After casino tycoon Bill Harrah died, most of the cars in his legendary collection went cruising off to all corners of the Earth.
That worried Harold LeMay.
LeMay, a self-made Pierce County millionaire who made his fortune in refuse collection and real estate, had assembled what the “Guinness Book of World Records” certified as the world’s largest private automotive collection – eventually growing to some 3,000 cars, trucks and motorcycles.
LeMay didn’t want his collection split up after his death, as Harrah’s had been, and in 1996 he started talking about putting together a nonprofit museum to house his vehicles.
People would get to see the cars, and he’d get nice tax deductions for donating them.
LeMay died in 2000 at age 81, before the museum idea got very far. In final tribute to his characteristic offbeat style, his casket was carried off to the cemetery on the back of a flatbed auto hauler truck.
But the museum idea survived him.
After more than a decade of relentless fundraising and political drama, the LeMay-America's Car Museum opened to the public June 2.
The 165,000-square-foot building, on nine acres next to the Tacoma Dome, is the largest car museum in North America and, depending on how you measure it, the third-largest in the world.
But it’s very different from Harold LeMay’s vision.
Of the 150 or so vehicles featured at the grand opening, 43 were LeMay cars. Most of the other vehicles are loaners from other collectors, museums and corporations from as far away as Michigan, Southern California and Florida.
Originally incorporated as the Harold E. LeMay Museum (and jump-started with $15 million from the LeMay family), the museum now is called the LeMay-America’s Car Museum, or often simply ACM, much to the dismay of some longtime LeMay loyalists.
That’s because museum backers decided that, if the facility were to have the horsepower it required, it would need a high national profile as well as a local one, and it would need a concept larger than simply lining up one man’s cars behind velvet ropes.
“If all this thing was about was Harold LeMay, nobody would care after awhile,” said David Madeira, the museum’s president and CEO. “I told everybody as soon as I got here, if that’s what this is about, you’re throwing your money away.
“What this needs to be about is America’s love affair with the automobile.”
As a result, when the museum opens it will display a reinvention of the automotive museum concept. It’s an enterprise with ambitions as unconventional as its architectural design.
LeMay and his eclectic collection will play a supporting role, with a main floor display that includes a 1917 Simplex Crane Model 5 and a rare Tucker 48, bought by Nancy LeMay after her husband’s death and on loan for the grand opening.
Other high-dollar automotive classics should wow the most discriminating enthusiasts – a 1935 Hupmobile Model 527 that’s part of the Nicola Bulgari collection, for example, and a 1949 Ferrari Touring Barcatta.
But some of the most unusual aspects of the museum won’t be in plain view.
Economic necessities and obligations acquired in the struggle to raise more than $60 million in financing impelled museum backers to create a money-making machine, and they’ve gone to considerable lengths to do it.
The facility intends to tap into far-flung regions of automotive culture: vehicle restoration classes, an auto-related cafe, an educational center and library, slot-cars and racing simulators, auto clubs and car storage, a show field for car parades and concerts, even drive-in movies projected on the museum walls.
Expectations for the new museum are high.
The City of Tacoma put up some $17 million worth of public property and services, and it’s regarding the museum as an economic stimulus package, one that will accelerate downtown revitalization and create national interest and prestige.
“From our perspective as an organization that recruits primary businesses into this market, the LeMay is very important because it adds to the quality of life in the South Sound and downtown Tacoma in particular,” said Bruce Kendall, CEO of the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County.
“Companies want to be in locations with a high quality of life, with vibrant cultural and recreational opportunities,” Kendall said, “and LeMay is just the latest great addition to what’s already a very good collection of assets here.”
Museum officials are banking on annual visitation exceeding 500,000 in early years and stabilizing near 425,000 – about the same as Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
Those visitors will spend some $34 million a year in area, they say.
TELLING A STORY
“The challenge with a car museum is, ‘How do you make it appealing to a broader range of people?’” said Scot Keller, a former General Motors executive who’s the museum’s chief marketing and communications officer.
“Only about 10 percent of the population are car nuts,” he said. “We want to be as relevant and accessible as we can be.”
The museum’s success, Keller says, depends on attracting visitors not just once, but over and over as exhibits change.”
“We’ve got to keep it fresh and compelling,” he said.
To that end, the museum’s galleries are set up to present different automotive-based narratives that Keller says will change every 60 to 90 days.
As guest curator for the opening shows, the museum chose Ken Gross, a widely published automotive journalist and museum consultant who’s the chief automotive writer at Playboy magazine.
One of the grand opening shows Gross came up with is “The British Invasion.” It notes that the fascination with British music in America in the 1960s was accompanied by a fascination with British automobiles: MGs, Triumphs, Aston-Martins and Minis.
The display is based on the cars, but it’s set in a 1960s context, complete with music of the time and visual point-of-sale displays borrowed from the retail industry
“Instead of just saying, ‘Here’s 12 great British cars, and here’s everything you would ever want to know about them,’ we show their broader relevance,” Keller said.
Another gallery show, “Alternative Propulsion,” presents cars powered by a wide variety of energy sources, including early electrics, diesel, hybrid-electrics, hydrogen-powered fuel cells, natural gas and biofuels.
Another features motorsports, where visitors will walk through a gallery set up to resemble a race track, complete with Doppler sound effects of cars speeding along the straightaway.
What’s important is the personal connection people have with the cars, Keller said.
“People see cars and they say, ‘I remember that first kiss at the drive-in theater’ or whatever,” he said. “We’ll have collector cars, yes, but that’s not our only focus. It’s what people connect to.”
That explains the inclusion in the museum’s collection of Fred Flintstone’s car, the 1994 “Flintmobile” built by customizer George Barris and used in the 1994 movie, “The Flintstones.”
And it explains the “Wailer Mobile,” a tricked-out 1976 Cadillac Brougham that carried the homegrown Tacoma band, the Fabulous Wailers, to their gigs.
To expand its local appeal beyond car displays, the museum is doing its best to establish local connections.
The museum’s marketers have been meeting once a month with the city’s other museums to discuss ways of increasing synergy among them. As a result, the Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass will have displays at the grand opening.
The Museum of Glass’ contribution is a display of 2-foot-high, hand-blown glass sculptures inspired by the hood ornaments of classic cars.
“We’re just thrilled,” said Susan Warner, director of the Museum of Glass. “It’s a niche museum just like we are. They’re industrial and so are we. They’re about design and so are we. So we think there will be a natural flow between our audiences.”
Warner said Tacoma’s museums are exploring a multifacility pass with the auto museum that would offer special rates to people who wanted to see more than one museum on their visit.
“It would be great for people to stay for the day or maybe spend the night,” she said. “This is going to make us a destination.”
The new building has a cafe where people will be able to hang out without paying admission, and it has banquet and meeting space for business meetings, weddings and celebrations.
That space opened in advance of the museum and already is heavily used.
“We’ve had thousands of people through here since September,” said Sandy Scott, the museum’s events manager. “People are asking as far out as 2016.”
The museum has a members-only retreat for high-rollers. For a $100,000 donation, they and their guests can sit and look out at a sweeping view of downtown and Commencement Bay, and drink wine from their personal wine closets. (So far, the club has 70 members, according to Madeira.)
The museum will have slot cars and a high-tech simulator where, for an additional charge, people will experience what it’s like to drive race cars on various tracks.
Car enthusiasts will be able to store their vehicles on the bottom floor, hang out at a Club Auto clubhouse and take classes in detailing and restoration.
While the new museum downplays Harold LeMay, family members say they’re mostly OK with it.
Eric LeMay, Harold’s grandson who ran the museum effort in the early years, said that before he died, Harold had begun to appreciate the difference between a “museum” and a “collection.”
“He was doing a very good job of keeping up with the idea that you can’t do it exactly the way you like it,” Eric LeMay said.
“Is the new museum exactly the way Grandpa would have done it? No. Is it exactly how I or the rest of the family would have done it? No. We all probably would have done some things differently.
“But you don’t get really big projects built thinking that way. You do the best you can, in good times and bad, to get as close as you can to the vision.”
Maderia says the museum still has plenty to do with Harold LeMay.
“Harold would love this place,” he said. “Thousands of people are going to be here, enjoying cars.
“This museum is creating the environment for people to do what Harold liked to do: hang out and talk about cars.”