Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A note from the Dept. of Bass-Ackwards: A bike guy goes to a car museum/Meet at the Ace/LeMay Museum, Tacoma

In August, I was invited to come out to the new LeMay-America’s Car Museum in Tacoma. Don’t worry, I haven’t become a car guy; the LeMay was holding a cafe-racer themed event called “Meet at the Ace” in order to tap into the Northwest’s motorcycle scene. The museum’s pretty cool. It’s definitely worth pulling off I-5 if you ever find yourself traveling through Tacoma, which is about half-an-hour south of Seattle.

I thought I was coming out to read from the newly re-released second edition of Riding Man, and only later realized that I’d been roped into judging a motorcycle concours -- an assignment for which I’m laughably underqualified.

The LeMay Museum grew out of the private collection of Harold LeMay, an eccentric, self-made Tacoma native who turned one frequently broken-down truck into one of the nation’s largest garbage-hauling businesses. Along the way, he made a fortune and acquired a collection of 3,000 or so cars.

A few miles away, the LeMay family still maintains a collection open to the public, that is essentially in competition with the new museum. It also includes a few bikes including this period chopper with chopped sidecar -- a machine Harold regularly rode. The story goes that he also owned a company called Lucky Towing, and that many of his motorcycles were picked up as wrecks. Often, the owners wanted nothing to do with the bikes, and traded them to Harold to pay off towing fees. Perhaps the company should have been named 'Unlucky Towing.'

Harold's office, preserved. His car collection was probably the car equivalent to his desk organization.
The new museum got several hundred of Harold's cars, and used them as the foundation of the collection on display now. The family also put up some money, although a major fund-raising effort was also required. I saw Jay Leno’s name on the list of people who gave $100,000 plus. The original plan was grandiose, but the fund-raising effort got underway just as the economy was tanking. The result is that the current museum, already pretty fabulous, is really just half of what’s planned in the long term.

Since I was a guest, I didn’t pry as much as I would have liked to, but it’s pretty clear that after the museum got underway, there was a bit of a falling-out with the LeMay heirs. I think it had something to do with the fact that while Harold’s collection had a few real gems, most of it was made up of shitty old used cars that didn’t run. The museum wanted to sell many of them off and buy up a few better examples. Harold never sold cars, and his family rankled at the idea that after his death, the collection would be reduced (even though I have the impression that his son Doug has, himself pared some of the large collection that the family retained.)

In fact, there are two LeMay car museums in Tacoma. There are hundreds of cars and a few bikes on display at a renovated school seven miles from the new museum, and I’m told that there are still hundreds of cars stored at the family home, and hundreds more scattered in warehouses around Tacoma.
The Meet at the Ace organizers arranged for me to borrow a new BMW R1200RT so that, on the Sunday after the concours, I could go on a ride organized by the Vintage Motorcycle Enthusiasts, from Tacoma to the base of Mt. Rainier. 
Richard Backus, who edits Motorcycle Classics magazine, was another judge. He borrowed this sweet Guzzi Falcone and, notwithstanding a suspension setup that was both unique and primitive, he reported that it handled well on the ride to Mt. Rainier.
The museum had also brought in photographer extraordinaire Mike Lichter, to shoot the concours and the ride. A couple of years ago, I met Mike while covering the Cannonball motorcycle rally across the U.S. He was the guy with the camera, sitting backwards on the passenger seat of a motorcycle. He actually crossed the entire country backwards. It emerged that that was how he planned to shoot the VME Mt. Rainier ride, too, but that no one had been assigned to pilot him. That’s when I noticed people pointing at me and saying, “Mark will do it.”
No, we're not riding this way because we're homophobic...
...we're riding this way so the aptly-named Mr. Lichter can get amazing shots like this one.
So I spent the day riding around with Mike shifting around behind me. The truth is, the BMW was so stable that I couldn’t really feel him back there. But I’ve always wondered about the motorcyclists that ferry journalists around during the Tour de France, and now I have a sense of what it’s like. When the photo session ended, we were an hour or so from our start point. From then on, we were just riding back. 

“Do you want to turn around and sit normally?” I asked. 

“No,” Mike replied, “I’ve put in so many miles like this that this feels normal to me now.”

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