Explore the Pacific Northwest

Tacoma Car Buff

Explore the Pacific Northwest

Talking Shop with LeMay Volunteer Curt Petersen

Curt Petersen, LeMay — America’s Car Museum

If you’ve been to LeMay—America’s Car Museum (ACM) in Tacoma, you’ve been thrilled by sexy, bullet-nosed Studebakers, charmed by adorable two-toned Nash Metropolitans, hypnotized by the sinuous sweep of Art Deco hood ornaments. Ever wonder how a 60-, 70- or 100-year-old car could look that great? Curt Petersen, a former ACM Volunteer of the Year, and the other volunteer car lovers you see scurrying around in black shirts are the behind-the-scenes team that keeps the epic car collection showroom-ready. When we met Curt, he was lovingly dusting off a rugged, Depression-era truck that’s part of a working vehicles exhibit that runs at the museum through May.

What are your tips for spiffing up a car?
What we do here, if the paint is decent, is clay bar. It removes contaminants embedded in the paint and makes the surface smooth as glass. Then we polish the paint with an orbital machine and put a coat of wax over that. It really brings back the paint.

What is the car you have a secret soft spot for at ACM?
There’s a 1939 Packard Super 8 convertible coupe. It’s a driver; not all the cars here are. It was driven from near Seattle to the Monterey Peninsula, and participated in the Pebble Beach Motoring Classic. After it came back I cleaned it with Q-tips. Cars from that era are like pieces of art. 

What was your first car?
My grandfather owned a service station on the Monterey Peninsula, one of the first to have a contract with AAA for emergency services. I grew up with my head always under the hood of something. On my 16th birthday my father gave me his 1956 Chevrolet 4-door station wagon. It was a very stock, nothing fancy, three on the tree. I took out the 6-cylinder engine and dropped in a Corvette motor. I piled my surfboards on top and put curtains in the back. I loved that car.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve tackled here at the museum?
In 2016 we took three cars that hadn’t been driven in years, and put them in road-worthy shape so they could be driven from Tacoma to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. There was panic right up until the last minute. We were worried the cars—a ’57 Chevy Nomad, a ’61 Chrysler 300G and a ’66 Ford Mustang—wouldn’t make it to Chehalis. They all made it, no problem! There was a fancy dinner with the dirty cars as the centerpiece, and all the volunteers felt immense pride.

—Written by Jenny Cunningham