Payne: The swashbuckling CEO of America’s Car Museum

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

America’s Car Museum CEO David Madeira has trekked through Cambodia, Turkey, Sardinia. And the Himalayas. Three times. On a motorcycle.

He should do interviews wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, jacket and leather whip wrapped around his shoulder.

For his latest adventure, the rugged 65-year-old is leading what he calls the “Smithsonian of Car Museums” in Tacoma, Washington. It’s a vision built on late refuse magnate Harold LeMay’s epic car collection with ambitions to educate a new generations of vintage car mechanics and bring our auto heritage to drivers everywhere.

One of those road trips, “The Drive Home,” featured three cars from ACM – a 1957 Chevy Nomad, ’61 Chrysler 300G and a ’66 Ford Mustang – driving 3,170 miles from Tacoma across the Rockies to the Detroit auto show in January. Naturally, Madeira led the way in the red ’Stang.

I sat down with the ex-University of Illinois fundraiser to talk about America’s largest car museum, mechanics and crossing the Khardung La pass.

Q: You a car guy from birth?

Madeira: I think every boy who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s was a car guy. I loved British sports cars and motorcycles.

Q: First car?

Madeira: Triumph TR3.

Q: What’s in your garage now?

Madeira: My daily driver is an F-150 pickup truck. I also have a 1983 Porsche 911S convertible. A 1973 Norton Commando 850 that I just finished restoration on – British, one of the sexist motorcycles you’ll ever find. 2009 Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc motorcycle I bought in Bhuton after riding across the Himalayas. I had to have it.

Q: You’ve circled the world. What’s your most harrowing journey?

Madeira: Total wild-ass adventure was this summer in Kashmir. (Four couples on motorbikes) rode up into the Himalayas (in) the disputed area with Pakistan. Way out there. As remote as you can get today. We went over this pass called Khardung La (Ed. note: The highest vehicle-accessible pass in the world), which is 18,406 feet. We were held by the Indian army for four hours because there were avalanches up there. We could hear cannon fire behind us in a border flare-up. They (finally open the road) and all these vans and Tata trucks made a race for the top. I’m two-up with my wife on a 1950s Royal Enfield. We’re riding through sleet and snow, thunder and lightning, on an all-dirt road. No guardrails. I’m riding with the screen of my helmet flipped up so I could see. There had been three avalanches that day and (there were) boulders everywhere. We’re riding through raging waters and about 20 km from the end one of our guys hits a boulder he doesn’t see and breaks a leg. Two people (not in Madeira’s group) died on the mountain that night – crushed by rocks from avalanches. I would do it again tomorrow in a moment.

Q: What’s next?

Madeira: Patagonia in 2017.

Q: What did LeMay’s collection look like when you started?

Madeira: The collection went back 100 years. It was mostly American. And if you walked through it, what you saw was America’s experience with the auto. He had collected 3,000-plus cars that ranged from absolute junk in the field with trees growing through them to million-dollar Duesenbergs. He had 227 Chevrolets. It was mind-boggling.

Q: What’s it mean to be the “Smithsonian of Car Museums”?

Madeira: Most museums struggle – because it’s someone’s wonderful collection. In 30 years no one’s going to care – it’s not a sustainable model. (Ours) was always a larger vision celebrating America’s love affair with the car. To tell the story of its impact on American life.

Then the vision grew to: How do we differentiate ourselves and be sustainable? I have great respect for craftsmen, but our schools don’t teach those shop skills anymore. The car has had more impact on American life than any other product in the 20th century. How do we preserve that heritage? Part of it is keeping cars on the road. So we got into the Hagerty Education Program to fund wooden boat-building programs (because the skills are related) and schools like McPherson College in Kansas and high schools in Michigan that are providing the education for kids.

The third piece is we want to get the cars out and drive them – like the Drive Across America to show the relevance of the car today. For our members we create unique driving experiences and events all the time.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.