Parkers Prairie man has been revving up his collection for 40 years
Since he was a youngster, Roman Koep has been a car guy. “I’ve always loved cars,” said Koep, who grew up on a farm in Ottertail County and now lives in Parkers Prairie. “As a small kid Mom always wanted the car washed for church on Sunday,” he said. “When I got old enough, I could do it.” “In the 1950s each car had a style all its own,” he said. He set about learning those styles and long before he could drive he could identify cars by year and model and knew who drove which vehicle. In fact today, over 60 years later, he can still remember the year and color of many of the cars driven by friends and relatives in the early 1950s. He remembers going for a ride with his father in a new car purchased by a friend of his father. It was a 1952 Chevrolet four door Deluxe with fender skirts and wide stripe whitewalls. “We went for a ride, it was around Christmas, and we were amazed that the windows wouldn’t frost up,” said Koep. He got his first car when he was 16. He remembers it well, a 1952 Ford two-door hardtop. It was robin’s egg blue with a white top. He had to earn the right to buy it. His dad drove a milk truck and the family had some cows. “Dad told me that if I got the herd milk production up to 700 pounds. per cow average I could buy a car,” said Koep, who said the average at the time was about 500 pounds. “I started in the spring and got the car in the fall,” said Koep. “I did use quite a bit of my dad’s feed supplement,” he said with a grin. He was 16. It wasn’t until 1972 that he started collecting cars. “I was looking for a 1956 Ford convertible,” said Koep. “I was told where one was available but it turned out to be a 1965 XL model.” He bought it anyway. “It had just 81,000 miles on it and had sat for four years,” said Koep. “The owner said he just didn’t drive it any more.” Next came a 1959 Ford he found at Beyer Ford in Morris. “Then it became easier and easier,” he said. “I kept finding more.” And more. And more. Koep now aas 27 vehicles from the 50s and 60s, all but three are Fords and Chevrolets of the era. “I really believe the 1950s cars are the true classic cars,” said Koep. “Especially the 55 through 59 models. Back then you could tell a car’s make from the front or the rear. And you could add whitewalls or a continental kit to make it look different.” His most recent find is a 1956 Chevrolet BelAir two-door two-tone hardtop, bronze and white. Koep is really proud of that acquisition, it may be one of the cleanest cars he has acquired requiring the least amount of work. It has just 65,000 miles and, for 40 years, it averaged just 1,000 miles a year. He got it through a jockey who picked it up in the Sauk Centre area after the owner died. “At first my cars sat outside,” said Koep. But he figured out that wouldn’t work after one vehicle which already had a rust problem grew worse quickly. Now he has the bulk of his cars in two sheds, the largest being a 40×100 foot structure into which he can squeeze 20 cars. Squeeze is the word. Even with help guiding cars in it can take an hour to get the 20 cars in the shed. “You really have to sneak them up close to the wall,” he said. “It can be pretty nerve racking.” While Koep does some of the simple things, he relies on Bill Robinson to do more major work on the cars. “You can’t believe how quickly he can get a carburetor off a car,” said Koep. “And he really knows how to make them work.” While he is looking at a car he looks most closely at the frame, rocker panels and floor boards. These are the most difficult things to fix if they are not solid. “If the car is right I will fix it up,” said Koep. “I’m not too worried about engines, Bill is really good at that.” He did get stuck on one vehicle, one he didn’t inspect first because it was from out of state and was shipped to him. When it arrived Koep figured he’d been had. “The VIN (vehicle identification number) and the title didn’t match,” said Koep. There was also some shoddy body work when he inspected the car from underneath. “I called him and made it really clear that I expected my money back and that I wasn’t afraid to fight to get it,” said Koep. He got his money back and the car was shipped back. Koep’s cars spend most of their time carefully stored. During the course of a summer he gets most out for some exercise. He takes most to Watermelon Days in Vining in August of each year and displays some at the Parkers Prairie Fall Festival in August and that is it. “It is a lot of work to get those cars some place,” said Koep. He needs drivers, has to put gas in 20 or more vehicles and has to get them all cleaned up. That is a lot of work. If he puts 300 miles a year on a car that is a lot. Koep’s wife, Judy, helps with the collection by keeping records on everything. “She knows how much we have in each car,” said Koep. “She has good records.” His hobby, however, has brought more than one comment about how some of the money invested in cars could have been spent on things like newer kitchen cabinets. “I told her,” he said with a grin, “That it looked like the dishes were still able to be kept in the cupboards.” Then he said that he had offered to buy Judy something “that would go from 0 to 150” if he could use it occasionally. When the day came to unveil the “something” it was not a car but a bathroom scale. When asked if he was struck over the head by said scale Koep grinned, paused and replied. “No, but almost.” They have survived 46 years of marriage, have five children and now have 16 grand children. His favorite among the 27 vehicles is a black 1958 Chevrolet Impala with a 283 cubic inch engine, a four-barrel carburetor, a continental kit, dual rear radio antennas, skirts and lots of chrome. The Impala impressed Koep from the start. “It had sat undriven for four years,” said Koep. “The owner put in a fresh battery, pumped the gas a lot and it fired right up. I drove it home.” His most unique may be a 1960 Buick LeSabre owned by a former Gophers athletic coach. The car is maroon with gold trim including gold colored rocker arm covers on the engine and a carefully trimmed trunk. The auto upholstery is maroon with gold Gopher logos. Koep isn’t done collecting, there are just two more vehicles he wants. But he won’t say what they are because he doesn’t want owners to know how badly he might want them. “I have to get rid of a few vehicles to make room for them,” he said, but that will be hard because “they all have little things that are special about them. I hate to part with any of them.” Koep said that Judy keeps learning more about cars all the time. A couple of years ago she was looking out the front window of the house and spotted a 1957 Ford going down the road and called to Koep to come see it. Then she cried out, “Oh, no.” The car had turned into their driveway. Yep, he bought it.