1959 Ford Thunderbird (right) and a 1956 Mercury

The museum now displays between 75 and 100 cars from collectors other than LeMay. They welcome donations and occasionally have to politely turn away cars that aren’t needed. Madeira says that the museum doesn’t have difficulty convincing collectors to donate their treasures, as the thought of selling cherished cars to buyers who would keep them hidden in private garages is often too much to bear.

“People love their cars,” Madeira says. “The thought of selling them drives them crazy.”

1948 Tucker
LeMay himself sold fewer than 10 collector cars during his lifetime and bought most of those back. Though the collection has been pruned via auction since his death, his family still owns at least 1,500 vehicles. Those that aren’t at LeMay-America’s Car Museum are about 10 miles south at the LeMay Family Collection at Marymount, another museum housed in a former military academy that LeMay bought in the late 1980s. That facility also holds all of the other odds and ends LeMay collected, such as salt and pepper shakers, meat grinders, motors from World War II–era planes, brass hose nozzles and railroad cars that he hauled in from unknown places, as well as track that he started laying himself. LeMay was a collector, through and through — but cars were his first love.

Yet even visitors to LeMay-America’s Car Museum who aren’t as fervent about vehicles as its namesake once was can’t help but marvel at the collection.
“It’s amazing,” says 86-year-old Charles Shields Sr. of Las Vegas, who stopped by the museum with a friend who lives in the area. Though Shields doesn’t consider himself a car nut, he has driven or owned more than a few vehicles in his lifetime — a dozen of which he saw in an afternoon at the museum.

“My mother had that same 1932 Ford Roadster — it was the first car I ever rode in in my life,” he says. “This is unbelievable. It’s almost unimaginable.”

A Tale of Two Museums

Two of the world’s largest car museums are 10 miles apart in Tacoma, Wash. Plan to spend at least two hours strolling through each facility; it’s easy to spend four or more.

LeMay-America’s Car Museum
2702 E. D St., Tacoma, Wash.
(253) 779-8490
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week
Admission: $14 for adults; $12 for seniors; $8 for youth; kids under 5 get in free

LeMay Family Collection at Marymount
325 E. 152nd St., Tacoma, Wash.
(253) 272-2336
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with guided tours hourly starting at 10 a.m.; the last tour starts at 3 p.m. Open Sundays from noon until 5 p.m., with tours starting at noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Admission: $15 for adults; $5 for ages 6-17; kids under 5 get in free

Frequent American Way contributor BRUCE RUSHTON is a big fan of old cars. He especially favors Buicks.