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Tucked away off a country oil road near Parker, SD sits what looks like an old gas station. But don’t stop to fill up. The old pump is empty and there’s no staff to fill ‘er up, check the oil or tires. Tucked away behind the shop doors are more than just ghosts. There lurks a whole collection of old timers ready to brave the open road.
A couple Edsels and two old Fords reside inside and a ‘66 Cadillac is parked at the pump out front. The old shop, filled inside and outside with old signs and other goodies, give it an authentic look; it would be the perfect spot to film a movie set in the ‘60s.
The collection belongs to car and nostalgia lover, Ken Levene.
“I love cars,” he says. “They’ve allowed me to meet a lot of great people.”
And his vintage gas station inspired garage lets that love be known to the world. But the shop features more than just looks. Inside, a functional lift serves Ken and his friends’ automotive project needs. So, the garage aspect of his gas station is still somewhat functional.
Besides a car collection, Ken also has a good number of horses around his farm near Parker. He used to be into the original mode of transportation, horseback riding, before he started his current car craze.
“I’ve always had a love of horses and riding,” he says. “But as I’ve got older, the ground has become a lot harder when I fall off.”
Fortunately, Ken found another hobby to fall back on — cars.
As a youngster, Ken had numerous cars that most car nuts would love to own today: a ‘65 Malibu SS, a ‘66 396 Chevelle SS and a ‘61 409 Impala SS. And as a youngster who grew up in Parker, he was located close to the Thunder Valley drag strip near Marion, SD. Needless to say, Ken was running those cars down the track.
Having one old car is understandable, but how do you wind up with a whole garage full? The answer is simple; Ken loves his cars just like he loves his horses. When you get attached they are hard to get rid of.
“I’ve bought a few with the idea that I might sell them and make some money,” he says. “But I can’t bring myself to get rid any of them. I’m out of room right now. I may have to add on to the shop someday to make room for some more.”
To fit his cars in the retro-styled garage, Ken already had to do some “adding on.” The lift inside his “gas station” inspired garage required a little fabrication in order to get a car all the way up in the air. And Ken’s lift has become popular with other car nuts. But that’s not a problem; it’s a good thing.
“I like sitting out here,” Ken says about his gas station garage. “I spend a lot of time out here in the wintertime. When it’s cold and snowing outside it’s a good place to get away.”
Even on vacation, the car hobby continues. Ken spent some time working at the Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Las Vegas. His normal day job is as a dental/pharmaceutical sales rep.
“It was an awesome experience at Barrett-Jackson,” he says. “I was able to drive cars that you don’t usually even get a chance to see.”
Some of the autos up for auction belonged to the famous magician Chris Angel. One of Angel’s cars was a ‘69 Camaro drag car with 1200 horsepower. Ken says it was hard to resist temptation and not step on the gas a little when he pulled the car out of the auction area and into the parking area at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas; with 1200 horses under the hood it would light the tires up with ease. Unfortunately, such hijinks result in the end of employment with Barrett-Jackson.
Ken’s Classic Car Collection:
In Ken’s car collection, you’ll find two cars that most collectors don’t even have one of: Edsels. In case you don’t know, Edsel was a brand launched by the Ford Motor Company that only produced models for 1958, 1959 and 1960. Although Ford marketed the heck out of these new automobiles, they never quite caught on with the American Public. Perhaps it was the odd styling — just take a look at the vertical grille section.
But for Ken, Edsels are the perfect car. They really stand out amongst a crowd of other classic GM, Ford and Chrysler products. And Ken’s ‘59 Edsel Corsair convertible is one classy looking ride. With its loud, red paint job and drop top, it’s the perfect car for tooling cross country without a care; unless the convertible top leaks in a rainstorm. Although Ken doesn’t have that problem anymore — the car has had a full restoration — it was once a real concern.
“I bought the car after looking at some pictures,” he says. “It was in Florida and I met the guy who had it at the Tampa airport. I bought the car and drove it to a meeting in Nashville … there was a hole in the roof and I ran into a big thunderstorm on the way.”
It might seem a little risky driving an old car with an unknown history all the way from Florida to South Dakota, but Ken said he had some friends out there who would have come and got him and the old Edsel if it broke down on the trip.
Besides, the real problems didn’t hit until he was just a few miles from home.
“I met some friends in Sherman Park (Sioux Falls) when I got back,” he says. “And that’s when the radiator died.”
Ken’s other Edsel is the one for when he really wants to stand out.
“I thought, you know, what you never see is an Edsel station wagon,” he says. “That’s when I had to find one.”
Luckily, he found a ‘59 Edsel Villager wagon just down Interstate 29 in Sioux City. At first he couldn’t agree on a price with the seller, but he received a phone call a while later with friendlier terms. And the call came at an interesting moment.
As mentioned before, Ken has had a part time job working with the famous Barrett- Jackson auto auctions. While in Vegas, taking a car up on stage, he received a call from the Edsel’s owner in Sioux City.
“I bought the car over the phone while I was up on stage,” he says.
The coolest aspect of the Edsel wagon is its condition. It has never been restored and still wears the blue paint it had when it left the factory. Although Ken bought it from someone in Sioux City, it had originally come from New Mexico. The dry climate had kept the car in immaculate shape. The small amount of paint wear combined with Ken’s era correct picnic basket and other props, gives the impression that it just rolled in off the highway on a cross country family vacation in the ‘60s. Ken even makes a reference to the Griswolds and their not-so-beloved Family Truckster station wagon from National Lampoon’s Vacation film to point out the car’s “family vacation” look.
When showing off his pickup/car hybrid, a ‘59 Ford Ranchero, Ken launches into an interesting set of facts about the model. He says they were based off a station wagon and when the pickup-type box was applied, there was a large compartment remaining. A panel that unbolts from the station wagon floor was applied. This made a hidden compartment that was popular with bootleggers in “dry,” Southern counties.
“The bootleggers used to liken them for running moonshine,” Ken says. “And they liked to order them with the 351 [cubic inch] motor like this one. And this car is from Tennessee.”
So, when Ken adds all these facts together, he has a strong hunch that this car was once used for less-than-legal activities. Ken also thinks the car’s “outlaw” lifestyle continued up to when he purchased the car from a custom motorcycle builder in Los Angeles. Ken says the owner had the car partially restored and planned to use it to haul motorcycles in the pickup box. He also had a strong hunch that the previous owner’s income came from other activities besides just building motorcycles. After going “back and forth” on the price, Ken finally struck a deal and was able to meet the vehicle in Denver.
Ken’s other Ford is a bright yellow 1955 Crown Victoria. Everything works on the car, but for a while Ken couldn’t figure out why the car’s clock didn’t work. Would it have to be rebuilt? “No, everything was all right, it just needs to be wound up,” he says with a chuckle. Now, Ken has to make sure and set the clock and wind it before he goes out for a spin.
Ken also has a real highway cruiser in the form of a ‘66 Cadillac El Dorado convertible. Although it isn’t red, it still would make the perfect car for outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson to make his high-speed journey in the famed book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When visiting his place in Parker, the car was sitting in front of the gas pumps in front of his shop.
Even when friends come over with cars, Ken is happy to pull a car out of his gas station and to get a different one up on the lift.
Although much of Ken’s car collection predates most people’s birthdates, it’s the young folks who are the most interested in them, he says. Most of the time he gets asked questions about the old cars, or to have a picture taken in front of one, it’s from people in their late teens and early twenties. So maybe after all these years, the “new” styling of the Edsels that was too much for the buying public in the late ‘50s, is finally catching on.
And with so many young people attracted to the automobiles, Ken sees a great future in the classic car hobby.
“I’m also astounded at how many old cars are out there,” he says. “I see so many nice cars from the ‘50s still on the road. Even around Sioux Falls there are a lot of nice cars.” Any time he takes a trip to big car show, he’s impressed by what he sees. TMM