Shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday, Nancy LeMay and David Madeira wrapped each other in a big hug. As Madeira gallantly held the door, LeMay stepped across the threshold, officially becoming Visitor No. 1 at Tacoma’s new LeMay-America’s Car Museum.
The moment was a milestone for both.
For LeMay, the opening of the $60 million museum was the realization of the dream of her late husband, Harold E. LeMay, whose obsession with automobiles put him in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for amassing the largest private automotive collection – one that eventually topped 3,000 vehicles.
“I know Harold is looking down and saying, ‘Well done,’” Nancy LeMay told a crowd of about 600 gathered for the grand-opening ceremony on the museum’s outdoor show field.
For Madeira, the museum’s CEO and the driving force behind 10 years of difficult fundraising and political struggles, there was satisfaction in completing a job that many said couldn’t be done.
Madeira, who turned out for the occasion in a cream-colored suit, pink shirt and green socks, received a standing ovation for his efforts.
“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do,” Madeira said, quoting the 19th century British economist and journalist Walter Bagehot. “We did it.”
Behind Nancy LeMay at the museum’s front door, about 800 people were waiting to buy $14 tickets and see the opening displays, which included not only a selection of Harold LeMay’s finest and most expensive cars (a rare 1948 Tucker among them) but also multimillion-dollar Ferraris, IndyCars and opulent classics from the 1930s and ’40s on loan from other collectors, corporations and museums from across the nation.
Hundreds more visitors arrived throughout the day, keeping four cash registers busy and making the museum’s estimate of 10,000 in attendance for the opening day weekend seem plausible.
Tacoma police reported no particular traffic problems because of the event.
Those attending included Erivan Haub, the German billionaire and Tacoma benefactor who made significant contributions to the museum, and Bill Weyerhaeuser, another strong supporter.
Speaking briefly at the opening was Nicola Bulgari, the Italian heir to the Bulgari jewelry and apparel fortune who lent several of his luxurious American cars for the opening and sits on the car museum’s board of directors.
“It should be a motive for every American who loves automobiles to come here,” Bulgari said. “It is one of the finest homes for automobiles in the world.”
Comedian and car enthusiast Jay Leno attended grand-opening parties at the museum Friday night, and Ed Welburn, General Motors’ vice president of global design, made brief remarks Saturday.
Gov. Chris Gregoire had been scheduled to attend the opening, but she canceled Friday, a consequence of her husband’s cancer surgery last week.
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen filled in, praising the museum and the social value of the personal memories evoked by old cars.
Owen said he thinks the museum’s estimate of 425,000 visitors a year is conservative, and noted those visitors are expected to contribute some $34 million to the local economy.
“There’s going to be a great return on this investment for everyone,” he said.
Inside, visitors crowded the 625,000-square-foot building, ogling more than 300 cars, shined up and set in historical context.
Josh and Amber Bingisser drove from Centralia for the occasion and steered strollers carrying their babies, Ryan and Kaitlyn, through the displays.
Josh Bingisser said he has been looking forward to the opening for years.
“My stepdad worked for Harold LeMay before he died, and I got to ride in some of his cars in parades and stuff,” he said. “So I wanted to come up and see all the ones I didn’t get to ride in.”
Aside from the displays, one of the biggest opening day hits at the museum were three race-car simulators, which use computer-assisted technology to give the feel of driving race cars on various tracks.
Michael Rubin, visiting from Malibu, Calif., took an eight-minute turn driving a simulated Indy 500 racer and emerged looking shaken. He walked in a crouch and worked his hands open and closed.
“It’s amazing,” Rubin said. “It was very, very intense. A total adrenaline rush. You really feel like you’re driving the car. I couldn’t look at anything but the track.”
Grand-opening festivities included a free concert Saturday evening featuring Asleep at the Wheel and the Kim Archer Band.
Opening weekend will continue from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sunday. The museum will keep those hours seven days a week through Labor Day.