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Skillman goes Classic: Greenwood car dealership flies under local radar while gaining attention of auto collectors nationwide

August 13, 2007

Tucked away behind hundreds of shiny new cars on the west side of U.S. 31 just south of Greenwood Park Mall is a showroom that includes some of the rarest-and highest-priced-cars in the country.

The double doors to a building that looks like every other at Ray Skillman's car dealership complex open to rows of pristine pieces of history. As eclectic as the man who opened the dealership 18 months ago, the collection of cars includes Packards alongside Pontiacs and Edsels rubbing fenders with Impalas.

The sticker price on these babies?

While a few sell for a five-figure sum, many reach well into six figures. A 1964 Plymouth Savoy with a 426 motor formerly owned by baseball great Reggie Jackson has a price tag of $275,000. A 1969 Boss 429 Mustang will cost you $400,000.

Most of these beauties have all original parts, purr like a kitten and have an interior so clean you could eat off of it. Of course, you wouldn't dare.

While you won't find so much as a crumb in any of the 200 vehicles for sale at Skillman's 65,000-square-foot dealership, there's plenty of dirt under the fingernails of the man who runs the operation.

Skillman, 65, often finds time to get under the hoods of these cars himself and works alongside his nine-man crew. Skillman, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, insists that all engine and body restoration work is done in-house.

The former sprint car racer turned auto dealer opened Ray Skillman Classic Cars out of his love for cars and history, said Merle Van, who runs the operation at 1280 U.S. 31 South.

"Ray just loves the cars, especially the four-speeds," Van said. "Of course, we run it like a business." The dealership sells about 10 cars a month.

Skillman, who owns six car dealerships selling new models, doesn't count on his classic-car unit to pay the bills. Still, Van said, the goal is to be profitable long-term. Though he wouldn't discuss financial specifics, Van said the classiccar unit is well on its way to becoming self-sustaining.

Skillman's love for racing is evident in the myriad muscle cars he keeps alongside more than 40 Corvettes from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. He has some street-legal dragsters too, next to some vintage rag-top models. The 1958 Chrysler 300D in Skillman's showroom once ran on Daytona Beach. Foreign and domestic

The decor in Skillman's showroom is all Americana, complete with an authentic 1950s Coca-Cola machine and soda fountain bar, nifty neon signs from old-time service stations and area drive-ins, and even a life-like mannequin of the King-Elvis Presley-himself.

But that doesn't mean his collection is limited to domestic models. Skillman's classic collection includes Volkswagen, Mercedes, Pantera, Ferrari and Austin Healey.

"To have a collection like that open to the public with cars for sale is extremely rare," said Harry Daviess, vice president of event operations for Goodguys Rod & Custom Association, a California-based promoter of some of the world's largest automotive shows and events.

"I'm guessing when people there see that collection, some don't know what they're looking at. To have so many cars with original, factory-correct motors, wheels, tires and interiors is phenomenal. Those are like museum pieces."

While all of the vehicles in Skillman's classic showroom are road worthy, those meant to be taken out on the road are called "drivers," while others are pure "show cars," bought to be taken to classic-car competitions-and usually pulled in haulers.

Many classic-car devotees nationwide are familiar with Skillman and his collection, Daviess said.

But locally, Van said Skillman's classic-car unit "has flown under the radar."

"We've mostly marketed by word of mouth and through a few trade publications," Van said. "While we are starting to get more aggressive with our marketing, we also understand there is a limited market for this type of product."

However limited, that market is growing, Daviess said. Revenue from Goodguys events has been growing at a 10-percent annual clip, and industry sources said more than $2 billion in classic cars get bought and sold annually in the United States.

The domestic market for classic cars has seen double-digit annual increases each of the last five years, according to officials for Arizona-based Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction.

Cars for all ages

"This is being pushed by the aging baby boomers, who have more disposable income and are really in to these classic cars," said David "Sugar Bear" Lyons, who has been a member of the Indy Hi-Winders Car Club for more than 20 years. "This is about nostalgia, but classic cars are also a chance for people to own a piece of history."

A few devotees, Lyons said, also see the classic cars as an investment. Count Skillman among those.

"We don't buy any vehicle we don't think will have strong resale value," Van said. "Thirty years of experience has made Ray an expert at buying the right car at the right price."

There has been a slight softening of the classic-car market-particularly for domestics and muscle cars-this year, industry experts said.

Encouraging to many in the industry, Lyons said, is the more-recent growing interest of people in their 30s and even 20s in classic cars.

"There's a growing interest among younger people in the muscle cars, like the GTOs," Lyons said. "That has helped the market."

But the biggest market bounce, Daviess said, comes from wealthy executives and business owners with lots of money to spend.

Van said Skillman pours a lot of that money back into the business.

"If Ray sells 10, he usually buys 12 or 15 [a month]," Van said. "We scour the nation at auctions and shows for the best classic cars we can find for the money."

Many classic-car buffs have sought out Skillman for his expertise and to catch a glimpse of his growing collection.

"Everybody into classic cars around here knows Ray Skillman, and the word is starting to get out about his dealership," Lyons said.

More than half of Ray Skillman Classic Cars customers come from outside central Indiana, Van said.

"People are finding us through the trade magazines and especially the Internet," Van said. "Customers are coming to us now from all corners of the world."
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