Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Lemay Museum and the Lucky Car Auction 2012

Author: Isaiah Cox

Several weeks ago I received an email special offer for the LeMay Lucky Car Auction, forwarded by my in-laws with a note, “Is this something you’d be interested in?”. Remembering that the LeMay’s recently opened what is billed as the US’ largest automobile museum in Tacoma, Washington, I jumped at the chance to allow my wife to spend time with her family with a car event on the docket; a win-win situation.

Upon arrival we were guided to park on a beautiful grounds, next to an old academy. The chapel that dominates the front of the building, the peaceful grounds, and academic architecture led my brother-in-law Brian to question whether the academy had once been a monastery.

On the far side of the academy the grounds opened up to the outside auction area, an indoor museum and a (very) large storage shed.

Our first pass was the auction grounds, and we perused the vehicles to be sold on Saturday.  An eclectic mix was on hand.  Vehicles ranged from a (mostly boat) amphibious vehicle (with a hydraulically lowering drive train, allowing the owner to enter and exit the water sans boat trailer), classics like Stingray Corvettes, to a mid-90’s Jeep Cherokee of no particular vintage.

Taken from the Lucky Car Auction Website

Our second pass was the storage shed. The storage shed is essentially the largest Quonset hut I’ve seen in my life. Down the left side of the storage shed were 3 rows of cars stacked vertically.  In the middle of the shed, large vintage signs such as 76 balls tower over the vehicles.  On the floor, down the middle and right side of the hut lay commercial vehicles of various description, function, and history.

Inside the LeMay Storage Hut

I had heard that Mr. LeMay collected everything but the storage shed truly demonstrated that approach.

In perusing the commercial vehicles I came across many of note. Jammed behind an old tow truck sat a Pierce Arrow crane truck. Within the plethora of vintage fire engines I was particularly entranced trying to figure out the rope and ladder system of a mid-teens fire department ladder truck.  A WW1 transport truck looked gloriously well preserved in its un-restored state.  Many of the vehicles were un-restored or mildly refreshed although peppered in between the vintage commercial vehicles were a scattering of new things too; I saw a dunk tank armored car prepared on the show Monster garage, as well as a recent racing boat.

As appropriate for a collection searching for space, many small cars were jammed on the backs of tow trucks and transport trailers.  One of my favorites was an Austin Seven; as a miniature British characterization I’ve always enjoyed their almost comic stoic mini-British styling, as though they’re a shrunken period coach builders car. A want-to-be 2/3 scale Rolls Royce toy is almost how I think of them.  Also of note on a flatbed was a mustang that had been converted to joystick operation (and ran on hydrogen gas).

Joystick controlled Mustang

The rows of cars forming the West wall were somewhat disappointing in lack of access, but understandably so as these were obviously not the selected display cars for either the new or old museum.  But a rope barred access from exploring around the ground row cars (I didn’t get to see what the interior of the V-12 Packard looks like), and without access to the second and third story, the wall was more a study in grilles.  Also unfortunate was the organization too, as cars like 80’s Ranchero’s and the estate owners ‘08 Prius populated the 1st and 2nd row, while peaking down from the 3rd floor you caught glimpses of the bottom half of the front grille of such cars as a ‘40 Lincoln, ’53 Hudson, and a hand shaped 50’s single seat racer.

Packard V-12

One of the most fascinating cars was found when we were leaving the storage shed; a small Opel sitting by the door.  The racing seat, liberal use of aluminum to replace steel, and innovative chain drive led us to conclude that the vehicle was used in competition, but our drag strip guess proved to be in error. One of the friendly volunteer staff explained that it was a miles-per-gallon (MPG) competition car and had achieved over 200 MPG in competition using an Opel motor.  As is typical, the question was begged to be asked, “Why does it seem like, despite all our advancements, we’ve not made much progress in transportation since the 60’s?”.

MPG Competitor Opel

Our final pass was through the indoor museum.  Yet another eclectic collection greeted us.  Through the front door we passed by a dragster shaped like a fire breathing dragon.  On the right, vintage children’s toys formed a play area (a welcomed diversion for parents I’m sure). Stepping further into the museum we were greeted by the highest heel I’ve ever seen and it wasn’t on a woman.  A car size red woman’s heel, made out of what appeared to be a Honda motorcycle brought class to the room.  The collection ranged from vintage American vehicles, a jet car, to vintage British vehicles, to short run vehicles like the famous Brickland (almost traded my MGB for one of these) plastic car, to modern super cars like a Maclaren Mercedes.

One High Heel
Turbine Powered Roadster

A personal favorite of the collection and perhaps of my museum and car attending history was a V-12 Pierce Arrow made for the president of Argentina.  The beauty of it’s lines, and color, combined with the rumored noiseless performance left me staring at the car for some time.

V-12 Pierce Arrow for the President of Argentina

A funny incident occurred in the museum.  My father-in-law was mostly interested in the trip as a fun family event and has not spent much time in the car culture.  As a cabinetmaker he’s somewhat tactile in his enjoyment of art.  In front of several car owners in the auction area he tried door locks, ran his hands over interiors and paint and checked solidity of woodie siding by knocking on them.  Not wanting to bring a negative note to our family relationship by correcting him, new as our relationship is, (his daughter and I’ve been married just over a year) I decided to not worry about it and let someone else mention that it’s generally the standard not to touch the car.  But no one said anything.  When standing in front of the Maclaren Mercedes he opened the door and jumped in.  I felt sure a museum volunteer would come sprinting but we didn’t hear a word.  Then, I saw an open car from the teens with leather that looked remarkably like my MGA’s.  Wanting to see if the leather was as soft as mine I snuck a feel.  The moment I touched the leather I heard, “SIR!  We ask that you don’t touch the cars!” from a volunteer that seemed to magically appear from behind a nearby vehicle.

Above us was a Crosley Hotshot with (possibly) participation in Sebring, LeMans, and Bonneville speed records painted down the side.  Fascinated with a car with such pedigree I tried to engage the volunteer in conversation regarding the car but he dismissed the historical significance stating that it was such a small bore car that it really wasn’t very impressive.  I found this a sad way of thinking dismissive of many neat small bore vehicles, and perhaps particularly American when you consider our love of burgeoning automobiles.

Sebring and LeMans Competitor Crosley

For a fascinating read on the Crosley winning Sebring check out this site -

From the museum it was off to the auction for us. 

This was my first auction and I saw the wisdom in the liquor token we were given with our tickets and the well supplied bar when we approached the bidding area; I’m sure a good bar helps audience participation.

I was unaware that auction participants are deaf, and that speakers must apparently be blared at 120 decibels.  I will bring earplugs next time.

I’m not sure the event gathered quite the clientele the auctioneers had hoped for.  I saw many a car leave the auction stand without a sale, and there were quite a few empty seats under the tent.  Granted a neighbor at our table said that this was the first event he knew of, so perhaps it was a learning experience and next year will be better advertised and attended based on lessons learned.

Quite a few cars didn’t make a sale on the auction block.  I saw a MGA Twin Cam, with racing logs, eligible for Monterrey and the Mille Miglia fall $3k short of a sale at a bid of $47k.  The earlier mentioned boat creation didn’t sell for a bid of $65k (owner wanted at least $70k).  An Ariel Square Four motorcycle, from 1953, bid only to $15k in a non-sale. 

MGA Twin-Cam Picture Taken from Luck Car Auctions Website

I did see several sales that were made in which I believe the buyer came away happy.  A running registered vintage Volvo for $1200 (have a high schooler?).  A 1966 Chrysler 300, with a 383, in great shape sold for under $3k.
Photos of the Volvo and 300 from Luck Car Auctions Website

Also, for the next year I bet the auctioneers will do a little more homework.  I noticed a few errors myself (calling the Dunlop wheels on the MGA twin-cam Rudge wheels, and claiming an obviously rotted out Falcon was garage kept) and at a table for lunch I heard a gentleman sitting near us complain about the mistakes being made.  Several cars stumped them when they came to the auction block with no info sheet.

We left the auction somewhat deaf but it was a great experience.  I enjoyed it and would be tempted to go to the next one if it’s annual (with ear plugs).  In reflection, the Marymount facility was of as much interest as the auction, if not more.  And the event was a fun family event and I’m glad my in-laws sent the invitation.

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