The truth is, no one knows just how many cars LeMay acquired during his lifetime. Guinness put the number at more than 1,900 in 1997, while the garbage magnate was alive and still buying. Estimates run as high as 3,500, with some purchases surfacing after his death.
“We got calls from people in Kansas,” Miller recalls. “ ‘Did you know that he bought a car and it’s been here in the barn for six years?’ ”
LeMay’s appetite was as insatiable as it was wide-ranging. He bought foreign models as well as domestic. He had a thing for ambulances. He acquired not one but three English double-decker buses. When he and a friend drove one to Tacoma from the East Coast, LeMay favored riding in the top deck, where he could easily spot other cars to buy. He once hauled a 1914 Chevrolet Baby Grand home from Michigan in the back of a new garbage truck (purchased at a Chicago trade show) that had a clear acrylic window in the back so tailgating drivers could gawk.
“For him, it was about the car alone,” Miller says. “It became more about trying to save cars than anything else.”
Always an entrepreneur, LeMay earned a living shortly after high school by transporting shipyard workers by bus when World War II broke out. Before enlisting in the Navy himself, he acquired a tiny garbage-collection business on the outskirts of Tacoma. When he returned from active duty, he built Harold LeMay Enterprises into one of Washington’s largest privately owned garbage companies, which a California solid-waste company purchased eight years after his death. (LeMay also owned an auto-wrecking yard and a towing business.)
The attitude irritated some collectors, including Elken, who knew full well that LeMay — who went by the nickname of Lucky — had plenty of money. But LeMay had another side: Every August, he would open his home for a weekend car show that drew thousands of people. It was strictly a word-of-mouth affair with no advertising or admission charge, and it grew large enough that LeMay needed volunteers to help haul cars and set up exhibits. Elken was one of those volunteers, and he easily recalls LeMay giving control of a power winch to a grandchild who was younger than 5 years old, gently guiding the child as the boy pulled levers to hoist a relic onto a flatbed truck.
“He wasn’t pushing him,” Elken recalls. “He was so patient, telling him what to do.”
Harvey Widman is a real-estate broker who befriended LeMay a few years before the businessman’s death. Widman had acquired a rusting 1946 Studebaker, and when he determined he was unable to restore it, he thought of LeMay. “I thought, ‘I can’t do anything with it; I’ll call that crazy guy who lives on C Street,’ ” Widman remembers. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll take it.’ ”
He, too, witnessed LeMay’s softer side when he and LeMay drove out to an elderly woman’s house to fetch a 1947 Dodge that LeMay had agreed to buy, sight unseen. When they reached their destination, it was obvious that the woman who owned the car was poor and needed the money.
“She didn’t even say, ‘Hi,’ when she opened the door — she asked, ‘Did you bring the money?’ ” Widman recalls.
LeMay handed over a check and followed the woman to her garage. Instead of the 1947 Dodge sedan he’d been expecting, what sat in front of him was a 1974 Dodge Dart that was worth considerably less than what he’d paid. The woman simply did not know what she had — Widman figured she was either dyslexic or just plain confused. LeMay was calm.
“He was absolutely silent for a minute or so,” Widman says. “Then he turned to her and said, ‘That’s exactly what we came for.’ ”