Anatomy of An Extraordinary Car Museum

Jim Yu
by Jim Yu
anatomy of an extraordinary car museum

A recent visit to the very impressive The LeMay- America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, led to the question– What makes a car museum extraordinary? Is it merely the sheer number of cars on display? The cars’ monetary value? Rarity and obscurity? Make the jump and tell us if you agree with our criteria.

The Space

The museum does not need to be designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but the collection should not be in a soulless warehouse either. The LeMay’s architecture is unique and simple, as photos from this design blog show. The shiny metal exterior evinces modernity and a mechanical element. The wood framed, airy, and expansive interior gives one an old aircraft hangar feel. Cleverly, like a parking structure, you can walk the gentle slope down and gawk at three floors of cars underground, with four rows of cars per floor. The footprint may be relatively small, but hundreds of cars are cleverly and efficiently displayed.

Honorable mention: Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California. Despite being in a large, nondescript, rectangular warehouse in a business park, the Mullin transformed the interior into a Parisian art deco salon.


A large car collection is meaningless without proper curation. Just like with paintings and sculptures, each room should have themes, whether they are by the same artist or are from the same movement. The NASCAR display at the LeMay, for example, takes the audience back to its moonshine running roots, and starts with this old timer hauling illicit hooch. The alternative energy gallery has a century-old electric car, a Bonneville-prepped Jetta hybrid, and a University of Michigan solar-powered racer, among other things.

Honorable mention: Fountainhead Antique Car Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska. This gem of a collection in the middle of nowhere displays concours-winning pre-war cars along with exquisite period-correct clothing and photographs.


Seeing is nice, but touching is better. There are lots of opportunities for visitors to interact with the displays at the LeMay. You can play with these slot cars, for example. You can even load the family up in a topless 1923 Buick and have a photo taken.

Honorable mention: National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse, France. This is the ultimate in interactivity. To experience what it is like to be in a rollover, visitors can get strapped in a compact car and roll!


Seeing 35 different variations of the Citroen DS or Ford Mustang on one floor is nice, but will get boring. Great museums like the LeMay mix it up to offer something interesting for every taste, whether you are a car enthusiast or not. The LeMay has British roadsters, historic NASCAR racers, this Owosso Pulse, and even the “car” in the Flintstones movie. So long as the cars are carefully curated and not a random hodgepodge, they make the museum experience that much better.

Honorable mention: Johann Puch Museum in Austria. You would expect a bunch of military vehicles, but what about a Chrysler 300 (AWD) wagon, a VW (AWD) Golf Country, and an Alfa Romeo (AWD) 164?


But when it comes down to it, the more, the merrier. The man behind the LeMay is rumored to have the largest private collection of cars in America. His collection is so deep, it even has this pristine 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis wagon.

Honorable Mention: Again, the National Automobile Museum in France. This collection was started by two industrialist brothers, who used their fortune to buy thousands of cars, many of them Bugattis. When their business inevitably failed and they fled the country, their employees discovered the secret collection.

Public Relations

Another hallmark of an extraordinary museum is how it interacts with local car enthusiasts. Does it have a speaker series? Does it co-host product unveils with manufacturers? Does it open its parking lot on weekends for car club meets? The LeMay does it all and is a prominent citizen in the Pacific Northwest car community.

Honorable mention: The Blackhawk Museum in the San Francisco Bay Area. This Smithsonian-affiliated venue hosts Cars & Coffee on weekends. It seems like it hosts a different car club (and the club members’ prized cars) every weekend. And it has a much heralded lecture series with knowledgeable speakers.

Gift Shop

The LeMay has a well stocked store. I bought my wife this seatbelt purse.

Honorable mention: National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, where I bought a lifetime supply of car themed notepads.

What features and criteria do you look for in a great car museum?

Disclaimer: LeMay let me visit the museum for free ($16 value). I happily paid for my wife and our friends’ admissions (3 x $16). I also spent nearly $200 in the gift shop.

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2 of 36 comments
  • Schmitt trigger Schmitt trigger on Sep 09, 2014

    I ignored -until now- that NASCAR had its roots in prohibition era moonshiners driving fast cars. In retrospect, it makes sense, and it explains its Southern-US appeal. Thanks, I learned some new trivia today.

  • EquipmentJunkie EquipmentJunkie on Sep 09, 2014

    I have been to all of the following museums: - Peterson Museum in LA - Auburn Cord Museum in IN - Simeone Foundation Museum in Phila. - AACA Museum in Hershey - BMW Museum in Munich - Porsche Museum in Stuttgart - Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart - National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse, France LeMay is high on my list of museums to see, but my favorites so far are the Auburn Cord and the National Automobile Museum (NAM) in France. What is so fascinating about the NAM is that everything is European. It is absolutely eye-opening as to the interesting and innovative European marques prior to WWII.