By TUDOR VAN HAMPTON JULY 15, 2011 for the New York Times
Ankeny, Iowa--What started with one ’57 Chevy has, at last count, turned into 147 Chevys.
It may not be apparent on a walk through Dennis Albaugh’s sprawling garage here, but this array of rolling Americana had modest enough beginnings: he wanted Chevrolets from the mid-1950s, when he was a young boy on the family farm.
After buying a ’57 Bel Air convertible from a golfing buddy in 1998, Mr. Albaugh’s next Chevy purchase was a ’58. He then decided to complete the set of the so-called Tri-Five Chevrolets, the models built for 1955, 1956 and 1957.
“I told my wife I was just going to get the tri-series,” Mr. Albaugh said this month during a tour of his private Chevy collection — it is open to the public only for fund-raising events — housed near the unassuming headquarters of his agricultural chemicals business. The office parking lot doubles as the roof of his 28,000-square-foot garage.
A look down the rows of parked cars inside this Chevy treasury makes it clear that Mr. Albaugh, 61, did not stop with the Tri-Fives, or even the ’50s. His quest expanded backward and forward. He hit the muscle cars of the 1960s and the land yachts of the 1970s. He moved into the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and he gathered up the teens.
All the while, Mr. Albaugh focused on convertibles — a model his father would not let him buy, for safety reasons.
In a span of just 13 years — most actively in the last five — Mr. Albaugh has amassed what may be the definitive compilation of open-top Chevrolets.
“He’s got a fabulous collection,” said Murl Randall, 83, a Chevrolet historian and collector from Houghton Lake, Mich., who is known as Pinky. “It’s probably the best assemblage of convertible Chevys in the country.”
True to his instincts as a businessman, Mr. Albaugh set some limits on his acquisitions. The main collection starts with a 1912 Little Four — the year Chevrolet began making cars — and ends with a 1975 Caprice, when the company, reacting to new safety regulations, said it would stop making convertibles. (The body style returned later.)
“I thought, if I am going to put a collection together, I’m looking for a stopping point,” Mr. Albaugh said.
This showcase of six decades of Chevy convertibles includes some duplicates, and it skips 1943-45, when production was diverted to the war effort.
In addition to the main collection, there is a separate set of convertible Corvettes (1953-75) as well as Chevelles (1964-72) and Camaros (1967-69). Specialty vehicles — Yenko performance models, antique pickups and others — share the space along with an impressive accumulation of signs, books, sales brochures and other automobilia.
The collection serves as something of an index to the history of Chevrolet, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this fall. The company was started by William C. Durant, the ousted founder of G.M., who established the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in November 1911 in Flint, Mich., with Louis Chevrolet, the racecar driver; William H. Little; and Edwin Campbell.
In 1912, they began producing cars under the Little nameplate. Powered by a 20-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, the Little roadster sold for $690, galvanizing the Chevrolet brand as an economical choice — and an aspiring competitor to the mass-produced Ford Model T, which then cost just $575.
“Those cars were gutless wonders, really,” said Mr. Randall, who sold a Little Four to the Alfred P. Sloan Museum in Flint.
With Chevy’s centennial approaching, Littles have gained interest from collectors despite their austere fittings. A Little is currently listed for sale at the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Ill., for about $42,000.
A walk down the aisles of Mr. Albaugh’s collection reveals lesser-known branches of the Chevrolet family tree. For instance, there is an example of Chevy’s first V-8, which was introduced in 1917 — not, as commonly cited, in 1955, when the 265-cubic-inch “small block” engine arrived. The 1917 V-8, a crude 288-cubic-inch, 36-horsepower engine, was discontinued the next year.
Most cars built in the early years had soft tops, but by the 1930s the market’s preference had flipped to closed bodies. In 1939, Chevrolet did not offer a convertible, at least not in North America. But Mr. Albaugh recently located a rare ’39 Standard roadster, made by G.M.’s Holden division in Australia, where the long-neglected car was found.
“We paid $37,000 for it in real tough condition,” Mr. Albaugh says, noting that the car “completes my collection.”
Its restoration nearing completion, the ’39 will be on display, along with the 1918 V-8, at a Sloan Museum event on July 20 to be held in conjunction with the company’s centennial.
For Mr. Albaugh, collecting cars is an investment as much as a hobby, so he prefers to buy cars already restored.
“Bottom line, Dennis is still a businessman,” said Andy Snetselaar, 49, the collection’s caretaker, who has done the restorations on five of the cars.
“If that car is worth $30,000, he’s going to hold back,” he said, explaining the collection’s strategy. “It only makes sense. You don’t want to spend $40,000 restoring a car that’s only worth $30,000.”
Mr. Albaugh is particular when attending auctions or buying from a private collection. “We are trying to find a 100-point car if we can,” he said. “We literally check out all the serial numbers.”
When an overhaul is needed — and when he has time — Mr. Albaugh rebuilds engines himself. Some cars are driven more than others. “We try to get all of them running once a year,” he said.
It may come as a surprise that his favorite car in the vast collection is not a convertible but an orange 1969 Camaro coupe built by Yenko, a muscle car tuner shop of the era. The Camaro still has the correct 427-cubic-inch V-8 and 4-speed Muncie transmission.
“It’s real rare to find a Yenko with its original engine,” he said. “It’s real fast, real showy, and every time I take that to a show the crowds are around it.”
While an authentic Yenko Camaro like this can bring more than $300,000 at auction, Mr. Albaugh said he believed that the most valuable of his cars was a 1953 Corvette, one of only 300 made.
“It was very hard to find,” said Mr. Albaugh, who purchased the roadster in 2008 from a restorer in Indiana for $325,000.
Mr. Albaugh’s employees regularly refer to the showroom as a garage or a car barn. Very few call it a museum, though Mr. Albaugh himself did make that slip a few times when we spoke.
“I don’t know how you couldn’t consider it a museum,” said Mr. Snetselaar, who added a caveat — that the collection was private, and few people were granted access. “They are his toys; it’s his hobby,” he said. “We don’t have full-time staff, we don’t sell tickets and we don’t have total handicap accessibility.”
Even so, Mr. Albaugh’s office receives about a dozen requests a week.
“You know, everyone that comes and looks always has a story to tell me,” Mr. Albaugh said. “If there is a downfall, it’s the amount of time it takes to show them.”
The museum was built in 2008, when the collection stood at about 60 cars, scattered around Ankeny in various garages and sheds. “I couldn’t enjoy them,” Mr. Albaugh said.
Today, the garage, which was designed to hold 120 cars, is filled well beyond capacity. It sits on a 19-hole golf course that Mr. Albaugh uses for company outings and charity events, including a car show he is hosting on July 23.
On that day, collectors are invited to park their cars on the fairways. The event is open to all brands.
Even with such extensive holdings of vintage Chevys, Mr. Albaugh has an item or two left on his shopping list.
“I’d like to find a Vega Yenko,” he said, adding that he also is interested in buying a Futurliner, one of 12 custom buses that G.M. built for its “Parade of Progress” road show in the ’40s and ’50s. One sold at a Scottsdale, Ariz., auction in 2006 for $4.3 million, and another is offered on eBay through July 18.
Space is a problem, however, especially with the Futurliner.
“It wouldn’t fit in my car museum.”