By on September 8, 2014

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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

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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.

Curation/Themes

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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.

Interactivity

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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!

Diversity

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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?

Quantity

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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

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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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36 Comments on “Anatomy of An Extraordinary Car Museum...”


  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Those visitors are getting strapped into a Peugeot 308, I believe.

    And that is a VERY fine Mercury wagon. Turbine wheels and opera lights FTW! I think I like the LTD Coupe next to it as well.

  • avatar
    brianyates

    What about a mention for the National Automobile Museum of Beaulieu run by Lord Montagu, amongst other cars he has a fine selection of old MGs. The Museum is located in Hampshire ,England.

  • avatar
    VoGo

    Does anyone know of a list of the Top 50 car museums?

    I know there are a lot of dads who take a kid to see a home game in every MLB ballpark; it might be a cool tradition to try to see all the great car museums.

  • avatar
    Kruser

    The Italian Museo dell’Automobile in Turin is really top notch in many of these categories.
    http://www.museoauto.it/website/

    It is in a really beautiful building with displays that really show off Italian design thinking. Not only does the museum show off important cars, but it has a lot of interactive displays that show how cars have changed society around the world.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    What I look for in a museum is the cars, of course! The setting is purely secondary. The GM Collection is pretty much in a warehouse, and it is fascinating. The BEST car museum I have ever been to is the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart. They have built just about everything that moves in the past 130 years or so, and it is all in the museum. The racing cars alone are worth the price of admission.

    On my last trip to Europe, I managed to go to the aforementioned Mercedes museum, Porsche, BMW, both Saab Museums (Sweden and Finland), and another neat smaller museum in Finland. And Mielenwerk in Berlin, which while not technically a museum, might as well be. My next trip I plan to hit VW, Audi, Ferrari, Fiat, and the National Museum in France.

  • avatar
    brenschluss

    I’d like to boost my local, the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, MA. Most weekends in the summer, they hold the most varied and well-attended car shows in the Boston area. The exhibits are always interesting and rotate often, and the basement is full of _unrestored_ cars and bicycles from the turn of the 20th century forward. It’s also a big, beautiful public-use park.

    http://larzanderson.org/

    That said, the LeMay museum building is my dream garage. Could be the whole dream home, really.

  • avatar
    dereklessing

    I saw this museum two years ago; they had an exhibit of Corvettes, with examples of all versions C1-C6, except the most recent. Many race or one-off models. Amazing.

    My one complaint: many, maybe most of the cars are shown like the Mercury wagon – arranged side-by-side and behind a rope, you can get a close look at the front of the car but little else.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      Most car museums are breathtaking, providing a snapshot in time. The ones most memorable to me are Jay Leno’s collection, the Peterson Museum and the one at Bowling Green.

      At one time we owned a three-seat Mercury Colony Park Wagon, albeit bought used. It was not without its problems and quirks, as were all cars of that time, era and vintage.

      And although looking back in time and reminiscing about the cars of old is very entertaining, there’s no time like the present to be a car enthusiast and car buff.

      What is available to us today is truly remarkable!

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      “My one complaint: many, maybe most of the cars are shown like the Mercury wagon – arranged side-by-side and behind a rope, you can get a close look at the front of the car but little else.”

      Ronnie Schreiber has also made the point regarding sightlines and ease of photographing exhibits in his past articles on the Henry Ford. Besides the front-only view; some are difficult to photograph because of handrails or other exhibits getting in the way.

      When I was very young (about 1970), we visited The Museum of Automobiles in Morrilton, Arkansas. I was too young to remember the specifics of the museum itself, but what made it memorable was staying at Petit Jean state park; both the state park and the museum are on Petit Jean mountain. It is on my bucket list to take the family to stay at the park, and visit the museum while we are there.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    When in Southern California , look up The Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo ~ lots of nice old cars and they always have three different ones out on Sundays to take you for a ride in ! .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      My brother who lives in our parents’ home in Palos Verdes and my son who resides in Long Beach took me there a few years back, but not on a Sunday.

      We spend many hours there, looking around, only leaving when hunger overtook us.

      Really nice place. Clean and well kept.

  • avatar
    TEXN3

    Jim, great review! I was there on the Friday of Labor Day weekend as part of a trip to see my grandparents in Anacortes. It was well worth the detour from Boise and the $36 (discount with State Farm or AAA membership).

    Both boys (7 and 3) seemed to enjoy the sights; especially the Mustangs, NASCAR exhibit, derby racing, and slot car track. Even my wife didn’t mind too much.

    It helped we had a free night at Best Western (pretty decent). Harmon’s Brewery was a great stop for dinner as well. If it wasn’t for family and the beautiful San Juan Islands, I’d probably stay clear of Seattle!

    • 0 avatar
      Jim Yu

      Thanks, Texn3. We went on Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Seattle is quite beautiful and so green (from the perspective of a thirsty Californian).

      On a previous trip, we stayed in Port Townsend. That is a wacky town. We saw a LaForza, an electric LeCar, and all sorts of other automotive oddities.

  • avatar
    Sobro

    The best auto museums let you drive the cars!

    http://www.lanemotormuseum.org/events/rally-for-the-lane

    • 0 avatar
      gearhead77

      I stumbled on the Lane Museum while in Nashville once. I’ll definitely be going back when I get the chance. Interesting collection housed in an old commercial bakery building. Many of the vehicles are unique and some are the only one of their kind in the US.

  • avatar
    JT

    Highly recommend you check out the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia. It has to merit at least an honorable mention, if not a higher place on your list (in spite of being in a warehouse.) The collection is stunning, and each car has a legit competition heritage.

    PS/ It’s “disclosure”, not “disclaimer”.

  • avatar
    bball40dtw

    I highly recommend the Ford Piquette Ave Plant Museum. It is more of an auto plant museum instead of a car museum. They do have Model Ts though. I find it to be a facsinating place. I also went to a wedding there last year.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    I like a museum to have an interesting well presented collection or some serious eccentricity. I’ve actually visited more car museums in the UK than the US soon the well presented side I consider the Heritage Motor Collection in Gaydon better than the National Motor Museum, and the Cotswold Motor museum gets the funkiness award, with an honorable mention to The long gone Henry Austin Clark collection which was the first car museum I ever visited.

    As a side note the Johan Puch museum’s seemingly odd collection of “Chrysler 300 (AWD) wagon, a VW (AWD) Golf Country, and an Alfa Romeo (AWD) 164” actually makes perfect sense because they have Steyr Puch engineered AWD systems, I’d also expect to see a Voyager minivan and Mercedes G-Wagen since SDP built those.

  • avatar
    relton

    The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage museum is partly a restored Hudson dealership, and partly a celebration of cars and other automotive things built in Ypsi. Not all that big, but worth a side trip if you’re in the area.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not a restored Hudson dealership, it’s as it was in the 1950s. The family that runs the museum owned the last remaining Hudson shop. If you want to see what a car dealer used to look like, it’s worth a visit. Also worthwhile for Hudson, Nash and Kaiser-Frazer enthusiasts plus they have a display devoted to Tucker, since Preston Tucker lived in Ypsi and apparently a lot of the design and engineering took place there.

  • avatar
    waltercat

    Fascinating conversation! My vote is for the Nethercutt Collection near Los Angeles, for its unbelievable collection of prewar full classics and a bunch of surprises. I had never seen an Owen Magnetic before visiting Nethercutt – and they have two! It’s in two buildings – one is a rather utilitarian box, and the other is a recreation of an art deco luxury car showroom (complete with a J-series Duesenberg, a Ruxton, and lots of other goodies).

    It was good to hear another member of the B&B recall the Henry Austin Clark museum on Long Island – I remember visiting that one back in the 70s.

    Just wondering – does anyone else remember the Resnick museum in Ellenville, NY? It was only open for a few years in the late 60s and early 70s, but it was home to one of the largest Rolls Royce collections in the US, as well as the “Maharajah” Duesenberg SJ.

  • avatar

    Extraordinary? Well, the Henry Ford Museum’s Driving America and Racing in America displays are filled with historical and rare cars. It’s hard to make a Duesenberg look ordinary but the Bugatti Royale the HFM pulls it off. Also in Michigan is the great Gilmore Car Museum, which has some great cars on its own and loaned, plus a number of specialty marque museums operated in conjunction with national clubs including the recently opened Model A museum.

    As good as those two are, I’d have to say that the Auburn Cord Duesenberg museum in Auburn, Indiana is truly extraordinary. To begin with, it’s in the headquarters building of Auburn, where the ACD cars were designed, along with the magnificent Art Deco factory showroom. The cars are amazing and besides the marques associated with E.L. Cord, there are plenty of other cars from the classic era.

    If you have a week or two to spend on car museums, you can do all of these in the space of a few days:

    Detroit area:

    Henry Ford Museum
    Ford Piquette Ave Factory – a museum in progress with lots of Model Ts and other significant early Ford as well as competing brands in different eras.
    Automotive Hall of Fame – Next door to the HFM. If you’re in Dearborn, worth a visit.
    GM Heritage Center – not open to the general public but accessible. I’ve been there a couple of times. Every car there is a “but of course” car. Even if you hate “Government Motors”, it’s a candy store.
    Walter P. Chrysler Museum (still operational but closed to the public, who knows, maybe they’ll make an exception for you – they will rent it for corporate and charity events).
    Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum
    Stahl’s Automotive Foundation – a great collection but the curator, Bill Sherwood, is a jerk and the owner, Ted Stahl, well he hired the guy. Nuff said. A rich man’s tax sheltered car collection posing as an educational foundation. Yeah, they own a Tucker and some other cool cars, but nothing they have is one of a kind. Go see the Wills Ste Claire Museum in Marysville instead. It was C. Harold Wills who introduced Henry Ford to vanadium steel one of the reasons for the Model T’s durability and success. It’s said that Wills, a ladies man, also introduced Henry to Evangeline Dahlinger.

    Kalamazoo area:

    Gilmore Car Museum

    South Bend / Elkhart:

    Studebaker National Museum
    RV/ Museum and Hall of Fame (if you’re in the area, it’s worth a stop, but then I like oddball things)

    Auburn, Indiana:

    Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum
    National Auto and Truck Museum (immediately adjacent to the ACD Museum, the NATMUS is certainly worth a visit on its own but if you’re in Auburn, you shouldn’t miss it) – lots of cars, trucks (particularly International) and toys.

    Of course there are great museums in California, the Petersen and Peter Mullin’s in Oxnard are first on the list there. I also want to see the Collier Collection in Florida, the Semeone Museum of racing sports cars in Philadelphia, the Miller Motorsports Park Museum in Utah and the Barber Motorsports museum in Alabama.

    • 0 avatar
      I've got a Jaaaaag

      The Gilmore is incredible, I was unprepared for the size of the place. I had planned 3 hours was there for 4 and still didn’t see it all. I was there on a car show Saturday which has discounted admission and even more cars to see.

      Studebaker is pretty cool as well, I bought a “Bailout Studebaker” bumper sticker.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    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.

  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    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.

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