WEST OKOBOJI, Iowa — There aren’t many places left in northwest Iowa that sell DeSotos, Studebakers, Packards and bright orange muscle-Buicks with 7.4-liter V8 engines.
And there aren’t many museums where a visitor could, for a certain price, buy an exhibit and take it home.
Billing itself as “the ultimate man cave,” Okoboji Classic Cars is all that and more.
About ten years ago, car collector Toby Shine, 79, opened Okoboji Classic Cars, 810 Jeppeson Road, West Okoboji. His interest in classic cars dates back to his teenage years, when he drove a 1955 Plymouth. “They weren’t classics back then,” he joked. “They were our daily drivers.”
“I had always collected cars, but I had them in two or three different warehouses, and I just decided to build a building to hold them all,” Shine said in a phone interview.
This would not be an ordinary building to store vintage cars. Spectacularly large would be a more accurate descriptor.
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Shine initially had no plans to open Okoboji Classic Cars to the public, but rather intended to use it “for special occasions”, such as charity events, which the venue hosts.
But when everyone wanted to visit, Shine started offering paid tours. (Entry fee can be applied as a credit in the gift shop.)
Shine has, on more than one occasion, described Okoboji Classic Cars as “a kind of hobby that got out of hand”.
Shine estimated that there were “probably a hundred” classic and unusual cars in the museum-dealer, most of which can be purchased except for a small handful which are not for sale as they are owned by other people. Many of the cars on display are award-winning in various categories.
Each year, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people visit the approximately 100,000 square foot facility. Of all that floor space, there’s barely a square foot that lacks style and attention to detail.
Inside, classic cars – some of which rolled off the assembly line more than a century ago – are parked in front of elaborate replica display cases, designed to resemble the business district of Spencer, Iowa, circa the early 1960s, around when Shine was in high school there.
“I was born and raised in Spencer. And if I wanted to see the names of those stores, I had to go to the cemetery,” Shine said. “So we duplicated downtown Spencer.”
Attentive visitors may notice that Shine Bros., a century-old auto scrap and recycling business in Spencer, is one of the replica businesses inside Okoboji Classic Cars. Shine Bros. is a long-standing family business run by Toby Shine, who started working there full-time in 1960.
Around the corner from Spencer’s downtown replica is Arnolds Park. There’s a Roof Garden facade, designed to look like the original Roof Garden, an Arnolds Park icon that stood from 1923 to 1987 (the Fun House, historically adjacent to the Roof Garden, is there too, as is Tony’s Pizza , the first pizza place in Okoboji).
Nearby is a “drive-in cinema” with classic cars parked facing a film projected on a wall.
Painted on the walls of the installation, a 28,000 square foot mural (or murals, depending on whether you count the various scenes as parts of a whole) that took artist Jack Rees 28 months to complete. Rees also maintains studio space inside the Okoboji Classic Cars facility.
Intricate mural scenes include West Lake Okoboji at sunset in summer and evening scenery at the drive-in.
Last fall, Okoboji Classic Cars acquired a pair of light teal 1953 Cadillacs, one a two-door hardtop and the other a convertible.
These were so-called “barn finds”, a kind of holy grail in the classic car community – older cars that sit untouched and abandoned, often for decades. These vehicles are sought after because of their original components and finishes, and because they represent a chance for the car enthusiast to restore or refurbish a classic that has not previously been restored or refurbished to someone else’s taste.
Cadillacs look, all things considered, immaculate for what they are. But Grant Duhn, sales manager for Okoboji Classic Cars, says the store intends to take them to the next level.
“They’re pretty much complete, but they’re going to need a full mechanical and body restoration to bring them up to our standards,” Duhn said in a post.
One area inside the building that visitors don’t normally see is the state-of-the-art restoration facility, for classic cars in need of top-notch body work or mechanical intervention. That’s where those old Cadillacs are going to be rejuvenated.
However, not all vehicles in Okoboji Classic Cars are mythical barn finds. Some, including a 1949 Packard Super Deluxe Eight sedan and a “woody” 1929 Ford Model A wagon, were once owned by acquaintances of Shine – other car enthusiasts – before being purchased by Okoboji Classic Cars. Others came from Barrett-Jackson, an auction house specializing in classic cars.
The classic car market in recent years has been as hot as the exhaust manifold of a pickup truck driving up a mountain in August. It goes without saying – who doesn’t want a great post-war Packard?
“They’re bringing in more money than we ever dreamed of,” Shine said.