Bill Johnson is like many gear heads who, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, pored through the classified ads looking for car deals.
“I’d grab an Omaha World Herald and a Des Moines Register every Sunday and go right to the cars for sale ads,” Johnson recalls, “circling the ones that looked interesting and getting on the phone to get the locations.”
Johnson, earned his nickname “Coyote” for his penchant for tracking down Plymouth Road Runners. He is a third-generation construction guy, having put in his time in and around his hometown of Red Oak, which sits on the banks of the East Nishnabotna River in southwest Iowa.
Though the town boasts a population of just slightly over 5,500 people, it has its contingent of car enthusiasts who prowled the streets and raced on the nearby two-lane blacktops.
“I got started when I was 16,” Johnson said. “Like a lot of kids, I loved fast cars and I guess I never stopped loving the cars of that era. I was hooked right away.”
Johnson and long-time friend Gene Graham began collecting cars by scanning those classified ads, heading out to pick up a find with a trailer or sometimes driving the treasure home.
“We set up a small shop where we could do repairs, sometimes rebuilding engines or replacing drivetrains. And we painted lots of them.”
Graham handled the painting chores while Johnson did prep and mechanical work.
“Once the internet came along, of course, things changed. We found we could look in places all over the country, so the treasure hunt expanded,” Johnson explained. “I got to where I had to hire truckers to bring cars back.”
Storage became an issue and as Johnson’s collection grew. His property sits just outside Red Oak, well hidden from view, and he fashioned e shelter for his vehicles when the numbers required it, even stashing some with friends who have farm property nearby.Storage became an issue and as Johnson’s collection grew. His property sits just outside Red Oak, well hidden from view, and he fashioned e shelter for his vehicles when the numbers required it, even stashing some with friends who have farm property nearby.
The storage isn’t perfect, but inspecting the collection shows that years of sitting under metal roofs has not deteriorated the vehicles inside, despite what some images might indicate.
“I’ve kept the cars dry, draining gas from tanks and making sure there were no critters that could destroy things like interiors and wiring.”
Johnson is just in the beginnings of pulling the cars into the open, rearranging them as he prepares for a full summer of cleaning and detailing before the big auction in September.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” he sighs, “but I’ve got a crew of people lined up to help and by auction time they should be in great shape for sale.”
A couple of the buildings have been “loosened up” a bit so it’s become easier to walk among the throng of GM and Mopar prizes with a few Fords thrown in for good measure. It was surprising to see sheet metal and paint in such good condition and many cars with full stock interiors that were dirty, but completely intact.
Johnson was always careful to remove interiors when paint was applied and though many of these cars were painted 20-30 years ago, they could easily be called “fresh” as they may never have seen sunlight once they were completed and parked inside one of the buildings.
There’s a huge mix within the more than 100 vehicles… Camaros from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Barracudas (including several convertibles), Pontiac Firebirds and GTOs, Chevelles, Impalas, a trove of tri-five Chevys and, of course, many Road Runners.
You can tell former owners did what many would do “back in the day,” adding custom wheels, fat tires, and engine goodies like headers, aluminum manifolds, big carbs and hot ignitions. These were cars meant for some serious cruising and street racing.
The September 14 auction will be held at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds by Yvette Vanderbrink, someone Johnson has been watching for several years.
“When I made the decision to get the collection sold, she just seemed like the right person to handle it,” Johnson said. “She definitely knows how to do these types of auctions and we’re expecting there will be a big crowd here in Red Oak. It should be a lot of fun.”
The final inventory won’t be available for another month or so, but Vanderbrink expects to begin posting individual images and details on her website so potential bidders can get a closer view at all the treasure Coyote Johnson worked to preserve all these years.
“I’m a little sad to see them go,” Johnson said. “But it’s time to get these out on the road again and into the hands of people I know appreciate them as much as I do.”