A Child’s-Eye View of the LeMay Automotive Museum

Built to resemble the cowl sticking out of the hood of some souped-up dragster, the building that houses the LeMay America’s Car Museum collection is an instantly recognizable landmark. Just a stone’s throw from the Tacoma Dome, it’s a must-visit location for any dyed-in-the-wool automotive enthusiast.

In this case, however, the enthusiast in question is coloured in with washable markers, so to speak. My kid loves her Hot Wheels now, but it could be just a phase. Children grow, they find their own passions, and the next thing you know they’re rolling their eyes when you try to explain why the Ferrari F40 was so cool.

However, it’s still possible to focus young attention spans long enough that a little knowledge might seep in and have a lasting effect. With camera in hand and visitor badges affixed, school is now in session.

The LeMay is divided into multiple floors, with a twisting walkway that spirals down through various themes. Major exhibits are located on the first floor, greeting the visitor with an instant punch of visual splendour.

Hang on a minute, that’s a Honda Civic – you said “visual splendour”. Well, okay, in this case the newest exhibit isn’t designed to make your jaw drop, but to draw you in. Picked out over a century of automotive history, each car is supposed to be representative of a particular decade. If you disagree, you can actually vote for something else – and the LeMay staff will swap in something else.

Exotics, on the other hand, don’t need much in the way of explanation. Unfettered by nostalgia for the past, my kid sprinted for the Ferrari 488 Speciale.

This De Tomaso Mangusta was positively delectable, and representative of the sort of variety you’ll find in the LeMay. You’ll likely have spotted the Washington state plates: thanks to partnerships with multiple collectors (large scale and small), the LeMay has a huge pool of important cars to draw upon.

Abandoning the Ferrari, the five-year-old declared this Aventador SV her favourite among the Italians. Why? “Because it’s shiny – and has that thing.” Spoiler for the win.

A 2013 Ferrari F1 car also received a stamp of approval. This time, the winning characteristic was sharing a colour with the beloved Lighting McQueen.

A trio of Porsche supercars neatly outlines the generation gap. I glommed onto the 959, a childhood favourite, while our five-year-old judge gave maximum points to the 918 Spyder. The Carrera GT, overlooked this time, would probably have hit it off with a millennial in the middle.

A classic ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible was a little too Boomer for either of us, but would certainly have resonated with an older audience. The LeMay has an education department that works with local schools, from elementary to university, but they also design their collections to have broader instructional appeal for adults.

This Duesenberg SJ, for instance, is not the kind of machine many visitors will remember having seen on the road. However, the LeMay’s section on coachbuilding celebrates the craftsmen of the era, and the artwork they created.

Every good museum has to have its own race track on-site....

And in this case, it fits perfectly tucked into one corner. Slot-car racing isn’t quite as popular as it used to be, not in the age of video games, but it’s still a way for modelling and scale-racing to come together.

Another blast from a Boomer past, this homage to Route 66 shows the ways in which North America opened up as car ownership became ubiquitous. The kid amused herself trying to open doors into mock gas stations.

At the lower level of the LeMay, an area aimed specifically at kids shows a more simplistic view of the car. While the bright colours and labels were appreciated by the young visitor, it’s worth pointing out that these might be relics by the time she’s old enough to drive.

One machine that’s likely to appeal forever, no matter the powertrain? A good ol’ fire engine. The mini-truck in front is a Crossley, more for show than actual fire-fighting.

This BMW 507 shows how good design can be timeless. While it was only admired for a minute or two, you know that the cars of the future – at least before self-driving pods take over – will have many of these classic elements of style.

When things get weird, kids stop in their tracks. The kid was extremely interested to know how the Flintstones-mobile might work in the real world (it runs on Yabba-dabba-doo, kid), and loved the pointy shape of the oddball Owosso (essentially an enclosed motorcycle).

Also a “look, but don’t touch!” favourite was this little Honda monkey bike. How on earth did kids survive the 1970s?

This wedgy, orange M1 brought a gasp of approval from dad, as it’s one of my favourite 1980s machines. Just behind is where the LeMay services its machines. They may sit in a museum, but many of them run just as well as the day they left the factory.

What’s currently on display at the museum is just the tip of the iceberg. Here, a selection of models show a number of cars from the larger collection – the little orange Kaiser Darrin at top right is a stand-in for the car the museum lent to the Amazon series, The Man in the High Castle.

A Morgan is such a characterful car, it needs no translation. However, the five-year-old walked straight past. get a better look at this trio of Brits. The Austin-Healey Sprite, in particular, reminded her of a Richard Scarry illustration. Remember when the “faces” cars had were designed to be cheery, not aggressive?

In between each spiralling walkway, the LeMay has a corridors filled with cars from various collectors. They’re organized into groups, but to a looser standard than the main exhibits, giving them a more casual feel.

This motorized ice cream cart looked horribly dangerous, but was deeply appreciated by the five-year-old.

The entrance lobby is also a collection of sorts, but more one that immediately showcases variety. From a very early fire engine to a pink Chevrolet 454 pickup, the current display certainly shows a breadth of automotive history.

Lastly, a humble Dodge minivan teaches us two lessons. First, that any car can be a collector’s item, if you wait long enough. And, second, that when the five-year-old becomes an adult, maybe she’ll look back fondly on some workaday average car that’s imbued with memories of her childhood. There might be a few diversions along the way – I dread whatever the 2025 version of Justin Bieber looks like – but it’ll all come back to cars in the end.