It Has been said of Harold LeMay that he never met a car he didn’t like. That statement goes partway toward explaining how he amassed such a vast car collection, but it doesn’t go all the way. You also should know that LeMay was the owner of a large and successful refuse-hauling company, so where other collectors might on occasion have had to say no to another car purchase, LeMay was free to say yes. And say yes he did — 3500 times.
By the time of his death in 2000, Harold LeMay had been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most prolific car collector. His holdings — minus 1000 or so vehicles retained by the family and another significant number that have been sold off — now form the core of the collection at the museum that bears his name. Housed in a purpose-built, 165,000-square-foot building that looks sort of like a giant silver-skinned mollusk, the LeMay America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, will open to the public in June and plans to host a rotating series of some fifteen galleries, as well as shows, events, educational programs, and other activities.
One of the events that the museum’s cars have already participated in is the Pebble Beach Motoring Classic. This highly scenic tour travels about 1500 miles from Kirkland, Washington, to Monterey, California. Inaugurated in 2005 by Al McEwan — who with his wife, Sandi, drove their handsome 1931 Pierce-Arrow sport phaeton on this year’s event — the Motoring Classic takes participants on a nine-day, good-life journey to Pebble Beach, arriving in time for the famous concours, where some of the participating cars will park on the lawn for a well-earned rest.
On previous Motoring Classics, museum CEO David Madeira and chief development officer Dominic Dobson have driven a 1927 La Salle, a 1930 Duesenberg, and a 1930 Lincoln, among others. This year a 1926 Marmon Model D-74 roadster is making the trip. One of the lesser-known American nameplates, Marmon was born at the dawn of the automotive century and ceased car production during the Depression. Marmon had an early moment of glory when it won the inaugural Indianapolis 500, in 1911. The LeMay collection’s D-74 roadster is a 1926 model, although model years were a more casual affair then than now. The frame is what makes the car a 1926, but its engine, an aluminum-block 340-cubic-inch in-line six-cylinder, dates from late 1926 or early 1927, and its body was produced in 1924. The 74 in its name stood for its brake horsepower; the model was previously called the 34D, owing to its rating of 34 hp according to the SAE standard at the time. The base price was a steep $3295, and this example was optioned with wire — rather than wood — wheels ($100) and front brakes ($125) in addition to the standard rear stoppers. Even so equipped, it was considerably less grandiose than Marmons that would come later. They culminated in the V-16 models that rivaled Cadillacs and Packards but made an exceedingly ill-timed entrance just after the stock market crash of 1929.
This Marmon was one of Mr. LeMay’s vehicles, and like many of them it languished in storage for decades before being refurbished for display and touring. Now road-ready, it’s being driven by Dobson and, on this first, 246-mile day, by me — in my first-ever experience driving a prewar car.
Getting into the Marmon, you first climb up onto the wide running board, twist a T-shaped handle, and open the tiny, toylike door. The huge steering wheel takes up much of the space; you cannot enter this car butt-first. Instead, you climb in feet-first, then twist the rest of your body around the steering wheel and into the curved-back seat. Through the chrome-framed rectangular windshield, you see a long, domed hood and a large Boyce MotoMeter. A popular accessory at the time, it tops the radiator shell and functions as the temperature gauge — when you see the mercury climb, the engine is getting hot. You don’t so much look out over the hood as you look around it. At the top of the windshield are two dainty, beveled rearview mirrors, each smaller than a deck of cards. The inside rearview mirror is Marmon’s contribution to automotive history; it first appeared on the 1911 Indy-winning car. The dual setup, alas, did not catch on. This car doesn’t have any side mirrors, although they had begun to appear around this time, often positioned atop side-mounted spare tires.
One major oddity of cars of this vintage is the two levers at the center of the steering wheel. One advances or retards the ignition timing; retard it for a cold start, advance it to run. The other is a second throttle, which can be used to raise the idle speed or as a rudimentary cruise control. There’s also a choke, which is a big metal flipper switch on the dash. There are two similar switches for the lights and the ignition.
The starting procedure was more complicated back then: If the engine is cold, you begin by setting the choke and retarding the ignition. If it’s warm, you can skip those two steps. Next, place the key in its slot on the dash; it doesn’t move or do anything, but that’s a place to put it. (A second key slot on the ball of the shifter locks the lever, functioning sort of like an old-time version of the Club.) Flip the ignition switch and put the car in neutral — there’s no need to depress the clutch, as there’s no clutch/ignition interlock. Then, reach your right foot around the gear lever and the handbrake lever way over to the foot-button ignition, and the scratchy-sounding starter brings the big six to life.
Dobson drives the car for the first bit, getting us out of the city and onto the freeway for a brief spell, while I watch and learn the peculiarities of driving a prewar car. The biggest is the pedal arrangement. The small throttle pedal is in the center, below the steering column, and the much larger brake (on the right) and clutch (on the left) flank the column on either side. The other novelty is the unsynchronized three-speed manual gearbox, which requires double-clutching to shift. Oh, and the expanding-band brakes are marginal at best — although at least they slow all four wheels. Naturally, the steering is unassisted, which I had expected. What I did not expect is for the Marmon to have the turning circle of a school bus. Turning around is an act that requires lots of
Dobson is up to all these challenges, as he not only has had plenty of experience driving vintage cars, but he is also a former racing driver (with the Indy 500, Le Mans, and NASCAR trucks among his credits). We head out of Kirkland following a Bugatti, and we’re soon on I-405. Seattle commuters stream around this bright yellow obstacle as the cold, gray midsummer morning provides a chilly rush of wind. I try to assist Dobson by watching behind us for an opening when we need to change lanes. We continue onto I-90, where the Marmon’s rotating-drum speedometer indicates a speed of about 55 mph, although Dobson thinks it’s probably 10 mph optimistic. That seems likely given the speed of the cars, trucks, and buses passing us on both sides. It’s a relief when we get off at Issaquah and roll through town along the main drag. In no time, we’re out into the countryside, and it’s time for me to drive.
Slotting myself behind the oversize wheel, I discover that there’s a little heel cup on the floor near the accelerator, a handy physical reminder of where to place your foot. The huge, chrome gear lever is as long as your thigh, and I move it left and down for first. I let out the clutch and we’re on our way; easy enough. I’m happy to find that double-clutching and being slow with the shift lever makes for minimal gear grinding. Not that there’s much shifting to do anyway. “You can put it into third by 25 mph,” advises Dobson. And there’s no need to downshift unless we come to a stop. The engine seems impossible to stall; it idles at about 500 rpm and sounds like it’s going to die but never does. The Marmon is very low-geared and the big six is very torquey. “It’s basically a tractor engine,” he says.
The bathtublike body is narrow but the beltline is low, meaning elbows hang over the sides. There are no side windows in our roadster; those seeking protection from the elements would have used side curtains. I’m as close to Dobson as I was to my seatmates in row twenty on my flight to Seattle, but despite our proximity, conversation is difficult as the roar of the wind is omnipresent, even at 45 or 50 mph. The buffeting would be worse without the side wind wings, which were a popular accessory of the day. The car is also a symphony of rattles, and the engine makes a whistling sound that we suspect is air rushing through the carburetor. Occasionally the whole business is punctuated by the sharp pop of a backfire.
The D-74 is cool for its sheer novelty. Driving it is such a different experience from driving a modern car. The Marmon is a big vehicle — it sits astride a 136-inch wheelbase — and you sit up high. In our bright yellow and black livery, we’re a rolling spectacle, and people really react to the car. You’re also very much out in the elements, and you definitely feel a part of your surroundings.
And what surroundings they are. We’re motoring first south then east, tall pines on either side of the road spiking skyward. All of a sudden, white-topped Mount Rainier appears in the distance against a bright blue sky, and soon we drive under a wooden archway welcoming us to Mount Rainier National Park.
We climb along State Route 410 and then descend after passing Rainier, which, at 14,410 feet, is the tallest volcano in the continental United States. The road turns bumpy and the ride in the Marmon — which uses leaf springs at the front and a (patented) dual transverse leaf-spring setup at the rear — gets very bouncy. It calls to mind those early cartoons where some character is bouncing along in an open touring car, and just like our Marmon, the cartoon car emits a popping sound every few beats or so. All we’re missing is a whistling soundtrack.
After lunch, we do a more challenging climb, this time up Forest Road 99 to Windy Ridge on the northeast side of Mount Saint Helens. The Marmon makes the entire ascent in third gear, but cranking the wood steering wheel through the switchbacks on the sixteen-mile climb is a real workout. The steering is rather loose, but there are very few turns lock-to-lock so there’s not a lot of wheel winding, but what there is takes some muscle. The drive on this side of the mountain provides an unmatched perspective of the devastation wrought by the volcano’s eruption thirty-one years ago.
I hand over the wheel to Dobson for the drive back down so I can take in the scenery without putting the car over the edge — which wouldn’t be hard to do, as much of the road has no guardrails. He’s faster coming down than I would be, using all of the road where we can. The car really doesn’t lean much in turns. I had thought we might need to use a lower gear on the descent, but there’s so much engine braking — and so much friction in the driveline — that lifting off the gas is almost like dropping anchor. The brakes don’t even get much of a workout.
After Mount Saint Helens, we cruise along empty two-lanes through deep forests of mostly second-growth evergreens. The air is cool and we’re grateful whenever we emerge into the low-slanting sunlight. Eventually, we turn west onto State Route 14, following the Columbia River. It’s known as a windsurfers’ paradise, and we can see whitecaps on the water. My day in the Marmon ends in North Bonneville, Washington, 246 miles after it began. I am raccoon-faced with sunburn but glad for the experience. The next morning, we will cross into Oregon via the humbly named Bridge of the Gods. The Pebble Beach Motoring Classic will then continue on, traveling the Historic Columbia River Highway on its way to the Timberline Lodge, while we will point the photographer’s Nissan Quest minivan west onto I-84 toward Portland International Airport. The Quest’s speed, quietness, and cushy comfort are welcome, but I’d be ready to take another turn behind a big, prewar wooden steering wheel any time.