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Vintage Volkswagens on display at car museum

At one of the world's largest and newest car museums, the Corvettes have been cleared out to make way for vintage Volkswagens.

"The irony was not lost on us of that some great cars with big engines were going out so that we could bring in the little Bugs," said Renee Crist, collection manager at LeMay—America's Car Museum, in Tacoma, Wash.

A father and his young son transformed this 1963 VW Beetle into a reproduction of Herbie the Love Bug, complete with racing stripes and numbers the same paint color - Volkswagen’s L-87 Pearl White – used to paint the cars used in the movies.
Source: LeMay-America's Car Museum
A father and his young son transformed this 1963 VW Beetle into a reproduction of Herbie the Love Bug, complete with racing stripes and numbers the same paint color - Volkswagen’s L-87 Pearl White – used to paint the cars used in the movies.

The museum, which opened in 2012, can display up to 350 cars at a time. It draws its rotating exhibits from private owners, corporations and the LeMay Collection, which in the mid-'90s had amassed a Guinness record of more than 3,500 vehicles.

The museum's newest exhibit, "VeeDub—Bohemian Beauties," includes 25 unique Volkswagens, including rare early Beetles, a 1966 Westphalia Full Camper and a Thing.

(Read more: Volkswagen says it plans to invest $7 bln in North America)

The show, which includes Volkswagen buses, dune buggies, kit cars, and Formula Vee racers, will likely bring back fond memories for several generations of Americans. It also celebrates "a car brand that has defined a culture of customization and entrepreneurship," said museum President and CEO David Madeira.

The exhibit does not gloss over the fact that the original concept for what became the Volkswagen Beetle can be traced to Nazi Germany.

"But we also talk about what the vision of that car was—economical transportation for the masses," said museum chief curator Scot Keller. "That's also a theme we tell elsewhere at the museum that dates back to Henry Ford's vision for the Model T. Germany intended to do the same thing with the car that became the Beetle, although the Beetle we know today is obviously post-World War II," he said.

Volkswagen of America contributed several cars to the exhibit, including a fully restored KdF-Wagen from 1943 that is the eighth-oldest Beetle known to exist in the world. The company also contributed an ornate Wedding Car model inspired by a converted wrought iron-bodied Beetle created in Mexico in the 1960s. The company also loaned a Panel Delivery Type 2.

The three vehicles loaned by VW of America for the show are worth a worth a combined $400,000.

(Read more: Trucks, luxury cars lead Detroit auto show kickoff)

Other cars on loan for the exhibition are unique in their own ways and come with a personal story that underscores what the museum describes as "America's love affair with the automobile."

Source: Sean Maynard | Volkswagen of America

Dave Barrett's family bought a 1963 VW beetle six years ago when their son, Joey, a "Herbie the Love Bug" film fan, was 6 years old. "We decided it would be great fun to have our own Herbie, and we had a good time as father and son fixing some things here and truly making him our own," said Barrett. The pair take their recreated Herbie to car shows. Barrett said just driving around town is an adventure "as drivers' eyes light up when they recognize the little car."

The red 1978 Karmann Super Beetle convertible that Brenda Patnode and her husband loaned for the exhibition is the one they bought shortly before they got married in 1983. The military couple went to extreme lengths to take the car with them to duty stations in Puerto Rico, San Diego and Washington, D.C. After settling in Lacy, Wash., they had "Miss VW" completely restored in 2002.

"She was a daily driver until 2010, and then we decided to drive her only on nice days, and keep her warm and dry in our garage," said Patnode. "I didn't think it was possible to have such a deep love for a car, but then again, she is not just a car; she is a piece of us."

Upon seeing a converted wrought-iron bodied Beetle being used for private weddings around Mexico in the 1960s, Volkswagen de Mexico built two more to be used as display vehicles for its sponsorship of the 1968 Olympic Games. The vehicle on display at the LeMay museum was built on a new 1968 chassis and given to the United States Northeast distributor.
Source: Sean Maynard | Volkswagen of America
Upon seeing a converted wrought-iron bodied Beetle being used for private weddings around Mexico in the 1960s, Volkswagen de Mexico built two more to be used as display vehicles for its sponsorship of the 1968 Olympic Games. The vehicle on display at the LeMay museum was built on a new 1968 chassis and given to the United States Northeast distributor.

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"VeeDub –Bohemian Beauties" will be at LeMay – America's Car Museum in Tacoma through April 5. After the vintage Volkswagens are returned to their owners, the museum will make way for an exhibit of Mustangs.

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.

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