Nearly a year old, the LeMay-America’s Car Museum in Tacoma has so far succeeded in its mission: to tell the history of the automobile in the U.S. — admittedly, a lot of ground to cover — as well as to provoke smiles and stories.
While heads certainly turn at a Stanley Steamer, two DeLoreans and the car driven by John Goodman in the 1994 movie The Flintstones, perhaps more startling for visitors is a 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis station wagon that isn’t the typical collector’s item. Parked amid Duesenbergs and Ferraris worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the car — complete with wood-grain paneling on the sides — is the equivalent of a paint-by-numbers hanging beside a Picasso.
“1983?” a woman declares in disbelief as she gazes at the Mercury. “That’s the year I graduated from high school!”
It’s a typical response.
“That car gets commented on as much or more than any other car we have,” Madeira says. “Wow, we went to the beach in that car, what’s that doing here?”
It is precisely that sort of reaction the museum wants. Rolls-Royces and Corvettes are fine, and the museum has those. But personal connections between visitors and exhibits are even more priceless.
“I went home and said to my wife, ‘Cars are fun, the Pacific Northwest is beautiful, and this sounds like a challenge,’ ” says Madeira, who was living in Chicago at the time and knew how to raise money from his fundraising work but had never before run a museum.
He recalls a frank discussion he had with the museum’s board that included Nancy LeMay, Harold’s widow, in which he said the key to the museum’s success was not in telling one man’s story, but in telling the story of the nation. Paul Miller, a former Tacoma city councilman and now the museum’s chief operating officer, was wowed. “He came and laid out what this institution could be,” he says. “Not only was the big vision doable, it was what we wanted.”
Most of the funding for the $65 million museum came from a blend of public, private and corporate sources, with LeMay’s family contributing $15 million in the early years and Nancy LeMay giving an additional $700,000 shortly before the museum opened last year. Other car lovers like Bulgari — who pledged support in 2005 and is now on the museum board — were all too happy to help out.
“He said, ‘How can I help?’ ” Madeira recalls of approaching Bulgari at a car show. “It had always been his belief that America should have a Smithsonian for the automobile.”