Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Car Museum

So, the past few days I've had little snippets of the song "Big Yellow Taxi" (aka They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot) running through my head off and on. Except the lyrics I hear are

"They took all the cars
And put them in a car museum
And charged the people twelve dollars*
Just to come and see 'em".

The reason why is that on Saturday Janice and I went down to the LeMay American Car Museum in Tacoma. I'd suggested we might want to visit a museum as part of the holiday weekend, since we hadn't been to one in a while, and Janice came up with the idea of seeing what there was to see in Tacoma, rather than in Seattle, since each is about equidistant for us here in Kent. It was an easy drive down, and we took a leisurely hour-long tour of the cars that, since it was the last of the day, the guide stretched to two hours, so our group had plenty of time to look around.

Not that two hours was enough; it's the sort of place you could easily spend a whole day at and still not see everything. For one thing, this was only one of two facilities -- not the main LeMay collection but the part of it that'd been donated and turned into a museum, on the grounds of an old Catholic military junior high/high school run by nuns that, having become unpopular during the VietNam era, had been bought by Mr. LeMay** to store his cars in.

How many cars? I gathered the whole collection ran to more than three thousand cars, about half of which were still in the family's hands. LeMay himself seems to have been a man who, having a hobby, was not afraid to indulge it; apparently there were times when he bought a car a day. Of course there was a lot of duplication -- I don't remember what specific car it was, but the guide at one point did say LeMay had sixty of a particular car. Not sixty made by that company, but of that specific year (say, a 1953 Studebaker coupe, just to make up an example). Now apparently many of them are stored in barns and the like all over the Tacoma area, anywhere he could arrange to stash them. At the LeMay museum, there are a lot in the old gym, more in the rifle range and pool room (the pool now being covered with plywood), and many more (stacked three high on shelving all along the walls) in a vast barn-like structure created especially for them.

There were many, many cars from companies that disappeared long ago: Nash and Packard and De Soto and La Salle and Hudson. There were many from those still with us, or at least with us until recently: Fords (Model-A, Model-T--perhaps the default American car for nearly a half-century-- &c) and Plymouths (I looked for one like my grandmother's but could only come close-ish) and Cadillacs and much much more. And there were many from companies I'd never heard of, like Mercer or Windsor or Wolseley or Kaiser*** For an idea of what treasures they've got, take a look at the sampling featured on their website:

I am sorry I missed one exhibit due to our timing: they usually have three cars together -- an electric car, a Stanley Steamer, and a Ford Model-N [from 1906]. I hadn't even been aware there was such a thing as a 'Model N', but from the postcard I bought it was an appealing looking car. I'm glad to have seen the electric car, the only one of the three currently not on tour elsewhere (apparently it had a range of about a hundred miles and a top speed of fifteen to twenty miles per hour --good for city driving, but not out into the country), but I'd love to have seen a real Stanley Steamer as well.

One car they're clearly really proud of is their 1948 Tucker, which the guide spent more time on than any other single car in the collection. Ironically, while the guide made much of this, he only briefly mentioned the car parked next to it, a 1937 Cord -- one of the most remarkable cars ever made; having first read about it when I was maybe ten or so, I'm glad to have now actually seen one.

So, if you like old cars (and what American doesn't like cars?), a visit here is well worth the trip. I know after we got back that night I was searching online for information about those old Matchbox 'Models of Yesterday' that I used to own long ago (having bought all the ones that came out circa 1966-69), starting with the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost the year we lived in Little Rock. It also made for an interesting thought experiment on the drive home, looking around in traffic and wondering what of the cars around us might someday wind up in a similar museum. I suspect not the ones we'd think . . .


current audiobook: THE BOOK OF JOB
current reading: THE BRETHREN by Bob Woodward & Scott Armstrong [1979]
plus OSSIAN REVISITED, ed Howard Gaskill [1991]

*with the triple-A discount, that is.
**who apparently made his fortune by founding a trash-collecting business just after WWII, now the tenth largest in the country, according to our guide.
***in addition to the Kaiser Dragon, they also had a specially modified "2007 Custom Drakko 'Dragonster'" -- that is, a drag car made to look like a green dragon -- in its own little pit. Janice spotted it and the Tolkien reference written on the chalkboard beside it:

Puff, Peter,
Smaug [crossed out] Deceased

one Bilbo Baggins
aka Burglar, Thief
for conspiracy &
the Murder of


David Bratman said...

Oh yes, Ford went through quite a lot of lettered models in various series.

Good old Henry Ford, he was a hard-working man
He worked all night and all day
I said, "Henry, whatcha doing?" and Henry he said,
"I'm inventing the Chevrolet."
He said, "I've already built 25 models,
One for each letter from A to Z."
I said, "Henry, you fool, there are 26 letters in the alphabet!"
He said, "Good heavens, I forgot the Model T!"
- Allan Sherman

Unknown said...

Motivated by song! Funny how you said "a.k.a. They Paved Paradise...", as you don't usually think "Big Yellow Taxi" when you hear the song. I'd think "Birds and the Bees" first! I appreciate the links, by the way!

- Tari Ledsome