Museum Classic: Okoboji Classic Cars – Where The Cars Are Not The Star

Part of our summer trip was spent in Milford, Iowa where my aunt and uncle live. We try to make it out there every couple years not only to visit them and any of my cousins who may also be visiting, but also because Milford and surrounding area is a really nice place to spend some time in the summer. There are plenty of fun things to do there. Maybe not on the top of most people’s list, but certainly up there on mine, is a unique car museum. It’s got lots of beautiful classic cars, but they are not really the most interesting thing about it.

The fascinating thing about this museum is that the cars are set in an intricate replica of the local surroundings.  Okoboji Classic Cars is equal parts museum, classic car dealer and restoration shop.

Upon entering the museum, you find yourself on Main Street.

Here is Milford’s Main Street in the 1950’s. The museum’s street is officially based on Grand Avenue in Spencer, Iowa in the mid 60’s, which is the next somewhat larger town down the highway. Really, though, it could be any Main Street in the midwest or even the whole U.S.A.

The buildings are based in the 60’s, but obviously the cars aren’t limited to that era. Some of the cars are for sale and some aren’t. They mostly represent the most popular styles and years of the collector car hobby, but there is some interesting variety as well. I won’t profile most of the cars, just some highlights that the CC readership should like.

They have a number of muscle cars, such as this 1970 Oldsmobile. This one is the slightly obscure Cutlass Rallye 350. While its big brother, 4-4-2, was equipped with a 365hp 455 and sold over 19,000 that year, the 1970-only, yellow-only Rallye 350 came with a (you guessed it) 350 making 310hp and selling about 3,500 copies. Strangely enough, it did not come with the high-output W31 325hp 350 (though perhaps that could have been ordered? Thanks Rudiger!)

The walls that aren’t buildings are covered with murals, all painted by one man, Jack Rees. He also paints pictures, which are sold in the museum’s store. Behind the Olds is the entry door, hidden inside the two-dimensional other end of Main Street.

“Cruising” down the street is a 1940 Cadillac Series 72. 1940 was the last year for floating headlights, as the 1941 models would move the headlights into the fenders, which would be more integrated into the hood. If you like prewar style grilles, Caddy front ends are an overflow of riches through that whole period. However, 1940 may be my favorite year. That front is just gorgeous!

DeSotos are unusual to encounter almost everywhere outside of perhaps the Mopar Nationals, so I take note whenever I see one. You will recall that DeSoto was the medium-priced brand positioned below Chrysler and above Dodge. They typically shared bodies with junior Chryslers but had smaller engines. The corporation mothballed the division in 1961 when it was clear there wasn’t enough daylight between the cheaper Chryslers and the pricier Dodges for DeSoto to thrive in.

This 1950 DeSoto Custom convertible represents the penultimate year that all DeSotos would be powered by six cylinder engines. Customs were the higher trim level and came standard with Tip Toe Hydraulic Shift With Gyrol Fluid Drive, a.k.a. Fluid Drive. This was Chrysler’s semi-automatic transmission with versions offered from the early 40’s through 1953. Paul wrote a short article on a 48 Chrysler that described it and JP has a very good explanation of how it functioned in the first comment, if anyone is interested. Strange stuff from our perspective today.

All the storefronts along Main Street are like this, with real doors, windows and merchandise in front, and intricate paintings simulating the back of the stores. Streetlights and parking meters complement the illusion.

Being the Buick fan that I am, a 1972 GS455 with the Stage I engine was irresistible. This immaculate example represents the last year of this body style. The 1973 Colonnade Century Grand Sport would be available with the same engine, but 1972 is usually considered the last true Buick musclecar as far as most collectors are concerned.

Another representative of Flint, MI was undoubtedly my favorite car in the museum. It’s a 1965 Wildcat convertible, equipped with the optional dual 4-barrel 425 and 4-speed floor shifter.

Painted black with white and black bucket seat interior, this Wildcat pushes all my buttons. Tours of the museum are conducted in groups, guided by an employee. I would prefer a self-guided tour, so I could just sit and linger for a long, long time over the Wildcat. Instead, I reluctantly walk away with many fond, lingering glaces back at the object of my automotive crush.

Four door cars aren’t “cool” in the collector car world, but sometimes the sedan is the most compelling example of a breed. I think that’s the case with the 1960 Chevrolet Impala Sport Sedan. The Sport Sedan has a “flattop”. No, not that great haircut that was popular at the time, the cantilever style roof with an extreme wraparound rear window.  In the 1960 Chevy, the sedan-only flattop roof perfectly complements that year’s straighter “batfins”. The white roof with white accent trim looks sharp-as-can-be too!

I profiled the same car in a different color in the first article I wrote for Curbside Classic on unrestored cars I found in the Scottsdale, Arizona auctions. That 60 Chevy was amazing.

An odd duck not often seen is a 1965 AMC Marlin. AMC wanted to get into the burgeoning youth market by grafting a flashy fastback roof onto the Rambler Classic. Not surprisingly, it didn’t set the world on fire but did divert precious resources from other development and muddied AMC’s well earned image as a maker of practical, well-built cars for buyers more interested in substance over style. It would not be the last mistake of this type in the post-George Romney era.

A 1971 Plymouth Road Runner is another car I have a strange love for. The loop bumper and fuselage styling are so early 70’s, I can’t resist. Kind of like the large girl you can’t get out of your head.

I will say that the Satellite/Road Runner is one of the few 70’s cars where I think the 73-74 is better looking than the 71-72. The engines were best in 1971, of course.

Representing the 80’s is yet another Buick, the 1988 Reatta. The world wasn’t ready for a $25,000 two-seater Buick powered by the same 165hp 3800 V6 as the Electra and Riviera and wasn’t even available as a convertible (until 1990). The car is ready for the right bold individualist to come along and buy it today, though.

Looks like it’s 1957 at the Chevy dealership. Unlike the real world, no one is allowed to enter the dealership except employees. Inside are a beautiful Bel Air sedan and a Corvette. I’m not sure how vehicles are driven out of the showroom.

Coming down the side street is a 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 Sunliner. If I were driving it at sunset, I would definitely have the top down.

It is not obvious why the 1957 Chevrolet showroom has a picture of a 1976 Eldorado convertible in it.

Here is the full length of Main Street looking back towards the entrance. The perspective in the mural is especially effective from this view.

Around the corner, someone is getting the full service treatment on his 1957 Cadillac Series 62 Eldorado Biarritz convertible at the Mobilgas service station. This stunning car was given a frame off restoration in Okoboji Classic Car’s shop.

Down the road from Main Street is the drive-in movie theater. It is currently the two seater convertible room. I should hope you would all recognize the movie playing. Feel free to identify it in the comments!

Here is a better view of the mural. The drive-in is popular, as they really pack them in on a summer night.

If you’re hungry after the movie, stop in at Tony’s Genuine Italian Pizza. It’s a good place to go in a 2003 Ford Thunderbird, though again, I would have the top off. The latter day T-Bird is a polarizing vehicle. Personally, I’ve always liked them but not passionately. I think Ford did a good job with what they had to work with and made a practical modern luxury cruiser for those who like to drive a retro-themed two seat convertible. It’s just too bad there weren’t too many people like that.

Here’s the real Tony’s circa 1957, I’m guessing based on the cars.

The main attraction of the area is the “Iowa Great Lakes”. They don’t compare to the actual Great Lakes, but they are the largest chain of lakes in the state, consisting of East and West Okoboji Lakes, Spirit Lake and several smaller bodies. They are surrounded by lake houses and parks and on nice days covered in motor boats, ski boats, pontoon boats and sailboats. The other main room in the museum represents the lake area.

A popular destination is Arnolds Park Amusement Park. You can see some of the rides poking up behind the building here. The Hi-Ho Club is one of several places around the park to get tasty treats. This is the section where they keep the really old iron. In the foreground is a 1931 Ford Model A pickup and a 1927 Model T. The Model T is the last year of that landmark car. I can’t remember what the purple car is. Can anyone identify it?

Ever seen a 1915 Studebaker? Neither have I. It is powered by a 30 horsepower 192 cid four cylinder engine. This is currently the oldest car in the museum.

The Roof Garden and Fun House were both popular attractions in Arnolds Park.

Missing the row of musclecars in front, here’s how the real thing looked back in the day. The photo wasn’t dated, so I’m not sure, but I would guess it is also the 50’s. The Roof Garden was a large ballroom/dance hall built in 1923 above several existing stores and restaurants, hence the name. In the 20’s to 40’s they were known for swing and big bands and would often have 2,000 dancers a night. In the 50’s and 60’s, they were a big venue for Rock and Roll acts, including many famous ones. It was torn down in 1987.

Just this year a new Roof Garden was completed. It’s more concert venue than ballroom and takes up the full two stories rather than just the “roof” like the old one.

Mean daddy that I am, I told my five year old that she could climb those stairs and to my surprise she actually tried. Hard. I won’t show the next photo of her turning around and glaring at me for tricking her!

In my opinion, the best mural in the place is the West Okoboji Lake covering an entire wall. Uncharacteristically, there are only a few boats on the water. The Queen was a double-decked steamboat that ferried people around the lake for over 75 years. It was retired in 1973, but the similar-looking Queen II was built in the 80’s and does narrated sight-seeing tours of the lake today.

One of the cooler cars present was a 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged sedan. I’m sure you’re all familiar with Auburn-Cord-Duesenburg who produced some of the most beautiful and ambitious cars of the Classic era. The front wheel drive 37 812 was their last product. Its 288 c.i.d. V8 produced up to 190hp in supercharged form, huge power for the day. This one was also restored in the shop.

Motorcycle row is set up perilously close to the water.

More motorcycles can be found in front of The Peacock Night Club, another long-gone Arnolds Park hot spot.

The inside is set up to look like a restaurant with booths and a large bar and serves as a very nice party room.

From there, you find yourself back at the entrance on Main Street. So, if you are ever in northwest Iowa, check out this unique museum where the cars are not really the star.

I had one more classic car experience while were in town.

I was riding with my cousin to take his boat back to storage when I spotted an open door in another storage building. Poking out was the front of a 1969 Chevrolet Impala. I said that looks interesting, let’s check it out. Walking up past the Impala, an amazing mancave was revealed. Several guys were in there hanging out who turned out to be really friendly. They gave us beers while we ogled the sweet machinery. The cars are all Chevys except for one, not counting the hotrod on the left. Can you spot it?

The Iowa Great Lakes are a great place to have a fun time, and it seems to be a classic car hot spot. Car shows happen regularly and it’s quite common to see mint classic cars tooling around. Just my kind of place!