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America's Car Museum Takes Shape in Tacoma

By Jonathan Schultz on October 19, 2011, 12:51 PM

The LeMay - America's Car Museum, in an aerial photo taken in September.
Paul Miller/America's Car Museum The LeMay - America's Car Museum, in an aerial photo taken in September.

To hear David Madeira tell it, building a 165,000-square-foot, four-story museum to house the breadth of American automotive history is a solemn task and a mathematical quandary.

While the gravity of the undertaking may be clear, an answer to the baseline question, "How many cars are we talking about?" is not.

Mr. Madeira and his team are charged with presenting a private collection that at one time may have contained 3,500 vehicles. But even that number is suspect.

"I don't know," Mr. Madeira said recently in an interview at The Times, when asked how many vehicles were in the possession of Harold LeMay, the garbage-disposal magnate whose collection of American automobiles would comprise the majority of the museum's holdings. Mr. LeMay, who died in 2000, was prone to buying a barn or even a field containing old automobiles just to prevent their contents from landing in a junkyard. "He was not a connoisseur; he was a true collector," Mr. Madeira said.

Since 2002, Mr. Madeira has been the president and chief executive of the LeMay Museum, which since 1998 has had a somewhat fluid physical presence on the campus of a former military academy on Interstate 5's northbound approach to downtown Tacoma. Many of the museum's cars are stored in specially built warehouses and in a former gymnasium on the campus. The museum has used certain events, particularly the New York auto show, to build public awareness not just of the developing museum, but the institution itself. In April, the LeMay mounted a show of vintage minicars at the Javits Center.

In June, the museum, accommodating "up to 7503 automobiles in gallery spaces, according to Mr. Madeira, is scheduled to open on a nine-acre lot near the Tacoma Dome.

In keeping with the project's scale, Mr. Madeira and the museum's advisory board envisioned a national attraction, not a roadside curiosity.

"We went to Epcot, to Disney, to Universal CityWalk," Mr. Madeira said. "We realized we had to make a destination."

The collection has been culled over the years, with input from the board, Ms. LeMay and her sons, to "north of a thousand" automobiles, Mr. Madeira said. Even so, the scope of the collection was such that the new institution's name, America's Car Museum, would be deserved, he said.

"The earliest car is from 1903," Mr. Madeira said. "His tastes went everywhere. We've got everything from an AMC Pacer to a Duesenberg."

Much of Mr. Madeira's work has consisted of fund-raising, a process complicated by the financial crisis of 2008. "It was looking bad for a while there," he said.

The museum has 53 corporate sponsors, including local corporations like Boeing. Napa, the auto parts retailer, contributed $500,000 as well as equipment for an on-site maintenance facility. Hagerty, the collector-car insurance provider, and State Farm are among the museum's other sponsors. It also received a $1 million federal grant to assist with construction. According to a news release, the museum expects to contribute $34 million annually to the Seattle-Tacoma economy.

The museum's board also intends to utilize the site's 3.5-acre show field as the new home of the Kirkland Concours d'Élégance, the premier vintage show in the Pacific Northwest. The inaugural concours at the museum is scheduled for Sept. 9, 2012.

Mr. LeMay's collection is to be rotated in and out of exhibition spaces, but Mr. Madeira anticipates that there would be room to accommodate vehicles visiting from other private collections. The watchmaker Nicola Bulgari, an avid collector of midcentury American automobiles who also serves on the museum's board, is expected to exhibit some of his cars there.

Despite its deep connections in the collector car world, America's Car Museum must assert itself as a compelling destination for people outside the hobby if it is to succeed.

"Now we're here, and we've got to make it viable," Mr. Madeira said.

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