A modest man with a passion for automobiles inspired the new LeMay-America's Car Museum.

Harold LeMay didn’t put on airs. For 16 years, he and his wife, Nancy, lived in an apartment above the office of his garbage business just outside Tacoma, Wash., less than an hour south of Seattle. When the LeMays finally moved, it was across the road to a house on a large lot amid plain folks on a fairly busy street, within eyesight of an ever-growing fleet of garbage trucks. His last daily driver was a rollback flatbed truck equipped with a power winch to facilitate loading heavy objects. He favored denim, disdained publicity and loved cars.

With the help of that flatbed truck and a sizable fortune amassed from his trash business, LeMay accumulated what once was the world’s largest privately owned collection of antique automobiles, as recorded in the 1997 Guinness Book of World Records. (Guinness currently does not have a category for the world’s largest car collection, but it seems a safe bet that Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei, has surpassed LeMay with an alleged collection of some 7,000 luxury and high-performance cars.) And though LeMay, who died in 2000 at the age of 81, never moved from his corner of Washington after his parents brought him there as an infant, his legacy resonates throughout the world.

After more than a decade of planning and fundraising, the LeMay-America’s Car Museum opened in Tacoma in June 2012. With room for 300 cars inside a 165,000-square-foot structure and plenty of space for more outside on the nine-acre campus, it is one of the planet’s largest car museums. Such auto aficionados as comedian Jay Leno, vice president of global design for General Motors Ed Welburn and Nicola Bulgari, head of the eponymous Italian firm known for jewelry and other luxury goods, were present for its opening last year.

1926 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost
LeMay donated 600 vehicles to start the museum he didn’t live to see, and it hasn’t stopped there: LeMay’s family has continued to purchase cars after his death, including treasures like a 1948 Tucker, one of 51 Tuckers ever made. The goal is to rotate cars so that exhibits change gradually every six to nine months.

The building, made from wood and steel, looks vaguely automotive from the outside, as if inspired by an engine manifold head or the hood of a Shelby Cobra. Inside is an ode to America’s love for the automobile, and Tacoma now rivals Detroit as an automotive epicenter.

“We didn’t want a square box,” says David Madeira, the museum’s president and chief executive officer. “We did not want a stodgy building. We wanted to create a destination that people would relate to.”

Paul Miller, the museum’s chief operating officer, believes they’ve achieved those goals. “I’d like to think Harold would be proud of it,” he says.

1930 Duesenberg