If you’ve meandered through one of the many car shows of the Northwest, you’ve probably seen some pretty cool rides. It’s a great way to get up close to a piece of history. The common vehicles featured in most of these shows are mid ‘50s to late ‘70s American-made automobiles. Some shows have rules as to how old the car must be to be shown, what condition it is in or where it was made. While these shows can be a lot of fun, especially for those who grew up driving one of these muscle machines, being able to see a wider variety of automotive history is a more difficult thing to find. Lucky for us, North America’s largest continuous “car show” can be found right in our backyard. And if you’ve never been, you are sure in for a treat.
LeMay - America’s Car Museum is a bucket-list trip for those serious about automotive history but also a great time for those who know little to nothing about vehicles of the past or even how a car works; and that’s the beauty of this place.
“It’s truly multi-generational,” said Ashley Bice, National Strategic Initiatives Officer with America’s Automotive Trust, a nonprofit organization aimed at preserving America’s car heritage. “Everyone walks away with a great experience.”
The ACM collection includes some 300 cars, trucks and motorcycles inside the 165,000-square-foot complex, with vehicles spanning more than a century. “It’s all about the celebration of America’s love affair with the automobile, not one particular vehicle or brand,” said Bice. The collection varies from some of the earliest models ever made to some of the newest in luxury, high speed or concept on the market today.
The museum came to be when Harold and Nancy LeMay had amassed the largest privately owned collection of vehicles and memorabilia in the world. When asked about his collection, the late Harold LeMay said, “I don’t go for just the dollar value car. If it is unusual, I like it. So, I am kind of a maverick, since I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Chevy, Ford or Duesenberg man. I see it, I like it, I buy it.”
After amassing such a large collection, and seeing the sheer enjoyment of guests at their annual car show and open house at the couple’s homestead, the LeMays made the decision that instead of seeing their collection scattered and auctioned off to private owners, it would be better served as a piece of history that all could enjoy. After more than a decade of planning, grant writing, fundraising, ups and downs, and surviving the economic downtown, ground was broken in 2011, and the museum saw its doors open for good in June of 2012. Since then, thousands of visitors from all 50 states and 47 countries have passed through the doors to admire this truly one-of-a-kind collection.
First-time visitors are amazed almost instantly as they walk through the doors. Most museums typically display only a small portion of their collections, as many of the rare artifacts are kept in storage and away from the public eye. Rather unique to LeMay - America’s Car Museum is that the collection is held in an “open air” setting. Vehicles that aren’t currently on display in one of the numerous exhibits are still open for easy public view in the center lower levels of the complex.
While the LeMays are the primary donors to the museum, other cars, trucks, motorcycles and unique pieces of automotive history have come from many different sources. According to Bice, two-thirds of the vehicles on display come from private donors—not just from the area but across both oceans. “We had a 1941 Buick go to China for an exhibition and then back to the museum. Our 1927 La Salle that is currently on display competed in the 2011 Mille Miglia in Italy,” she said.
It’s a unique opportunity for collectors as they have a safe place to display their car where thousands more people will get to see and experience it than at a regional car show. It also helps the museum continually bring in new pieces of history to share as the exhibits rotate often and showcase different brands, eras and styles.
“You don’t have to be a ‘car guy’ to enjoy this place, but if you are, there is definitely a lot of eye candy to enjoy,” said Bice.
Getting the unique autos is often a two-way street. Sometimes the museum is made aware of a special car or vehicle that would make a great fit for an upcoming exhibit, making a request to the owner; and other times, the vehicle’s owner is made aware of the museum and wants to be part of sharing its history with others.
The museum recently wrapped up displaying one of the more unique collections on the planet. While many donate a single vehicle or maybe a couple, Brown M. Maloney loaned LeMay 125 Honda motorcycles from multiple decades. Maloney was highlighted in the 2019 Master Collector’s Exhibit, which is reserved for “dedicated enthusiasts whose passion for cars knows no bounds.” A new Master Collector will be featured later this year.
The collection at LeMay includes just about anything you can think of, along with several vehicles and artifacts you might not have known to exist. One exhibit might include the earliest Cadillac, Model Ts and Model As, and around the corner you’ll find a display of British-made automobiles. Muscle cars and family wagons, high-end ultra-fast sports cars and even the foot-powered “Flintmobile” from the 1994 Flintstones movie are on display for guests’ enjoyment.
One of the more popular exhibits is Route 66, which includes a rotating interactive collection of cars and memorabilia to celebrate America’s iconic roadway. This exhibit is dedicated to the heyday of American automobile travel and helps a younger generation see what a family road trip on this iconic highway looked like in the 1950s and ‘60s.
First-time visitors should set aside some time to visit Lucky’s Garage to learn about Harold LeMay, his passion for automobiles, how he came to own so many and his decision to put them on display for all to enjoy. This is a permanent exhibit paying tribute to those who made it all possible.
Though initially popular in the south, NASCAR’s following has grown not just nationwide but has spread to a worldwide audience. Two-hundred mile per hour super cars dominate the tracks today, but this sport got its humble beginning from southern moonshiners tuning engines for a few extra horsepower in order to avoid the law while running their illicit alcohol. In the Legends of Motorsports: The NASCAR story you’ll not only learn about how the sport began to blossom but see the evolution of race cars, many of which you’ll recognize from popular drivers throughout its history.
If you want to take your racing experience up a notch, be sure to stop by the Speed Zone. Here you are strapped into a state-of-the-art CXC racing simulator so you can get the feel of track and slot car racing.
One of the most exciting new exhibits at LeMay is Saleen: From the Heart of a Racer to America’s Supercar. The incredible display was unveiled this past fall with Steve Saleen in attendance. Visitors are treated to a unique display of Saleen’s rich automotive history spanning over four decades. You can enjoy a variety of historic vehicles on display, including his personal racing machines, early Saleen Mustangs, the Saleen S7 (considered America’s first supercar), and examples of the company’s new Saleen 1 mid-engine turbocharged sports car and recently unveiled Saleen 1 GT4 concept race car. Other exhibits include the opulent rides of the 1930s and a wing of all British-made autos.
There is no shortage of vehicles to see, but there are also great opportunities to get hands on and interactive as well.
“We have dedicated spaces for kids and families to really experience automobiles,” said Bice. These include the photo car where you can have your picture taken with a 1923 Buick touring car. There is also the Family Zone which has multiple interactive pieces for kids to explore. Here they can study how a car works by looking at an exposed chassis, build and race pinewood derby cars, get behind the wheel of a Mustang, and design their own car.
Many school groups have come through the museum, and there are also family-focused programs as well as adult-only programs on the calendar. What’s truly amazing is the museum is run almost entirely on a volunteer basis. These folks handle everything from tour guides, greeters and manning various interactive stations to monitoring the collections and doing general maintenance and upkeep on the collection.
While many of the museum’s collection will likely never see outdoor roadways again, that isn’t to say you won’t soon see and hear some of them rumbling the streets of the Northwest.
“Our Drive Home program takes vehicles from the collection and gets them out on the road driving from one point to another,” explained Bice.
In fact, part of the collection will take a unique journey later this year. To recreate the iconic American road trip, vehicles from LeMay will be brought to California in late spring and driven across the country, eventually landing in Detroit for the American Auto Show in June. The cars will be making stops at famous points of interest and National Parks along the way. “We really want to keep the hobby alive, and this is a great opportunity to get people to see these cars up close, outside, and appreciate the history,” said Bice.
While any time of year is a great time to visit, those wanting an even more unique experience will want to mark their calendars for the evening of March 13. Each year, the museum hosts a yearly party called Drive the Blues Away. This year’s theme is “Viva Las Vegas.” Guests can still wander throughout the museum, but you’ll also be treated to food, drink and live music as you peruse the collection. Tickets will be going on sale soon for this exclusive event.
When the weather turns brighter and warmer, you’ll find even more fun outside the museum walls with Cruise Ins and Drive-In movies featuring a 40-foot screen. Take a Spin will put you in a moving car, which could be anything from a Packard to a vintage fire truck.
There is always something new to find at LeMay - America’s Car Museum. New visitors are astonished by the sheer scope of the place, while members continue to find new details they might have missed on previous visits. Nowhere else can you find a collection of such variety, all thanks to the incredible generosity of Harold and Nancy LeMay.