Love affairs develop in various ways. Like many loves, a love affair with the automobile can start with an interest and grow to a passion.
Illinois native Larry Klairmont’s interest in cars was already evident as a 5-year-old with a fondness for hood ornaments. Following Wold War II, Klairmont founded Imperial Dry Cleaners and it grew to become of the nation’s largest dry cleaning chains. While running his business, Klairmont began buying a car here and a car there.
Klairmont sold Imperial Dry Cleaners in the 1960s and thought he would retire. But after the purchase and re-sale of a building, he realized there was money to be made and founded Imperial Real Estate. The connection was a natural as the buildings he acquired provided space for more cars.
Ben Lockwood first got to know Klairmont in 1998 when he was hired as Imperial Real Estate’s vice president and director of property management. Lockwood had a similar car passion and today is curator of the Klairmont Kollection.
Plans for the collection started in 2009 and in 2010 things really took off. The recession allowed for the purchase of a large, 100,000-square-foot building that formerly housed a printing company. The increased space allowed Ben and Larry to work together growing the collection. Acquisitions were passion driven. By early 2016, between the two of them, operating as Imperial Auto Sales, they had nearly 600 cars stored in several buildings.
Today, the “herd has been thinned,” as Lockwood put it. About 160 vehicles were sold in the later part of 2016 and another 60 are for sale this week at the Mecum Spring Classic auction in Indianapolis. Those offerings range from custom golf carts to hot rods, customs, limousines, sports cars, a few Rolls-Royce, early Fords and more.
Still, 300-plus vehicles are tightly packed in the North-side Chicago facility used for private tours and for hosting corporate events and charity fundraisers. Off-site storage holds another 100-plus.
The entire collection is rather eclectic. Vehicles cross genres, makes, models, colors, and include some one-offs and customs. There are a few very special cars, such as the very-rare, one-of-one, copper-trimmed 1926 Rickenbacker Eight Super Sport built by the WWI flying ace and founder of Eastern Airlines, Eddie Rickenbacker.
All the cars run. There are no trailer queens. Many are not perfect but there are a few 100-pointers.
Pathways guide visitors between groupings of cars. Framed reliefs on the walls display hubcaps and tools. Collage art depicts vehicles through the decades
A stunning purple-finished 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III Aero Coupe with completely hand-built custom body and coachwork has graced the field at Pebble Beach. A1940 Ford Rollson Bougham Towne Car special-bodied to be chauffeur driven is an unexpected delight for an understated Ford.
As vehicles were acquired, multiple examples of the same makes and similar genres gave growth to displaying them in their own rooms.
A Woodie Room holds a grouping of Chrysler, Rolls-Royce, Packard and other wood-trimmed cars. Klairmont loves Cadillacs, especially the ’41, and has a nice assortment, along with many Lincolns, Packards, Hudsons, and Studebakers. There’s even a Tatra.
A room full of Vespa motor scooters is set high in the wall overlooking the array of vehicles below.
On the second level, a big array of vintage 1920s-era makes and models runs the gamut. Down the hall are race cars, high-performance as well as vintage European sports cars, and a few exotics. There’s a big room of micro cars including Isetta, Austin Bantam, Fiat models and a rare Velorax Oscar.
The museum also includes a re-creation of a Packard dealership and the iconic Route 66 Cucamonga Gas Station first built in 1914. A few vintage airplanes hang overhead.
A classic drive-in theater brings back 1950s and ’60s era cars. Chicago’s famed Hot Doug’s hot dog joint will bring a smile to the face of long-time Chicagoans. Neon and vintage posters and signage are displayed throughout the collection.
Among the multitudes are a few star-cars, including the Cadillac of Mae West, Jackie Gleason’s ’74 Excaliber, and the 2000 Zimmer of Shaq O’Neill.
Klairmont is 90 years young and is not ready to stop looking, buying or selling anytime soon. In fact, he recently bought an original Batmobile.
For more information, visit the Klairmont Kollection website.
Photos by Larry Nutson