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 very many museums anywhere where a visitor could, for a price, buy an exhibit and drive it home.
Okoboji Classic Cars, which bills itself as “the ultimate man cave,” is all that and then some.
About a decade ago or thereabouts, car collector Toby Shine, 79, opened Okoboji Classic Cars, 810 Jeppeson Road, West Okoboji. His interest in classic cars goes back to his teenage years, when he drove a 1955 Plymouth. “They weren’t classics then,” he joked. “They were our daily drivers.”
“I’d collected cars forever, but I had them in two or three different warehouses, and just decided to build one building to hold them all,” Shine said during a phone interview.
This would be no ordinary building to store vintage cars. Spectacularly grand would be a more accurate descriptor.
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Initially, Shine had not planned to have Okoboji Classic Cars open to the public, intending instead to use it “for special occasions,” like charity events, which the venue does host.
But when everybody wanted to have a look around the place, Shine started to offer guided tours for an admission fee. (The admission fee can be applied as a credit in the gift shop.)
Shine has, on more than one occasion, described Okoboji Classic Cars as “kind of a hobby that got out of hand.”
Shine estimated there are “probably 100 or so” classic and unusual cars at the museum-dealership, most of which can be purchased, save for a small handful that are not for sale because they’re owned by other people. Many of the cars on display are elite award-winners in various categories.
Every year, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people visit the roughly 100,000-square-foot facility. Of all that floor space, there’s hardly one square foot lacking in flair 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 highly elaborate, replica storefronts, made to look like the business district of Spencer, Iowa, circa the early 1960s, around the time when Shine was in high school there.
“I was born and raised in Spencer. And if I wanted to visit the names on those stores, I had to go to the cemetery,” Shine said. “So we duplicated downtown Spencer.”
Attentive visitors might notice that Shine Bros., a more than century-old scrap-metal and car-recycling business in Spencer, is one of the replica businesses inside Okoboji Classic Cars. Shine Bros. is a longtime family firm run by Toby Shine, who started working there full time in 1960.
Around the corner from the replica of downtown Spencer is Arnolds Park. There’s a Roof Garden façade, made to look like the original Roof Garden, an icon of Arnolds Park that stood from 1923 until 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 movie” with classic cars parked facing a film projected onto a wall.
Painted on the walls throughout the facility is 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 a reported 28 months to complete. Rees also maintains a studio space inside the Okoboji Classic Cars facility.
The intricate mural scenes include West Lake Okoboji at sunset in the summertime, and the 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.
They were so-called “barn finds,” a sort of Holy Grail in the classic car community — older cars that sit untouched and forlorn, often for decades. Such vehicles are sought-after because of their original components and finishes, and because they represent, for the car fanatic, a chance to restore or refurbish a classic that hasn’t already been restored or refurbished to someone else’s tastes.
The Cadillacs look, all things considered, pristine for what they are. But Grant Duhn, sales manager for Okoboji Classic Cars, says the shop has plans to take them to the next level.
“They’re pretty much complete, but they’re going to need a total restoration mechanical and body in order to bring them to our standards,” Duhn said in a message.
An area inside the building which visitors normally don’t see is the state-of-the-art restoration facility, for when classic cars need some top-grade body work or mechanical intervention. This is where those old Cadillacs are headed to be rejuvenated.
Not all the vehicles at Okoboji Classic Cars are mythical barn finds, however. Some, including a 1949 Packard Super Deluxe Eight sedan and a 1929 Ford Model A “woody” wagon, were formerly owned by acquaintances of Shine’s — fellow car enthusiasts — before they were purchased by Okoboji Classic Cars. Some others came from Barrett-Jackson, an auction house that specializes in classic cars.
The market for classic cars in recent years has been as hot as the exhaust manifold on a pickup driving up a mountain in August. It stands to reason — who doesn’t want a great big postwar Packard?
“They’re bringing more money than we’d have ever dreamt,” Shine said.