They came from around the country, even Canada, but many of the awe-inspiring vintage cars shown in the LeMay-America’s Car Museum’s exhibits are from local collectors.
Among the about 300 vehicles that will be on display when the museum opens Saturday, about 125 will be loaners.
Officials spent months seeking and then corralling cars for the museum.
“It started with a wish list,” said Jason Harris, who is managing the vehicles on display in the museum’s exhibits.
“What are the coolest cars in the world? Which ones are local, and who knows someone who knows someone?”
He estimated 85 percent of collectors asked to lend their rarest cars said yes. Those who didn’t offered them for later in the year, but couldn’t bear to part with their classic pieces for the summer months.
Most of the loaners come from individuals, though contributions from organizations and museums make up about 10 percent. The cars traveling the farthest are from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
But some of the neatest gems had to drive only a few miles to get ready for the grand opening.
Pitched to the ladies
Lynn Sommers owns one of the first electric cars built, manufactured nearly a century before alternative-energy vehicles became trendy.
He found the 1911 Baker advertised online 10 years ago. The car had just been restored by a gentleman who felt he needed to unload it as his health declined.
Sommers, 78, of Tacoma, went to see the Baker just outside Los Angeles.
It was love at first sight.
He brought the Baker home – he declined to say how much he paid – and swears he’ll never sell it.
“I’m a caretaker of history, is how I look at it,” said Sommers, who’s retired after owning a machine shop and a fastening business. “I enjoy looking at (the car). It was beautiful workmanship they did in those years.”
The Baker is painted a rich burgundy with black striping. It’s equipped with wood wheels, two brake pedals and a tiller in the backseat. Soft fabrics, a flower bud vase and window curtains adorn the inside.
The car was marketed to women back then, because it was mostly maintenance-free, had no gasoline smell and needed no cranking.
The Bakers were mostly owned by the affluent – in 1911, the Baker would have cost about $3,500. (About $81,000 in today’s dollars.)
Though Sommers restores old cars – he has nine in his collection – he hasn’t done much work on the Baker. He hasn’t needed to.
Over the years, he’s updated the electrical system to prevent shortages and other problems.
He drives the car only to an occasional charity event or car club outing. In those cases, he and his wife dress in period clothes and try to educate passers-by on what life was like in the early 1900s.
Part of the reason Sommers doesn’t get behind the tiller is because the Baker only goes 20 to 25 miles per hour.
It can also be tricky to get around in.
The driver sits in the backseat and uses a lever on the side to click for speed. The owner’s manual recommends staying in neutral and coasting to preserve battery consumption.
Despite its 12 batteries, the Baker needs to recharge every 60 to 80 miles. Even sitting idle in an exhibit, the batteries will wear down. Charging them is one of myriad reasons Sommers will be visiting the new museum after it opens.
He’s tickled to have his Baker featured in the museum, and hoped that seeing the car might help educate visitors about automobiles and what life was like more than 100 years ago.
When museum officials asked to borrow the Baker, there was no hesitation.
“I’m excited that I’m able to show the car there and I’m excited to have it out where more people can see it,” Sommers said. “I’ll miss it but I’ll go down and visit it quite often.”
Dream decades in the making
The hunt took five years, though the target tinkered around in Jim Smalley’s mind from the time he was a teenager.
Smalley passed on buying an Austin-Healey Le Mans in high school, and the sleek British car haunted him from then on.
In his mid-40s, Smalley began searching in earnest. Then six years ago, he was chatting at a function and learned his friend had just acquired a 1956 100 Le Mans he was willing to sell.
“I was over at his house the next morning,” said Smalley, a 56-year-old financial adviser from Gig Harbor. “It’s a car I hunted for many years. It’s never been far from me. It’s just the quintessential ’50s sports car.”
The Austin Healey – one of only 140 or so in the world, Smalley said – is one of five cars he is lending the LeMay-America’s Car Museum for its grand opening. The other prizes he’s temporarily parting with are a 1970 Ferrari, a 1967 Jaguar E-type, a 1965 Austin-Healey 3000 and a 1960 Bugeye Sprite.
The Bugeye, named for its unique headlight mounting, is on the museum’s list of 10 cars not to miss.
“The Ferrari can go unnoticed,” Smalley said. “But the Bugeye, everybody’s got to stop you and tell you their favorite memory.”
All his loaners except the Ferrari will be featured in the museum’s British Invasion exhibit. The Ferrari can be found in the Prancing Horse exhibit.
Though Smalley’s cars car museum-worthy, he’s not the type to keep them locked up and collecting dust. He and his family don’t hesitate to drive them around the region.
“We’re not into having them sit in the garage,” he said. “Once they’re restored, the fun for me is over. We’ll sell them. We’re not going to die with these. We always have a wish list of something else.”