, on the PC-based machines. At a starting price of $45,000, you won’t find these at your local arcade. In fact, Leary told me, these are used by professional race car drivers for training. So, that’s how the Andrettis do it.
Soon I was zooming around a track at Lime Rock, Conn., in a Honda sports car. I must have been doing 10 mph. “Give it a little gas,” Leary said. “A little more.” Sensing Leary was growing frustrated at my ice cream truck pace, I really throttled up and promptly drove off the track. The three screens replayed my drive through the turf. “Well, at least you didn’t hit anything,” Leary said.
I wanted to remind Leary that this was just a simulation but before I could he told me they had “dumbed down” the software on these models to make them easier to use. He was clearly referring to people like me, but he was too polite to say so.
But given enough time I know I can master this faux driving machine. Maybe they’ll even hang my simulator on a wall one day.