Linda Gustafson bought a sunset coral 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible in 2002 to feel connected to her husband's car hobby. This year, the car really had its moment.
No matter where she and her husband Paul drove it, heads turned. "Every stoplight, every stop sign, people are just yelling out," Linda said.
"'It's a Barbie car!'" Paul chimed in, as we talked last week at the Buck Hill ski resort in Burnsville, which opens every Wednesday in summer to owners of collector cars, muscle cars, customs and specialty trucks and motorcycles.
The Eden Prairie couple regularly show up with Linda's T-Bird — which has eyelashes on the headlights, pink tulle across the windshield and an American flag on the antenna.
Minnesota has a reputation as a car collectors' paradise. It's got a surprisingly robust buyer market and a deep bench of talent to do the mechanical and engineering work on them.
Of the state's 2.4 million registered vehicles, 274,000 are at least 20 years old, qualifying for the state's "collector" license plate. About 24,000 of those were built before 1950, the Department of Public Safety says.
State policies make it easy and affordable to register and operate old cars. Hagerty Inc., the Michigan-based insurer and provider of market information about the specialty car trade, a couple years ago ranked Minnesota as the most friendly state for classic cars.
The Back to the 50s Weekend car show at the State Fairgrounds every June attracts more than 10,000 owners of vehicles that are at least 60 years old.
Last week's car meet at Buck Hill was the final official gathering for this year, and there was a wistfulness in the conversations.
"We'll be putting it away soon and that's always sad," Linda said. "And then in the spring, it's always fun to get it out. We try to have it out for Easter."
A young couple walked up to her car and the boyfriend took a picture of his girlfriend beside it. Linda offered them feather boas, hats and other pink accessories to doll up the moment.
"This happens all the time," Paul said.
In the coming weeks across the state and much of the Midwest, collectors of historic and customized cars will get out for their last drives of the year.
Then, they'll store them in garages and sheds for winter. In the Twin Cities suburbs, "car condos" became a new real estate venture in recent years. These are garages on steroids, sometimes outfitted with lounges and offices that serve as getaways for their owners.
Throughout the state, "barn finds" occasionally pop up — cars and trucks that were stored away decades ago and forgotten by owners or their descendants.
Along Interstate 94 in Rogers just northwest of the metro area, Scott Ellingson has just over 100 collector cars for sale under one roof. His firm, Ellingson Motorcars, started 30 years ago as a kind of museum for his father's collection.
"My dad was always a mechanic," Ellingson told me on a recent visit. "He painted cars, rebuilt motors. He got more thrills out of buying a $500 grain truck from some old farmer out in North Dakota than he did a 1960 Caddy convertible."
About 20 years ago, Ellingson and his father began selling some cars. After his father's death, Ellingson and a new partner turned the business into a full-time dealership. But people who just want to pop in for a look are welcome; Ellingson charges a $10 fee.
The oldest car in his inventory is from 1929. The newest is a 2023 Corvette Stingray. The most beautiful? In my opinion, it's a 1934 Packard Twelve convertible sedan, painted in two shades of green that may not be its original color — but may be — and is priced at $350,000.
Some of Ellingson's shoppers are investors looking for a place to, literally, park their money. Others are hunters, seeking a car model or brand that was special to them at an earlier time in life. Ellingson said he mainly buys cars from widows or surviving children of owners.
At Buck Hill, car collector John Tretten of Edina brought a 1964 Chevy wagon that he has painted in an explosion of colors and patterns inspired by that era's customizers. He said the roof has more than 180 coats of paint on it.
Dick Pearson, a retired finance executive in Bloomington, about 10 years ago became transfixed by Packards. "I just wanted a nice-looking car that was a good driver," he said at a Rotary Club car show in Edina on Saturday.
He bought a 1940 Model 120 touring sedan, which he called the "working man's Packard," from a man in Little Falls for less than $20,000. He said he's spent far more on its upkeep.
Under the hood, a badge says the car was originally sold in 1940 in Los Angeles by Earle C. Anthony, California's original Packard dealer. Pearson, whose father served in World War II, said he likes the idea that the car was on the streets before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Just a few weeks ago, Paul Gustafson bought a beat-up old car, a 1946 Ford convertible. Over winter, he'll fix it up and, next spring, sell it. He's done that for the last 22 years.
"I've always made money on them," Gustafson said. "There's not many things where you can burn rubber and make money."
Linda Gustafson was standing a few feet on other side of the T-Bird when she heard him say that. "His classic line is 'Don't fall in love with a car,'" she said. "And I'm in love with this."