It started with a Model T, and then it multiplied – a lot.
Over the years, cars, trucks, buses and even military vehicles were hauled onto Harold LeMay’s sprawling Parkland complex. They filled 23 buildings, where classes once were held at the old Marymount Military Academy for Boys in Spanaway.
They were crammed into sheds and garages near his refuse company. Others waited at distant outposts for LeMay to bring them home.
He never intended to amass the largest private collection of automobiles in the world. But when he died on Nov. 4, 2000, at 81, he could lay claim to about 3,000 vehicles.
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“I don’t know that he ever planned to get as many as he had,” said his son, Doug LeMay. “It just happened. He saw another one and another one.”
MOBILITY NOT REQUIRED
Harold LeMay could never give a clear answer about what so drew him to cars – and motorcycles, limousines, ambulances and fire trucks.
He loved tinkering with them, he loved preserving them for historic purposes and part of him just couldn’t stomach seeing any vehicle be obliterated into a pile of metal and glass shards.
“He liked the way they were put together,” Doug LeMay said. “If it moved, he liked it. In fact, it didn’t even have to move.”
Harold’s first car was beyond a fixer-upper, bought after a gentleman crashed it into a bridge. He painstakingly built a car around the surviving engine until he had a 1927 Ford Coupe ready to cruise.
He had fond memories of cars – especially the 1914 Chevrolet Baby Grand he recalled riding in as a boy – but harbored no thoughts of collecting them.
In the mid-1960s, a friend sparked Harold’s fascination with old cars by suggesting he join a Model T club. Then, in 1986, Harold attended an auto auction in Reno, Nev., that his family said “flipped a switch” in the white-haired man.
Harold was appalled that most of the cars in hotel owner Bill Harrah’s world famous collection were dispersed across the country rather than being kept together for people to peruse and enjoy.
Thus began his compulsion to preserve automotive history.
“What I have here,” he told The News Tribune in 1999, “is the history of the automobile and its memorabilia.”
MORE THAN CARS
Harold LeMay wasn’t a traditional collector.
His cars were well cared for, but they weren’t catalogued or displayed in fancy fashion.
He had a habit of forgetting to register incoming rigs, often shoving the titles into whatever book or magazine he was reading when he picked up a new car.
Just this month, his wife was browsing an old book and found a title to an old Chevy wedged between the pages.
Harold bought whatever caught his eye, giving little thought to what would add value to his burgeoning collection. He loved Chevy Packards, and acquired 60 of them from 1941.
He owned a 1918 Franklin touring car, two 1951 Henry J’s and about 140 Cadillacs, but he preferred to get around town in a 1998 Nissan UD with a flatbed hauler he affectionately called “my driver.”
But Harold collected more than cars.
He had rooms brimming with hub caps, gas pumps, wheels, road maps and tools. He scoured estate sales, auctions and garage sales in search of discarded items he saw as treasures.
“He liked old stuff and he never threw anything away because he was raised in the Great Depression,” said Nancy, whom he married in 1964.
Most importantly, Harold collected stories and friends as he crisscrossed the country several times a year, usually pulling a new find behind him when he started home.
His motor home, which he had built in the 1980s, had room for one car in the back – but only if you moved the guest bed.
“We met a lot of great friends over the years,” Nancy recalled. “We had a lot of fun trips and met a lot of cool people. He loved cars and he loved people.”
During the once-a-year event when the LeMays opened their Parkland complex to offer tours and lunch, Harold would quietly tag along and pipe up only to tell the back story of the person he had bought the rig from.
Using just old-fashioned word-of-mouth, about 10,000 people would turn up to peek at Harold’s collection.
Harold might have been best known as a car collector, but he was other things. Important things.
He was a loving husband and devoted father.
He was a hard worker, starting with a single garbage truck in 1942 and turning it into Pierce County Refuse, the largest private trash-removal company in Washington and the 10th-largest in the country.
He was an amateur magician and a card-carrying member of International Brotherhood of Magicians Tacoma Ring 70. His favorite trick was to produce bowls of goldfish for the children at his church to take home.
He was an avid pilot, a Navy veteran and a chewer (not smoker) of cigars.
“He was a character,” Nancy said. “He really was.”
She smiled with pride as she looked at Doug and bragged that he takes after his father.
“Oh, I couldn’t keep up with him,” Doug said. “But I couldn’t have asked for anybody better as an example.”