WEST OKOBOJI, Iowa - It’s a museum.
It’s a dealership showroom.
It’s a gift shop.
It’s a restoration garage.
It’s the ultimate man cave.
It’s a trip back in time.
Okoboji Classic Cars, located just off the intersection of Iowa 86 and U.S. 71 in West Okoboji, is all those things and more. It’s a one-of-a-kind facility born out of local businessman Toby Shine’s hobby of collecting and restoring classic cars.
Originally intended as an extension of that hobby, Shine’s dream just kept getting bigger and bigger. He constructed a 65,000 square-foot metal building encompassing a state-of-the-art restoration shop and custom car showroom that displays Shine’s impressive auto collection and greets visitors with a big dose of nostalgia.
“I knew that we were going to be using it for special events,” Shine explained in a phone interview from Arizona. “For example, this summer the Iowa Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame is going to try to do a fundraiser to build a new museum. But the demand to go into it and see it got so big, and we can’t just let people wander through it. We have to protect the cars.”
Shine and his staff opened the doors to the public last summer, offering tours for a $10 fee that can be recouped in a gift shop purchase. Sometimes visitors balk at the entry fee, Shine noted, but they don’t know what lies behind the doors in the museum/showroom.
“I will tell you that I’ve had people come through that the wife doesn’t want to go look at cars,” Shine related. “I’ll tell them, ‘If you don’t have a good time, I’ll give you back your $10.’ Then she doesn’t want to leave when he’s ready to go. We try to keep a few surprises around each corner.”
The WOW factor
|From the outside, Okoboji Classic Cars is a dressed-up metal building, and during the warmer months, a few vintage vehicles are staged outside to draw attention. The entry area includes offices and a gift shop where visitors can peruse a selection of apparel items, automotive emblems and model cars, all available for purchase. Adjacent display cases hold other models that are a personal collection - not for sale.
“One gentleman from Sioux City collected all this,” explained Denny Linn, shop foreman and full-time tour guide, pointing to a photograph of Joe Bechler and his wife, Mary. “He recently died, and she contacted us, wanting a place to display it. There are 1,500 pieces in the collection, all with the boxes. Six trips to Sioux City with an enclosed trailer, and we moved them up here. Since then, she’s been up here four times to visit it.”
A window situated among the model displays provides a peek into the restoration shop, which includes a dynamometer for engine testing, paint booth and custom upholstery shop and all the other equipment necessary to take a restoration project from start to finish. According to Linn, the shop is so busy that lead time on a restoration project is currently a year and a half to two years.
“Right now we’re doing a car out of New Jersey, and we just finished one from out in Colorado,” explained Shine. “The people I have working there have great reputations. I’ve gotten to be like the shoe repairman who has holes in his own shoes. We don’t have time for my own cars any more.”
But Shine’s already restored cars are well cared for and displayed in a manner that befits their nostalgic appeal. Behind the plain doors that lead to the showroom, visitors find themselves on the main street of Shine’s hometown, Spencer, Iowa, in the 1950s. Storefronts have been re-created - Stubb’s House of Plenty, Tangney Hotel, Feldmanns, Rexall Drug - and scaled to fit the space, complete with neon signage, and vehicles appropriate to the era are staged curbside.
“We have approximately 70 cars on the floor right now, the majority being Toby’s cars that are for sale,” said Linn, emphasizing that the facility is also a classic car dealership.
A stroll through Spencer leads visitors around a corner and into Arnolds Park of the 1960s, complete with facades of the Roof Garden, Fun House, Merry-Go-Inn bar, souvenir shop and Peacock Lounge.
Connecting and enhancing all the scenarios are realistic murals painted by resident artist Jack Rees. One whole wall of the Arnolds Park showroom is dominated by a lakescape of West Lake Okoboji, including both the Queen and Empress excursion boats that once plied its waters. Across the way, Rees has captured the interior of the Merry-Go-Inn, which featured a revolving bar, with Shine and some of his friends depicted as its customers.
“In this room there is 7,000 square feet of hand-painted mural by Jack,” detailed Linn as Rees continued his work nearby. “It took him over seven months to complete, and the mural work is only about one-third done.”
An adjacent area currently being used as a workspace will eventually become a drive-in movie theater set, Linn explained, the illusion created through more murals and props.
Next weekend marks the 43rd annual Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Shine and many of his employees will be there to watch several Okoboji Classic Cars vehicles hit the auction block. Barrett-Jackson is billed as the “World’s Greatest Collector Car Auctions,” with live television coverage as cars worth hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of dollars are sold to collectors from around the world.
Auction offerings from Okoboji Classic Cars will include a 1967 Camaro RS (Lot 1233); 1963 Corvette (Lot 1273); and a special benefit project in conjunction with Cessna (Lot 3088/3088.1).
“I was out here at Barrett-Jackson last year with the people from Cessna, and they were talking about doing a ‘Sky King’ plane, and we were going to do a pickup to match it,” explained Shine. “As it progressed, they found this ‘Bird Dog’ and wondered if we could do a military truck to go with it to benefit the Armed Forces Foundation.”
Shine and his cohorts located a 1958 M37 military truck in a farm field between Spencer and the Iowa Great Lakes, took it down to the bare frame and restored it to better-than-new condition. The truck and plane will be sold in tandem on Saturday afternoon, with proceeds going to support efforts to educate the public about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“It’s a great pleasure to have Barrett-Jackson, Cessna and us partner on this to benefit the Armed Forces Foundation, to help those veterans coming back,” said Shine. “This will all be going on Saturday afternoon. It should be well-worth watching.”
On Jan. 18, the auction will be broadcast from 2 to 4 p.m. on FOX and 4 to 11 p.m. on National Geographic Channel. Check local listings for more information or go to www.barrett-jackson.com/television-coverage for a channel finder and details on full television coverage.
Okoboji Classic Cars is located at 810 Jeppeson Road, West Okoboji. The restoration shop is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday,. and museum/showroom tours are available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. (Sunday hours may be discontinued for the rest of the winter after the University of Okoboji Games on Jan. 26.) For more information, phone (712) 332-8029.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers
can be reached at 376-7327.