A day at America’s car museum – part one

Some of you may know that Sue and I visit Seattle regularly to catch up with our eldest daughter, who lives out there on the West coast. It’s a great place to be, with an abundance of sights to see and places to go – from the futuristic Space Needle, built for the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, to the vast Boeing factory where, amongst others, the new composite-bodied 787 Dreamliner is assembled. There is, however, one destination that I have held high on my wish list for some time: the LeMay America’s Car Museum in Tacoma. And it was during our February stay that this wish became reality.

Tacoma is a port city 32 miles southwest of Seattle on Washington’s Puget Sound and is the county seat of Pierce County, Washington. Following a decline in the latter part of the last century, Tacoma is now in rude health. Here you can find art galleries, Washington University and a restored urban water front area. Should you be into glass sculptures, visit the Museum of Glass featuring the works of Dale Chilhuly, a Tacoma native whose pieces you can see displayed across the globe. Don’t miss them!

tacnar2It’s not the museums that many people will associate with this city, but the famous (infamous?) Tacoma Narrows Bridge or “Galloping Gertie” as it became known locally. Opened to traffic on 1 July 1940, it collapsed spectacularly into the water below on 7 November of that year. It’s textbook stuff and, for those civil engineers amongst us, it is an example of elementary forced resonance at play, where the 40mph wind blowing at the time provided the external periodic frequency that matched the bridge’s natural structural frequency, causing the wild undulations ending in its collapse. Lessons learned from this failure have influenced designs of long-span bridges built since the forties. Catch up with the video on YouTube (here). As a footnote, neither the car – I couldn’t tell which make – nor the dog inside made it.

LeMay Tacoma HarbourUpon hearing of our plans to visit that city, our daughter’s friend said, “Ah, the aroma of Tacoma”, whilst wrinkling her nose. Said to be as a result of pulp and paper mills, rendering plants and an oil refinery, this odour, although now greatly reduced, is noticeable around the Tide Flats region. We didn’t really believe this but, upon alighting the bus, roses and lavender were not the first thoughts that came to mind. However this was all forgotten for, after a short walk from the bus station, the silver roof of our destination snaking across a huge car park loomed into view like some prehistoric earth boring creature. Situated opposite the Tacoma Dome, the Museum opened its doors in 2012; it’s taken us four years to get around to visiting it….but it was worth the wait!

Harold LeMay started out before WW2 with a scrap business which grew into a large and successful refuse collection company in the area. He loved cars and would never turn down the opportunity to purchase an interesting example. LeMay Showcase floorIt is said that he encouraged his employees to advise him of any such item they saw on their collection rounds, and if he subsequently bought the vehicle, that employee would receive a $100 finder’s fee. Eventually, he and his wife, Nancy, amassed the largest privately owned collection of vehicles and associated memorabilia in the world. With over 3000 cars, vans and pick-ups, the collection is mainly of American origin, and clearly shows the dominance of the US auto industry in the 20th century. Funded by donation, including $15M from his widow, Nancy, the museum is said to have cost a cool $100M to build.

Well, enough of the history lesson; so what’s inside? Quite a lot, actually. Gift shops, restoration workshops, lecture halls, a café, galleries – Oh and around 500 cars set over four floors with names including Luck’s Garage, Speed Zone and Club Auto. All are accessed via ramps, similarly attired with mouth-watering American metal reflecting the names of the ramps – Route 66, Master Collectors, Nascar and Custom Coachworks – brilliant! It beats going to Tesco for a loaf of bread. It’s tempting to repeat the old cliché: “there is too much to mention here” – well, there is, and I did! So now we will take a gentle stroll through the halls and I’ll pick up on some of the exhibits which caught my eye.

The entrance is a great place to start and in the foyer, resplendent in metallic cobalt blue, sat a 1958 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. It had been lightly breathed upon, as evidenced by the body sitting some four inches lower on the frame, not that you’d notice. The rest was original right down to the tasteful turquoise leather. Having paid a very reasonable entry fee, and been offered free parking, we arrived at the Plaza Level, the top floor Showcase gallery, displaying some of the best American muscle cars ever to leave Detroit. Take in the 1964 Pontiac GTO convertible. Originally an option pack for the Tempest Le Mans, GTO stood for Gran Turisimo Omologato in which Pontiac dropped a 389 cubic inch 306 hp V8 into their mid-sized offering, thus creating probably the first muscle car.

Others soon followed: Buick with their 1966 Skylark Gran Sport powered by a Wildcat 401 cu. inch under the hood. Nearby another Buick, named the Wildcat, was being displayed. This one with a difference – it was fibreglass, an experiment with the alternative to steel. It didn’t catch on.

Oldsmobile are represented by a 1972 Hurst/Oldsmobile pace car, one of only 629 built. Developed by Hurst Performance, it was the only time an Indianapolis Pace Car was not sponsored by the manufacturer. This beauty had a 455 cu. inch V8 hitched to a 3-speed automatic power train which pumped out 340 bhp.

Rubbing fenders with a Dodge Charger (where would a collection be without one of those?) were GM’s Chevy Camarro SS and Ford’s Mustangs. Alongside was a delightful Daytona yellow Plymouth Road Runner – complete with the Looney Tunes speedy critter along its flanks.

LeMay Ford GalaxieThere is so much more, including examples from lesser known brands such as American Motors, but I cannot finish this section without a mention of the car that pushed the Jaguar Mk2 from its racing pedestal – the Ford Galaxie. There were two examples, a white saloon and my favourite, a metallic maroon 7 litre convertible. It was a 1966 Galaxie 500 with a 428cu. inchV8 and a Cruise-O-Matic 3 speed auto box. It could do 122mph and get to 60mph in 7.6 seconds, not bad in those days.  Jay Leno has one (here). I don’t think our Austin Cambridge quite matched it somehow.

We’ll go down to Lucky’s Garage next but, before you leave, turn around and look out of that huge window and take in the panorama of the Tacoma Harbour, docks and industrial skyline. Not a wobbly bridge in sight!

Level 3 is accessed via the Custom Coachworks ramp which is no less spectacular than the floor from which it leads. For me, it is of great interest since it is dedicated to the American Coachbuilders of the first third of the last century. Spaced between the war years, it evokes times of glamour, Hollywood Stars, the Roaring Twenties, bootleg booze, cocktails, Elliot Ness, Speakeasy’s, the rich and famous living the dream – and the Carossiers who placed those dreams on wheels. Now long gone, they are nevertheless names that will forever evoke that unique slice of American history. Come with me next time and see what they had to offer.

To be continued…

Neil Shanley