Northwest Travel

Northwest Travel: Tacoma, Wash.

The new LeMay America's Car Museum hits the accelerator

John Gottberg Anderson / For the Bulletin

TACOMA —

About 50 years ago, a car collector in then-rural Issaquah, Wash., was driving through the orchard country of eastern Washington when he spotted a rather unusual apple truck.

Bert Lobberegt instantly recognized the antique vehicle. He knew that it had been adapted for a purpose very different from its original use, when it was built around the turn of the last century. So he contacted the owner of the apple orchard, made a reasonable offer, and soon was the owner of a 1907 Pierce Great Arrow.

To say the vehicle was in need of repair would be a gross understatement. But with the assistance of Nevada casino owner Bill Harrah, a fellow car collector, he was able to completely restore the Pierce. And in 1965, he took his car and his family to the national meeting of Pierce Arrow collectors in New York.

They drove all the way: 9,600 miles coast-to-coast, round trip, from the Seattle area. And in each state they passed through, they bought a window decal to paste on the windshield, 28 of them in all.

To look at that car today, one must wonder how Lobberegt was able to see the road over the stickers. He was either quite tall or he had a couple of booster cushions on the driver's seat.

But there it stands, in the LeMay America's Car Museum, for all to see. In fact, more than 100,000 people have at least glanced at the classic Pierce since the world's largest private automobile museum opened next to the Tacoma Dome six months ago.

And like each one of the 349 other vehicles on display here, it has a story to tell.

The LeMay collection

The LeMay collection includes well over 2,000 cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, tractors and other motorized vehicles. (The Guinness Book of World Records verified the number at 2,200 in 1997, but it later grew to about 3,300, according to museum officials, before it was trimmed back.)

Harold E. LeMay (1919-2000), a Tacoma businessman, owned a refuse company and a towing-and-salvage business. He became far better known for his cars — vintage and specialty vehicles from the late 19th century to the early 21st.

On the LeMay estate, a former Catholic boys' military school in southeast Tacoma's Marymount neighborhood, the LeMay family continues to display the bulk of the collection. Here is everything from Model Ts to circa-1970 muscle cars to the pace car from the 2001 Daytona 500 race that took the life of driver Dale Earnhardt.

But Marymount is a bit off the beaten track, and the new America's Car Museum is a quick stop off the Interstate 5 freeway.

Years in development, the sleek $65 million museum has 165,000 square feet of show space on a nine-acre campus. It opened on June 2 with seven galleries on four levels near downtown Tacoma.

Any pre-conceived notion of what an automobile museum is, or is not, should be tossed away by visitors to the LeMay extravaganza.

“The traditional automobile museum is a flawed model,” said ScotKeller, chief marketing and communications officer for the museum. “We knew from the start that if we were going to be successful, we had to reinvent the idea of what a car museum is.”

As fewer than 10 percent of museum visitors might be considered car experts or enthusiasts, Keller said, a static core collection that is always on display won't attract a lot of repeat visits.

“Here, our cars are storytellers,” he said. “We start with a story, and go out and find vehicles to fit that story. We've changed the role of cars so that they are an integral part of telling a story. Even if you're not a car expert, you can come and visit often and get something new each time. Change is what it's all about.”

Already, Keller said, America's Car Museum is searching for vehicles that will be presented as part of next year's exhibits. “About half of the cars in this collection are loaned by private individuals and corporations,” he explained.

Presently, 45 cars from the original collection of Harold LeMay and his wife, Nancy, are displayed in the Grand Gallery on the museum's main floor. These include a 1903 Oldsmobile Runabout, a 1930 Duesenberg J and a 1986 Owosso Pulse three-wheeler, helping to represent the diversity of vehicles within the heavily American collection. These will be changed out on a regular basis.

Other current exhibits — scheduled to run into 2013 — feature custom coachwork of the 1920s and '30s, Indy 500 racing cars, the Nicola Bulgari collection of American luxury cars, the 60 years of the Ferrari brand in the United States, the post-Second World War “invasion” of British cars, and experiments with alternative fuel sources.

Here's where the “storytelling” comes in.

Custom coachwork

Prior to the development of assembly-line technology, as descriptive text in this exhibit explains, automobiles were built one at a time, by hand.

Henry Ford's efficient production techniques put cars within the economic reach of the middle class, but until the Great Depression, wealthy clients often preferred unique, luxurious vehicles that were custom-built upon “rolling chassis” from such manufacturers as Duesenberg, Mercedes-Benz, Packard and Rolls-Royce.

In an era when the average cost of a new car was $640, and the average annual salary for a skilled worker about $1,500, a Duesenberg Model J could cost the buyer $20,000, from chassis to full body and interior. In today's dollars, that translates to hundreds of thousands.

In ordering a coach-built car, buyers would first select a chassis, including frame, suspension, steering, drive train and radiator. Next, they would consider the design, based upon suggestion details published in a catalog. Every detail could be customized, from intricate wood and metal inlays to exotic upholstery. The best coach builders might even tailor the car to their customer's height and weight, or to that of their chauffeur.

The best-known coach builder was Brewster & Company, which transitioned from a century of manufacturing horse carriages to making automobiles in 1910. The company reserved unique paint colors for elite families such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Astors. It sold to Rolls-Royce in 1924. Brewster was forced out of business by the Depression in 1937, but the legacy of coach-built cars lives on in the design departments of modern auto makers.

The 1930 Lincoln L Brougham is one of many outstanding examples on display here.

Indy 500 cars

As the largest single-day motor-sports event in the world, the Indianapolis 500 has a unique place in the world of auto racing. Originally built as a testing ground, according to interpretive text at the museum, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted its first race in 1911, then as now requiring 200 laps on a 2 1/2-mile track.

Over the years, the track was improved from gravel to brick to asphalt, and a score of safety innovations were introduced. But its treacherous Turn One has remained the same. With each revolution, drivers are subjected to a force nearly three times that of gravity on the curve of nearly 90 degrees.

This exhibit features six pre-1970 Indy cars on loan from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, as well as the car that won the race in 1959. I found two, in particular, to be of interest.

The 1931 Cummins Diesel Special No. 8 was built upon a Duesenberg chassis custom-made to hold a 360-cubic-inch, four-cylinder diesel truck engine. It took a special concession to allow the 3,389-pound car to be in the 40-car Indy field. But driver Dave Evans completed the entire 500 miles of the race without a single pit stop, averaging 86.1 mph to finish in 13th place. The car used only 31 gallons of diesel at a total cost (then) of $2.55.

The 1964 Hurst Floor Shift Special was built with a four-cylinder 255-cubic-inch Offenhauser engine. After turning practice laps at more than 150 mph, NASCAR driver Bobby Johns was taking qualification runs on what would have been his first Indy 500 when he spun out and hit the outer retaining wall, just before taking the green flag. The damage could not be repaired for another attempt and the car never ran again.

Bulgari collection

A famed Italian jeweler (BVLGARI) of Greek descent, Nicola Bulgari is also one of the world's leading collectors of American cars, especially Buicks.

“Europeans don't understand American cars,” Bulgari said in text that accompanies this exhibit. “The collectors say they are mass produced, but that's the point. The (European) Alfa Romeos, Delahayes, Delages, Hispano-Suizas, aren't truly reality. They are easy cars to do, with few restrictions.

“But a mass-produced American car? Now that's a difficult assignment. And look at the result. These incredible styling studios produced dream cars that weren't fantasies; the cars of your dreams have become a reality. An extraordinary achievement.”

Half of his collection is housed in Rome, the balance in Allentown, Pa. For the exhibit in America's Car Museum, he loaned 10 of his personal cars, including Cadillacs and a 1909 Hupmobile Model 20 roadster.

But it's the Buicks of the 1920s, '30s and '40s that most capture his fancy. “For me, Buicks are the most elegant cars,” Bulgari said. “They are luxurious without being ostentatious and offer the quality normally associated with far more expensive import cars.”

Ferrari in America

Introduced to the United States after World War II, Ferrari automobiles have become known for bringing the power and handling of a technical race car to city streets and country highways.

Designed and built without consideration of expense — the factory in Maranello, Italy, produces more than 6,000 cars a year, and each one is spoken for — Ferraris couple distinctive style with cutting-edge technology and old-world craftsmanship.

This exhibit features cars from each decade of export to America, from the 1949 166MM Barchetta to the 2013 458 Italia Challenge. I was impressed by the 1991 Ferrari F40, the first road-legal production car to break the 200-mile-per-hour barrier.

Naturally, its color is Rosso Corsa — the international motor-racing color of Italy. “If you can afford a Ferrari, you can have it painted any color you like,” explains an interpretive sign in the museum. “But if you want it to look like a Ferrari, red is the only logical choice.”

British Invasion

To those who grew up in the 1960s, when The Beatles sang “Baby, you can drive my car,” and Mick Jagger said, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” the “British Invasion” refers to music, movies and fashion. But it also carried into cars, as this exhibit depicts clearly.

It doesn't take Agent 007's sleek Aston-Martin — nor “the world's grooviest car,” Austin Powers' 1970 E-Type Jaguar, painted with a Union Jack — to make a statement about English-made automobiles. The cars in this exhibit include the quirky Mini, the most popular British car of all time, as well as the Jaguar, the MG, the Austin-Healey and the Lotus, which sparked the rear-engine revolution at the Indy 500.

American soldiers stationed in the United Kingdom during World War II were enamored with the fun, fuel-efficient British cars. Their subsequent demand led Britain to become the world's top car exporter by 1950. Plagued by persistent quality problems and premature rust, the English cars nonetheless remained in the top three until the 1970s, when they were surpassed by Japanese and German models.

Today, many famous labels are owned by Asian carmakers. India's Tata Motors, which has Jaguar and Rover, continues to assemble them in Britain. China's Nanjing Automobile Group released the first new MG model in many years, the MG6, in 2011; it also owns Austin and Morris, but not a single new model has been issued since the 1980s.

Mini has been owned since 1994 by Germany's BMW, which has achieved success with its “next generation” British-assembled Mini since 2001. BMW also owns Triumph, which has not been produced since 1981 — although rumors persist of a new Triumph in production.

The only British car still owned and operated in the mother country is Morgan, which has remained in the same family since 1910. With annual production in the mere hundreds, these hand-built cars leave aficionados waiting one to two years for the latest model.

Alternative propulsion

Ever since the first gas-powered automobiles appeared on America's highways, engineers have been searching for more efficient means to power the vehicles. From steam and electricity to solar power, alternative energies have been tested and explored in great depth.

According to this exhibit, motor vehicles emit more than 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, contributing to global warming “and other nasty stuff.” In the United States, however, low taxes and existing infrastructure make gas the least expensive way to power cars. This country uses more than 350 million gallons of gasoline every day, more than 40 percent of the world's total.

In the long run, this exhibit suggests, petroleum might get more expensive as it gets harder to extract. If we can get our cars to run on renewable energy, we could keep our cars and trucks moving for less. More energy-efficient cars mean big savings and less pollution.

Within this exhibit are some of the earliest electric and hybrid cars, including current offerings by such major manufacturers as GM, Toyota and Nissan.

Also on display is the 2005 Momentum Solar Car, designed by a team of more than 200 University of Michigan students. Powered by an eight-horsepower in-hub motor, the solar-powered car won the North American Solar Challenge, the longest solar-car race in history, extending from Austin, Texas, to Calgary, Alberta.

Other facilities

Located on the various floors of the showrooms are several other attractions. NAPA Auto Parts sponsors an area where classic-car restorations are performed by skilled mechanics as the public looks on. A slot-car track replicates the road-racing experience in miniature; video simulators allow visitors to try holding a turn at 150 mph.

The museum cafe, Classics by Pacific Grill, has a variety of lunch items priced between $4 and $10. There's a gift shop near the entrance to the museum, as well as a private collectors' club room and meeting rooms on lower levels.

All in all, it's far more than even the keenest collector might have imagined when the 1907 Pierce Grand Arrow was a new car.

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