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America's Car Museum, Tacoma, Washington


1931 Studebaker President, in its day a real 'muscle car'

First imagine a huge and modern car museum with over 350 cars on display in a custom-built space. Cars everywhere: On stands, lined up along the ramps, parked in rows along the walls, covering every era from the very beginning up to the nearly-now. Racing cars. Limousines. Tiny utility cars. Pickup trucks. The cars you drove when you were younger.


Sounds like a chance for total excitement—and I won't pretend I didn't have a good time, as any auto enthusiast would—but my visit to America's Car Museum in Tacoma was also an occasion for deep disappointment, because all those cars were tantalizingly close, but for most of them close or complete views were made impossible by the design of much of the display space.

Two-wheelers get some space, too...but not much!

Large parts of the museum, which is based on the huge collection of cars amassed by the late Harold LeMay, are like walking through a parking garage, with your view limited to the front of the cars parked side by side, with no chance to examine the rear, the sides, the angles, and especially not the interiors. A bit like scanning the dessert case at a bakery, but banned from buying.


Not all of the museum is like that; there are areas set aside for racing and specialty cars with more access (although none particularly close), and a range of limousines and cars with custom coachwork are parked along the ramps allowing more viewing angles.

P1160721P1160735Alfa-Romeo, 1934 and 1957


And there are areas set up to highlight particular concepts, such as the one-off high-performance racing/road cars built by Steve Saleen, whose brash slogan is not out of line for cars that start at over $100,000.


Now keep in boggled mind the fact that that these hundreds of cars are only a fraction of the museum's collection, with occasional changes of what's on display. The rest are in another museum elsewhere in the area owned by the family of the man who founded both, Harold LeMay. Lemay made a fortune with a company that collected refuse while he collected around a thousand cars.

P1160761P1160796P1160925Cadillac Victoria Coupe, 1929, introduced safety glass; 1953 Kaiser Dragon, designed based on survey of women's car preferences; 1951 Studebaker Champion Starlight coupe, designed by Raymond Loewy

It should be said that this is, by and large, a huge and enjoyable collection of cars—and watch for two future blogs featuring its 'fun' cars and some true design classics—but it is not a museum of automotive history. Many of the descriptive cards feature details like the ones just above, but they are fairly random, and there is no attempt to trace important trends that marked the industry as a whole.

1909 Maxwell, ancestor of Plymouth; 1951 Citroen Traction Avant, a staple of ominous scenes in French noir films; 1959 Lincoln Continental, about as big as American cars ever got.

Those might include tracing how engines became more reliable and required less operator intervention, how brakes changed over time, what changes in cars widened the market for them or, to any real extent, how cars altered life in America and the world. Somewhere, a museum needs to do that!


That's not to say there's no history here. The colorful 1914 Model T Ford roadster above blew one of the popular stories, the one with Henry Ford saying that the public could 'have any color it wants as long as it's black.' Turns out that until 1914, black wasn't even available. But by the end of 1914 it became the only color because it was the only one that could dry fast enough on Ford's new assembly lines!

P1160784P1160783While we're speaking of history, here's a car that made history both as a car and as a movie star, the DeLorean of 'Back to the Future,' with an apt plate.

P1160795P1160872Two different eras, two different views of where you go for service!

P1160824P1160826P1160869Keep on Trucking!1932 Chevrolet 'Huckster' truck, designed for food vendors; 1924 Model T Roadster truck, with fuel tank under driver's seat; and an all-electric 1902 Studebaker Express Wagon

A road-trip reminder, a parade of Chevies and a familiar fin—my family had a 1958 Plymouth like that, but 4-door and very yellow.


If you're one of those who think of old cars as 'dinosaurs,' the museum has a treat for you: Fred Flintstone's car, built up from an electric golf cart.


In short, while in some ways America's Car Museum has a way to go and was a bit disappointing, it's really hard to stay cranky with a place that offers so many cars, so much to see, so many dreams to remember!

Next time I get to the Northwest, I'll certainly be visiting the other LeMay museum!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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