EP Award Promo

Art on four wheels


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Doug Klein’s workdays have included a visit from rock superstar Billy Joel, with the icing on the cake being actually selling a car to the Piano Man. Less-stellar days have brought a surprise audit by an Iowa Department of Transportation agent to check the titles for each of 50 or so classic cars he’s selling (while being interviewed by the Business Record). And let’s not forget the guy who recently took one of his vehicles for a late-night joy ride through the glass showroom door.

On most days at American Dream Machines, though, Klein works somewhere between those extremes, spending hours on the Internet searching for more muscle cars to buy, and fielding telephone queries from around the world about vehicles in his online inventory.

“I guess I got into this because of my appreciation for the design, for the performance aspects, and because they’re just beautiful pieces of machinery,” he said. “They’re really art on four wheels.”

Klein opened the classic car dealership at the corner of 15th and Locust streets in November 2003, resurrecting the one-time LaSalle dealership that had been boarded up for about 12 years. Dave Ostrem Imports Inc. had occupied the space previously.

Stepping into the black-and-white-tiled showroom with oldies hits playing, customers are transported back to the glory days of muscle cars as they gaze at the gleaming chrome and mirror-like paint jobs. The collection of Detroit-crafted horsepower has caused more than one fender-bender on Locust, as rubbernecking car buffs take their eyes off the road a second too long, Klein said.

A perk of the business is getting to drive his favorite cars from the inventory, and Klein said he occasionally raises the prices on cars he really likes. One of his favorites right now is a 1957 Cadillac convertible. He recently sold a 1967 big-block Corvette with side exhaust pipes, which was like “a Harley on four wheels,” he said. “I think one of my favorite things to drive is a ’72 topless (Chevrolet) Blazer. It’s black and it’s got (a) four-speed (transmission), and you can hear it coming from two blocks away.”

Working primarily with a trusted network of people he has dealt with in the past, Klein purchases about 80 percent of his vehicles from outside the state. After his crew fixes them up, he sells some 90 percent of them outside Iowa. About half of the cars are purchased by international buyers, he said.

Hard work

For years, Klein worked as a software developer for some of Des Moines’ largest companies. Before that, the Des Moines native spent five years in California, using his degree in film and video production from Iowa State University to produce commercials, music videos and promos for television.

“I always thought it would be great to do this after you’re done working your tail off, to do a nice little classic car business and enjoy it,” Klein said, grinning. “The reality is, I work twice as many hours now as I ever have.”

When he first opened the business, Klein initially leased just the back portion of the building, where he now has a dozen technicians who fix up the cars. In June 2004, the building came up for sale and he exercised his right of first refusal to buy it.

Finding good cars has been a continuing challenge from the very start, and it’s more difficult now because of the recession.

“I’ve never had this hard a time finding a car, never,” he said. “And there are less cars available; everybody’s keeping them. There are no deals falling out of the sky. These cars really haven’t come down much in value. They’re one of the last things to go.”

Klein estimates there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small specialty dealers competing with him.

“I think some of them are struggling right now because they have unrealistic expectations of what the cars’ values really are,” he said “In a down market, people want to deal.” And on the buying side, “they want a good deal on a car; otherwise they’re not going to sell them. … We try to focus on cars that are definitely of good value that are under market value that are still good deals.”

On the restoration end of the business, “there are cars that we’ve had for two years that we’ve spent $85,000 restoring,” Klein said. “There are other cars that take a couple of hours just to spruce them up and clean them up, and everything in between. We don’t try to find crusty, rusty, nasty cars and make them nice. We try to find good cars and make them better. Really, you have to find a car with a good foundation and good metal structure. All the rest of it can be taken care of, but if you don’t have a good foundation, you don’t have a good car.”

Klein figures American Dream Machines has sold about 1,200 cars during the past five years, ranging from a one-of-a-kind $325,000 Shelby Super Snake convertible with a matching truck and trailer to the modest 1973 Volkwagen Beetle that singer Joel purchased to use as a beach car. Last week, a customer from Oregon who has bought two other cars from him came to pick up an $80,000 1954 Corvette roadster that he picked out on the company’s Web site.

Klein looks over and waves off his receptionist, who’s signaling him from outside his office. It’s a call he was expecting from a potential buyer in Germany, Klein explained, clearly torn for a second between taking the call and continuing the interview. A few minutes later, he gets a thumbs up from the Transportation Department agent, indicating all his titles are in order. Klein breathes a sigh of relief and puts his feet up on his desk.

Besides handling mostly sight-unseen sales, “the challenges are that you’re selling a 30-, 40- or 50-year-old car that’s imperfect to people that expect perfect cars,” he said. “There’s no way you can fix everything on the car, because it is an old car. You can’t make an old car new again. You have to make sure that they understand as much as possible about the cars.

“We’ve actually made a policy that you cannot buy a car sight-unseen out of the state or out of the country unless you’ve talked to at least two people to get two perspectives on the car, and that’s really helped us a great deal. It helps make sure the customers get what they expect, and that we don’t have phone calls later saying, ‘You guys lied; you misrepresented the car.'”

Though his business is highly visible downtown, that hasn’t led to more than a handful of local sales each year. Otherwise, Klein said, the showroom is really a “free car show” for the community, which he said he doesn’t mind.

“It’s nice when we do sell cars locally; we can give people better deals locally to try to keep the cars here, but our market is still going to be national,” he said. “If we have 2,000 people walk through here, we might sell a car. If we get 20 phone calls, we’re going to sell a car. If we have 50 e-mails, we’re going to sell a car. Where should we focus our energy?”

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