Special Reports

LeMay family keeps cars the way Harold left them

The phone rings at the LeMay Family Collection Foundation office in Spanaway, and Trudy Cofchin, the foundation director, picks it up.

For what seems to her like the thousandth time, she has this exchange:

“When are you opening?”

“We’re already open, and we have approximately 500 vehicles on display,” Cofchin says. “You may be referring to America’s Car Museum.”

Confused silence.

“Isn’t this the LeMay Museum?”

Well ... yes and no.

You can’t blame people for being confused.

After Harold LeMay died in 2000, his family donated $15 million and about 600 cars to the nonprofit Harold E. LeMay Museum, with the idea that it would become a Pierce County showplace to honor the man and his offbeat passion for automotive Americana.

But over the 15 years it took to finance and build the Tacoma museum, the organization veered away from LeMay’s original vision to attract broader, national attention and investors. A name change exemplified the marketing strategy: the Harold E. LeMay Museum became the LeMay-America’s Car Museum, or ACM, for short.

The Tacoma museum also ended up with less space than hoped. Plans for a 203,000-square-foot museum and a 10-story glass-encased Tower of Horsepower for 800 cars became a single, 165,000-square-foot building.

Most of the LeMay collection stayed right where it was, at a former boys’ military academy in Spanaway called Marymount.

In a move that infuriated some LeMay loyalists (LeMay family members sometimes call them FOHs for “Friends of Harold”), the new museum sold many of the LeMay cars that had been donated to it.

At two Bonhams & Butterfields auctions at Tacoma’s Murano Hotel in 2009 and 2010, the museum sold 145 LeMay cars, including a 1936 Rolls Royce touring car for $65,520 and a 1929 Buick Series 121 convertible for $42,120. Museum officials have continued selling other cars from the collection since, at auction and on eBay.

David Madeira, ACM’s chief executive officer, says the cars sold either were redundant or otherwise unsuitable for the museum collection. He also notes that Nancy and Doug LeMay (Harold’s widow and son), who sit on ACM’s board, did not vote against the sales.

Dismayed that the collection was being broken up – exactly what Harold LeMay had wanted to avoid – the LeMays, plus friends and supporters, bought back more than 150 of the cars and trucked them home to the collection at Marymount.

On Aug. 13, 2010, the LeMay family formed its own nonprofit corporation, the LeMay Family Collection Foundation, and opened for public tours six days a week.

The foundation has about 1,800 vehicles at Marymount and in storage nearby, including about 250 at the LeMay family home, a place Harold LeMay used to refer to as “a three-story house with a 300-car garage.”

The collection also includes about 70 cars donated to the new museum that it hasn’t yet picked up.

Some FOHs took the auction and the name change badly, accusing the museum of bad faith and betrayal. When the LeMay-America’s Car Museum opens Saturday, only 43 LeMay cars will be featured in opening displays, though they’ll get top billing on the main floor.

Harvey Widman, an old friend and real estate associate of Harold LeMay who volunteers one day a week guiding visitors through the maze of vehicles at Marymount, bears no grudges.

“If you’re going to put something as big as that together, including a $60 million building in downtown Tacoma, some feathers are going to get ruffled,” Widman said. “They did what they had to in order to get it done.

“When you get top executives from corporations across the country involved,” he said, “their vision is going to be different than one man’s vision here in Pierce County.”

Cofchin acknowledges some have bruised feelings, but said she understands what the new museum is doing.

She doesn’t blame it for auctioning off the cars. The museum adjusted its course and business plan and decided it didn’t need them, she said.

“That’s what car museums do,” she said. “The LeMay Foundation sells cars, too.”

“People think we’re in competition, but we’re not,” Cofchin said. “It’s really about making Puget Sound a destination for people who like cars.”

As a result, Pierce County now has two car museums: ACM’s castle of cars across from the Tacoma Dome, and its down-to-earth brother at Marymount.

“There are good things about both.” Widman said. “The museum in Tacoma will be the well-presented face of car collecting. This is the dirty fingernails version.”

At Marymount, cars – some of them worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – fill every available space. There are cars in the assembly hall and lined up bumper to bumper on the gym floor. Headlights peer down aslant from the bleachers.

A coral-colored 1949 Kaiser Deluxe rests in the showroom. Amish buggies hang from the ceiling rafters, over a Wolseley Six Eighty police car.

Round a corner and there, inexplicably, is a collection of brass hose nozzles. Outside, an old fire engine rusts in the trees. An ancient flatbed Chevy truck with weeds growing on its running boards packs the crushed chassis of what once was a Model A Ford.

“In terms of a focus, it’s everything,” Widman said.

Cofchin and Stacy Vogel Rushton, the collection coordinator, are the foundation’s only two paid employees. Everybody else who helps run the place, car detailers, tour guides, movers, are all volunteers, some of whom have been working with the LeMay family for as long as 30 years.

“This is more Harold than the new building is,” Cofchin said. “People come in all the time and say, ‘This is the Harold we knew.’”

Eric LeMay, Harold’s grandson who led the car museum effort in the early years, said the two museums are different but complementary brands.

“One is not necessarily better than the other,” he said. “They just have different flavors to them.

“For people who complain the new museum doesn’t have the spirit of Harold, I say, go to Marymount,” the younger LeMay said. “You’ll get it in spades.”