Tacoma’s LeMay America’s Car Museum – Heaven for Car Lovers

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LeMay America’s Car Museum  (ACM) is known as an international destination for families and auto enthusiasts. The museum was created to celebrate America’s love affair with the automobile and show how it shaped our society. Located in Tacoma, Washington, the strikingly huge 165,000 square foot facility has been recognized as one of MSN’s 10 Best Automotive Museums worldwide.

So when I visited Tacoma this time, America’s Car Museum was my first stop. We drove in a back way (per my GPS) and saw the four-story structure rising before us. Once in the upper parking lot, it was easy to recognize this low-sloping architectural wonder. You can see it from the freeway. It’s next to the Tacoma Dome.

LeMay – America’s Car Museum History

It all began with a personal car collector. Harold and Nancy LeMay, of Tacoma, amassed the largest privately owned collection of automobiles, other vehicles, and related memorabilia in the world. At its peak, the LeMay Collection numbered in excess of 3,000 vehicles and thousands of artifacts.

LeMay America’s Car Museum

I was drawn to the details of the beautifully restored cars. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

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How did Harold LeMay do this? Well, he was a businessman who became a partner in an automotive business just out of high school. He then founded Spanaway Garbage Collection Company just after WWII. Harold also owned other companies in the Tacoma area, however, he had a clear preference for everything automotive.

As he showed his collection at car shows across the nation, he and his wife became aware of the importance of the collection in telling the story of the American automobile. His collection was featured in the Guinness Book of World Records.

LeMay America’s Car Museum

The collection ranges from early cars to high-end luxury cars of this era. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

They LeMays' knew that the impact of their Collection would be lost if it, like the famous Harrah’s Collection, was ever broken up. It became their dream to ensure their treasured collection never suffered the fate that befell Harrah’s.

As they worked with community leaders, the concept for America’s Car Museum was developed and funds were raised. In 2012 the museum was opened with great fanfare. An exciting party with 1,100 guests dining and dancing among the cars was thrown. Comedian Jay Leno spoke and the whole affair was topped off with a fireworks display courtesy of the local Puyallup Tribe.

LeMay America’s Car Museum

Grand opening in 2012. Photo courtesy: ACM

What You Will See at LeMay – America’s Car Museum

When you enter the glass-fronted building you’ll see a special exhibit of shiny antique fire engines and then proceed through the museum following the arrows. There is no need for stairs to go from level to level, you’ll be following a sloped route down and around the exhibits (thus drive-able for the cars).

LeMay America’s Car Museum

Shiny red fire engines greet you as you enter ACM. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

The ACM Collection consists of automotive artifacts and 250 automobiles spanning over 100 years of automotive history and approximately another 100 vehicles on exhibit loan from private collections. The exhibits take you from impressive classic cars and historic coaches through themed exhibits like “The British Invasion.” The British Invasion exhibit covers the cars and the culture that invaded America after WWII, and through the 1960s. Iconic cars displayed in this exhibit include Jaguar, Mini, Austin-Healey, and Lotus.

ACM British Invasion

The British Invasion. Photo courtesy: ACM

You’ll experience “Lucky’s Garage,” inspired by Harold and Nancy LeMay’s long time home in Spanaway. Lucky was Harold’s nickname. He was certainly lucky in business!

LeMay America’s Car Museum

Lucky's Garage. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

I especially enjoyed the unusual aspects of the collection. How about a wing-like solar powered car? I learned about early alternative fuel cars, predecessors to the electric cars and hybrids of today. My friend stopped and snapped photos of the motorcycle collection to send to her brother.

LeMay America’s Car Museum

Solar powered car. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

And, as we walked through the exhibits, we reminisced. I don’t think you can go through ACM without looking for those cars in your life that represent the good times. I found a Studebaker, our first family car.

LeMay America’s Car Museum

The distinctive nose of the Studebaker brought back childhood memories of Sunday drives. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

It’s not just about looking and not touching. There are areas designed for children and the child in all of us. There are slot cars to race, driving simulators and even an old car where cheerful volunteers will take your photo and print it out right there for you. That was fun!

LeMay America’s Car Museum

Slot Car Racing. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

Last but not least I was able to relive memories of driving along old Route 66. Cars of that marvelous era of touring the west, displays of the old Route 66 motels and curiosities brought me back to my days in Arizona. ACM is about discovering, learning and reminiscing.

LeMay America’s Car Museum

Get your kicks on Route 66. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

New at ACM–The Exotics

Just open to the public May 6, Exotics at ACM – Seductive Supercars focuses on an elite class of exotic cars that represent the world’s best designs, technology and performance.

LeMay America’s Car Museum

Ferrari. Photo courtesy: ACM

Finding More of the LeMay Car and Memorabilia Collections 

Currently, the bulk of the LeMay Collection is still housed on LeMay property. Some of the vehicles are in the process of being donated to the LeMay ACM Museum in order to be publicly viewed and others are still owned by the LeMay Family and are on display at the LeMay Family Collection at Marymount.

The Marymount location opened in 1923 as a boys' military school. It later became a center for English education and in 1975 and served as home to the LeMay family's vintage automobiles.

You can visit those collections too. There is a reciprocal agreement between the museums so your entrance fee to ACM will save you money at the Marymount museum (and vice versa). I haven’t had the pleasure of touring the collection at Marymount but noticed that they offer several types of tours including tours through the buildings on the historic campus.

The campus is located in the Spanaway neighborhood at 325 152nd St. E, Tacoma, WA 98445.

When You Go to LeMay—America’s Car Museum

Look for special events and exhibits by following the website and Facebook page. Wear your walking shoes. Most people spend at least two hours wandering the museum. There is a snack bar and gift shop on site. And, the views from the open deck are a great way to look out over Tacoma and the waterway.

Tacoma View

View of Tacoma from the deck. Photo by: Elizabeth R Rose

When you visit Tacoma check out the world-class art glass scene. Here are more ideas for your visit.

Written by Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose is back again in the Phoenix area after more than a decade living in New Mexico and Washington state. She travels throughout the West and beyond writing about destinations, accommodations, festivals, and restaurants, especially farm to table cuisine. As an expert in cultural tourism, her writing reflects that passion. She has won awards for her photography and accompanies her articles with her own images. She also provides photos for magazine covers, web sites and magazine articles (both print and online).

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