At first glance, one might admire the shiny chrome or the white wall tires or the tailfins. But it’s not the hood ornaments or the bench seats that make a classic car special. Behind every classic car is a story. Oh, if tires could talk.
Well, in a way they do. Jeremy Thomas, owner of Unique Specialty and Classics in Mankato, sees behind the car’s body, striving to understand the journey the car, and its owners, have been on.
“We actually don’t buy a lot of cars from auctions, we buy from people,” he says. “When we go and meet the family that’s really special. That’s the nice thing about that versus going to an auction; we get to talk to the people, we get to know the history on the cars, how long they had them, what work’s been done, how they were cared for, that sort of thing because the one big thing that drives this hobby, as important, and a lot of times more important, than the car itself, is the story behind it. It’s the history. That’s what people attach to and that’s what they relate to.
“Most of the time if you go to any car show and ask someone about their car, they don’t stand there and tell you all the upgrades they did, the brakes they put in and the motor they put in. The first thing they’ll start to tell you about is, ‘Yes, I got it from this old-timer. He had it for 40 years.’ That’s the story that you get and that’s what people enjoy. It’s a part of the classic car culture. The stories perpetuate through all different owners. One guy might have it painted black and loved it, the next guy might have it painted a two-tone red and yellow, that’s his thing, but the story stays the same regardless. That’s where the passion for this hobby really shows.”
It’s Thomas’ own story that helped launch Unique Specialty and Classic Cars back in 2006
He didn’t grow up a motorhead, he says, but buying his first classic car at age 21 fueled his passion for cars from the past.
“It was a ‘64 Impala for 3,500 bucks. Man, I thought I was king of the road with that thing. That was the first one and heck, I think I even had to finance it. (laughter) But that’s where the bug started and I have been involved with them since then.”
Involved may be putting it lightly. Unique Specialty and Classics is a full-service classic and specialty car dealership that works to buy, sell, trade, and consign vehicles across the country and around the globe. Unique is a one-stop shop for everything concerning classics, whether it’s to bring them in for a simple oil change or to handle a full restoration. Unique has specialists with decades of experience on hand, as well as passionate car lovers working day in and day out to get the cars that people dream about out of their heads and into their garages.
It’s more than a business to Thomas, it’s a culture.
A culture that combines technological advancement with an appreciation of the past. These cars are often visions of the future with glimpses of the world that used to be: four-wheeled time capsules, if you will.
“These cars have stories behind them. To me, that’s a neat thing to have in something that you’re selling,” he says. “It’s not just a piece of property. There’s history to what you’re selling.”
It’s a history Thomas is helping make from right in Mankato.
Thomas talks about how the business has grown into an international footprint, his plans for expanding his presence in Mankato, and taking his story to the screen.
First of all, I think there’s a lot of confusion really about what you do here.
In a phrase, what we do is, basically, anything having to do with the classic or specialty car hobby. Obviously, the easiest thing to see is the sales side of things. We have a service department as well and we do complete restorations, from what they call frame-off restorations to interiors, convertible tops, engine swaps. Basically we can do as much or as little as the customer may want us to do.
Let’s start with the sales side of things, because of your niche, it does not operate like a traditional car dealership.
Right. Over the years, especially when we first opened, I know everybody thought we were crazy because, ‘You’re going to sell what? Where? In Mankato? How is a classic car business going to sustain in Mankato?’ But from the get-go, we were all about having a regional and national reach. Now, in fact, it’s international.
Just like everything nowadays, pretty much if anybody needs anything, the first thing they do is go to the computer or their phone to do a search. Most interactions start with those interested seeing us on the internet somewhere. Whether it is a vehicle we already have that they’ve been looking for, or they’ve found their dream car that happens to be here, that’s probably the most common start to an interaction. But we also attend car shows all over the country. It’s a lot of grassroots. Literally all shaking hands, meeting people, talking cars.
Those car shows are important.
When we do these shows, a lot of people ask, ‘Well, how many cars did you sell at the show?’ It might be a three-day show, it might be a weeklong show or whatever the case is. We take cars with us, but they are really more for show, to show people a sampling of what our inventory is. But what really happens is we don’t often have a sale at a show, but two weeks, a month, six months, a year after the show, all of a sudden, the phone will ring or an email will come in or someone will stop and say, “Hey, I talked to you at Barrett Jackson in Scottsdale,” or, “I talked to you at Iola, Wisconsin,” that’s how the relationships start, and then, of course, repeat and referral business is huge for anybody.
How did you get started with all of this?
I started at a local dealership when I was 19, working in the shop. I was basically the shop grunt. If they needed an oil change done, I did it. If they needed the drains cleaned, I did it. That’s how I put myself through college and that’s where I started.
I am thankful for that experience, though, as I originally applied for a sales position at that dealership. I remember the owner called me and said, “Well, we got good news and bad news. We want to hire you, but we can’t get you in sales until January.” This was in June. At the time, I was a poor college kid, so I asked, “What does it pay?” It was 50 cents an hour more than I was making. So I said, “When do I start?” [laughs]
That’s where my car passion really started. It’s not like I grew up around them or anything.
So a little later in life.
I always had just a vague interest, I wasn’t a motorhead in high school or anything like that. Growing up my dad was a parts manager for a General Motors dealership from the ‘60s to early ‘80s. I always heard these stories about cars, but he never had any of them himself. It’s not like, “My dad and I used to work on them” or anything like that. He farms, still does. So I was a farm kid. I came to Minnesota State University Mankato in 1993, and I have been in the area since.
So you started working at that dealership, what happened next?
Just like they promised, I started in the shop that June and sure enough Jan. 1 they started me in sales. The first month I was there, I sold two cars. The next month, a few more. So I caught on and was doing a pretty good job selling. It got in my blood. So I was in the new car business for 12 or 13 years, mostly with General Motors dealerships. I did spend one year with the Ford store. Then I bought my first collector car when I was 21.
What made you do that?
I liked it. It was a ‘64 Impala.
OK, but it’s one thing to buy your first ‘64 Impala to what you’re doing now.
Since I started in the shop at my first dealership job, my goal had always been to have my own dealership. In my interview, I remember telling the dealership owner that’s what I wanted. I was 19, so it probably sounded silly, but I knew that’s what I wanted. I wanted specifically a General Motors dealership but things happen as they may and that didn’t work out. On a whim in January of 2005, I went to the Barrett Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. That is the big classic car auction everybody knows about and sees on TV. I went there just for fun as my interest in classic cars was growing and I had never been there.
On the plane ride home, I remember looking around at the people on the plane, and they all had shirts or name tags showing they were with all kinds of dealerships. It was on the plane ride home I made my mind up: if these guys can do it, why can’t I? That was in January of ‘05 and a year later, we opened.
How did you get started?
The day we opened, there were seven cars on the lot. Five of them were mine personally. [chuckles] We had just a third of this building, took out a home equity loan to have a little bit of cash in the bank for the business. I didn’t give myself an option of it not succeeding. I was all in and just thought, “This thing’s got to work; failure wasn’t an option.”
It was an experience like no other, and people didn’t make it easy when trying to secure financing, I can tell you that. The banks would all laugh and say, “You want to do what?”
When did you first think, “Gosh, is this really gonna actually work?”
Like six months ago. [laughter]
This is such a niche commodity, it must have been really scary.
Exactly. I mean, I was on pins and needles. Especially the first two or three years, because there’s little to no margin for error on the dollars and cents side of things in trying to navigate this particular niche. Yes, I had been in the car dealership world for a long time and in different management capacities, but that was a different culture. I learned so much from that experience but going into this, well, there are a lot of nuances with this type of business. This type of inventory and this type of client are night and day different than what you deal with on a day-to-day basis at a new car store.
I’ve said it several times, I can’t imagine trying to do this without the background, the knowledge, and everything that I gained from being in the new car business. There’s a lot of guys that have over the years tried to have something like this. People that might think, “Hey, I got some money and I like cars. I’ll open something.” They run it as a hobby. In reality, the business, this business, supplies a hobby and it needs to be run as a real dealership, as a real business.
People have asked us, “Why do you think it’s working?” I do believe, that is the No. 1 reason why. The inner workings of how an automotive dealership works applied to this platform, knock on wood, has been a good fit.
You started with sales, and then when did you jump into the other stuff like the restoration and service?
We didn’t go into it planning on doing any more than selling for a few years, but adding service happened within the first year. I want to say six, eight months after we opened, it became evident pretty quick that we needed to have some sort of a shop or service department. That was always the plan, but again, I was just taking baby steps. But seeing the need, we hired our first technician. In fact, the first winter that we had the shop open, it wasn’t even heated! We literally had portable heaters, that was it.
Is it hard to find people that can work on these types of cars?
Yes, it’s very, very hard because someone coming into the industry and coming from a new dealership or a late model shop, they might be very good at what they do working on cars that are 10, 15 years old and newer. But if somebody pulls up in a ‘55 Chevrolet, there’s no way to plug your computer or your scan tool to diagnose the problem. You have to know how to adjust the carburetor, you have to know how to deal with 6 volts versus 12 volts, all these different things.
I’ve been fortunate to find the guys in the shop that do know what they’re doing. It’s very much a learning curve. If someone new comes in we have to take them back in time on how things work. You think all the way back to the ’20s and ’30s, it was a simpler time. Things were way simpler back then on cars than they are now, but sometimes that simplicity actually is complex because the way they did it and the way fuel is transferred, all these different things make it a lot more challenging.
Obviously, it’s a very specialized business and we have a great reputation for it. We have people send us their cars for service and restoration from all over. The farthest away was from a gentleman that sent his ‘59 Thunderbird to us from New York to have a bunch of work done to it.
Certainly saleswise we draw people from all over the world, but even for service and restorations, now we’re getting cars from out of state to get work done.
They just hear about you from word of mouth or how do you market your services?
Word of mouth, a good reputation, Google reviews, all that stuff, plus social media. A lot of those folks, if they’re in it, they do their due diligence and they know what to look for, what questions to ask about your particular shop and that sort of thing. Most of them, they’re pretty smart about how they pick and choose who touches their car. They’re pretty fussy about it.
You were talking about how at first people were saying, “You’re crazy trying to do this in Mankato,” but this location has worked out all right for you?
Quite frankly, the truth is that when we opened this was the biggest space that I could afford. That’s just really what it came down to. It just happened to be here. As we grew and as our company aged, we somewhat quickly realized we’re a destination business anyway. Would we love to be on the hottest corner in town? Sure. But drive-by traffic is not our main well-being. We’ve concentrated a lot on having a very broad presence, rather than just focusing locally. Because of our niche, for us having an ad in the front cover of the local paper doesn’t fit or hit very many people that are actually into what we’re doing here.
I think people, even locally, are really curious about what goes on here? They drive by and see all these cool cars.
It’s so weird. We go to the shows all across the country and people will walk by and see our banner or our show trailer or whatever and they’ll say, “Hey, you guys are at that place out of Minnesota, right?” It’s pretty cool. We can be in Arizona or wherever and they still know we are from here. Then we can go to the car roll-in in Lake Crystal and somebody from Madelia is there, and to this day they’ll say, “oh, I didn’t know there was a place like that in Mankato.” It drives me nuts. [laughs]
That’s the other thing that we do. We try to support the community of the classic car hobby locally as much as we can. We sponsor a lot of the shows around the area like Lake Crystal, Nicollet, Henderson, just to name a few. We try to support the hobby, be a friend to the hobby as much as we can.
Where is the nearest place like yours? Is there another one in Minnesota?
There’s a couple that are in Minnesota. I think from a sales volume standpoint, we do the most. There’s one in Watertown, Minnesota, there’s one in Rogers, Minnesota. I mean, there are others what I call pop-up or smaller type ones. The ones that I mentioned, though, they don’t have service. They’re consignment only. With us, we have consignments, but we obviously own a large majority of the cars and they are right here on our lot.
Yes. It makes me nervous driving through your parking lot. I don’t want to hit any of them! (laughs) Does it make you nervous when you leave here at night? You have a lot of money here.
Yes. We’re outgrowing this place. There are times, especially when there’s talk of a hailstorm or something, we try to cram in as many cars as we can.
We are excited to announce that we are currently moving into our new location at 2015 Basset Drive, to the former Lowe’s building. There, we will have over 150 classic and specialty cars all under one roof. We will also have full service, restoration and detailing services there as well. With this move, the Mankato community will have one of the largest classic car showrooms in the entire upper Midwest. We will also be looking forward to hosting community events, cars shows, and more once we are all settled in.
Does your business go up and down with the economy, because this is obviously more of a want than a need type thing, or do you think that if people are enthusiasts in this market that the economy doesn’t matter?
In the crash of ‘08, our company was just two years old, and for the people that thought what the heck we were doing in the first place opening it, they thought for sure that that was going to kill us, because first thing people want to do is get rid of their toys because of the housing crash and all that stuff. Admittedly, I was a little nervous, but what proved out was a few things.
No. 1, for the folks that maybe did have to get out of the hobby, it provided a buyer’s market for us. Albeit, all of a sudden now I’m out buying cars when every news channel says the world’s crashing. It was quite nerve-racking as well, but we tried to keep the focus on the long term. “This too shall pass” kind of thing, and we came out of it on the other side very well.
The other thing I remember when that was going on, we literally had people say that they were buying these cars as investments because at the time, the stock market, nobody trusted it. Nobody wanted to put their money in it. I’ll never forget this one guy bought a $50,000 car because he said he wanted to be able to walk into his garage, open the door and see his investment sitting right there. Where if he gave it to some stockbroker at that time it was poof – gone!
So between having buying opportunities, and people were literally buying them as investments, as a place to park their money, it actually didn’t hit us as hard as a lot of people thought it would.
What is your philosophy on buying? I know you have to buy cars in order to have them to sell. I imagine you go to shows to show off what you have, but are you also shopping while you’re there?
A lot of people ask us, “Where do you get all your cars?” They think that we just go to auctions and buy them, but in fact I buy very few cars at auction. That’s the last place I go, not the first place. The longer we’re in business, it’s not us finding the cars, the cars find us. That makes it a lot nicer because we get to deal with families and we get into collections.
You are up to 15 employees now. Did you ever dream when you started it would get this big?
No. I remember when we sold 10 cars in one month, we thought that was amazing. Now we’re consistently selling 40-something cars a month. Of course, the shop is booming. The growth has been great.
Forty-something cars a month. That’s a lot.
We’re selling between 400 and 500 cars a year. For a specialty shop, that’s really moving.
I would say. Where’s the farthest away, that you’ve sold one?
Throw a dart at the globe.
What happens if I’m in Paris and I want a car that you might have. I type it into Google and I find it in Mankato, Minnesota. What would make them want to pick one here as opposed to trying to find one somewhere across the pond?
Well, the first thing with our customers that are overseas is they seem to be very specific in what they’re looking for. That a lot of time is what generates their interest over here in the first place. American cars are very sought after over there and in a lot of other countries, but in different genres. For instance, the Swedes and in Denmark, they like a lot of the big ’50s and ’60s cars, the Cadillacs, Buicks, the big boat type of cars.
Australia, New Zealand, and such, they’re into those, too, but we’re seeing more muscle-type cars going that way. Then, of course, we’ve got clients in Iceland, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Africa, South America, really wherever you can imagine.
Do you get to travel to all those places once in a while?
Once in a while. I personally haven’t traveled internationally too much for clients. For many of our international clients, from the time they buy it, gets to the port, gets on the ship, and gets sent to wherever it’s going, it takes like four months! That’s from purchase to delivery. So it takes a while.
Do you have to figure out logistically how to get it there?
It depends. Sometimes the clients, if they’ve bought a car before, they’ll just handle it. But we can get them set up with an international shipper and that sort of thing.
Before I go, you said you have a story about one of your collections.
The biggest collection that we’ve bought at one time was 220 cars. It was everything from project cars to running and driving cars to everything in between. It was an older gentleman, of course, that had amassed this collection over 40 some years. He had a guy that was working for him that was helping him, and he had posted one car on Craigslist, it was a ’57 Cadillac.
I remember I called up my brother and I said, “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?” Anyway, long story short, we’re way up in Northern Minnesota for this one car that we drove five hours to go look at. We get to talking to this guy about that car and we walked into this one building where there were two or three other cars, and I said, “What about the model over there? What about the Buick?” He goes, “You guys are interested in more than one?”
So, I told him what we do for a business. And he said, “Gosh. Maybe I should take you to the other building.” We go to this other building in town. Here’s another eight, 10 cars there. I was like, “Wow! I’m glad you said something. Thanks for telling me.” Then he said, “Well, since you guys are up here, I should probably take you to the shop.” He called it a shop, but we pull up to this place, and there’s a fenced-in 2-acre property, with just one gate you can see in, and as far as you can see, it’s just cars parked in there as far as you could see.
This is in February, so we’re crawling through snow up to our knees, but I couldn’t have been any happier. This was like a car guy’s dream. This gentleman, he had amassed this collection over all the years, and in his mind, he had a plan for every single one of those cars. Unfortunately, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, so that’s why the family was starting to sell them. Anyway, what started as a one-day trip ended up being three days meeting with the family, talking through things. After three days, we ended up negotiating a deal and we bought the whole collection. That was just the cars. Then there were mountains of parts. All of that stuff came into play as well.
That’s like winning a lottery for you probably.
I came back and the guys were like, ‘Well, how’d your trip go?’ I’m like, ‘Pretty good.’ They go, ‘Did you buy it?’ I said, ‘Yes, and 219 other ones.’ They looked at me like I was crazy. We went through that collection, documented inventory, and sold them from there. That was quite an experience. Obviously they’re not all that big, but we’ve also dealt with several 10-, 20-, 30-car collections as well. It’s pretty cool, the people we get to meet.
That’s cool. Are all of your guy friends like, “Dude, you have the best job in the world”?
I get that every once in a while or if I’m driving something like, “Oh, it must be rough.” I’ve got some cars that are mine personally and then, of course, all the ones that are from the dealership. It is one of the rough perks, you get to drive some cool stuff. [laughs]
Thomas and his team recently partnered with another local company, True Facade Pictures, to take their passion for classic cars on a whole new journey. Chrome Hunters is a show that takes viewers through the process of finding, restoring and selling classic cars. The “thrill of the hunt” is definitely captured in this potential series as they work through collections from barn finds to beautifully restored cars and everything in between. Also captured are the pranks and jokes in the shop that you don’t want to miss! A pilot episode is now complete and is being pitched to several networks, including Discovery and Velocity.
Thomas Shows Appreciation
“As we all know, most startup businesses are made up of a lot of ‘sweat equity’ and Unique certainly was no different,” Thomas explains. “Getting any business off the ground takes an all hands on deck approach and Unique certainly wouldn’t be here without the help of a lot of people including my family, my spouse at the time and her family, my friends, my children Dylan and Jordan, and of course all of our amazing employees!”
Unique Specialty & Classics
2015 Basset Drive
Mankato, MN 56001