2 September 2007

Pumping Iron: Garrett's Muscle Car Museum

How Floyd Garrett created the automotive equivalent of Muscle Beach with his car museum in Sevierville, Tennessee.

Floyd Garrett knows a thing or two about muscle car collecting. The former trucking company owner has been involved in the hobby for roughly 30 years now, so many know his name – and more learn it every day after hearing about his muscle car museum.

Opened in April 1996, Floyd Garrett’s Muscle Car Museum – a Sevierville, Tennessee, institution – arguably contains more high-performance history per square foot than any other comparable horsepower hall of fame in America.

A knowledgeable automotive historian, Garrett, 66, makes sure that visitors will not only find a democratic mix of marques, types and eras (all wonderfully restored, save for an original race car or two). Within these walls, they’ll also discover themselves surrounded by some of the rarest, most significant muscular models ever let loose on the road or track. Super Duty Pontiacs, Hemi Mopars, 409 Chevys, Boss Mustangs, 406 and 427 Fords, W-30 Oldsmobiles, Stage 1 Buicks, Super Stock AMCs – you name it and it’s been put up on a pedestal at one time or another on his stage.

This is no static display. Garrett also ensures that return visitors will discover at least some fresh material the next time around. Actually, he can’t help it: Other collectors are more than eager to see their valuable pieces put under the Garrett Museum’s limelight.

“I’ve never had to seek any of these cars out,” Garrett explains in his disarming Southern drawl. “They’ve shown up by word of mouth from the beginning.” He generally asks to hang on to these loaners for a year, but some have remained on hand far longer.

Longtime friend Smokey Yunick of The Best Damn Garage in Town fame in Daytona Beach, Florida, once wrote that he personally valued Garrett’s spoken word over a stack of legally binding contracts. In turn, Garrett nowadays can’t mention Yunick, who passed away in May 2001, in anything but warm, reverent tones.

Garrett’s own passion dates back to his teenage days working in a north Florida gas station. He became especially fond of Chevrolets. His first car was a ’47 Chevy, followed by a ’55 that he hopped up by stuffing a Duntov cam into its 265 two-barrel V-8. Within a year after graduating high school in 1960, Garrett was driving a 348-powered Impala, which he soon traded in on a 1961 409 four-speed.

His first job out of high school was at a local paper mill near Fernandina Beach, Florida. He started hauling logs and pulp on the side, then started Floyd Garrett Trucking Inc. in 1973, which enabled him to buy his first muscle car, a 1970 LS6 SS 454 Chevelle. He paid about $1,700 for it.

Chevy’s 450-horse LS6 remains among his favorites, and he still owns one to this day. Garrett went after an LS6 convertible in the late ’80s, but the owner sold to someone else before he got there. The asking price in this case was $35,000. The same Chevelle today might fetch well into the seven-digit range.

The LS6 understandably tops Garrett’s list of today’s hottest collectible muscle cars. Among others he suggests pursuing are COPO (Central Office Production Orders) Yenko Camaros and Shelby Mustangs. Top-shelf Mopars, in his opinion, have been priced “too far into the hands of the elite,” and in their place he now sees full-size big-block Chevys emerging as the latest, greatest players for the rest of us mere mortals to chase after (though maybe not for long).

Garrett also points to other four-wheeled legends that should be making hay but aren’t, among these being Ford’s reasonably rare Boss 429 Mustang. “This car costs about $250,000 compared to maybe $750,000 for a 1969 ZL-1 Camaro. I really don’t know why.”

Brand popularity, in his opinion, perhaps explains this disparity. “Plain and simple, Chevys always have been and still are the going thing,” Garrett says. “It goes back to, say, the 1962 406 Ford vs. the 1962 409 Chevy. Back in the day, I remember a buddy’s girlfriend secretly letting me know that she thought my 409 was far better looking than her beau’s 406. What was true then remains true today. Looks, general popularity, whatever; it all still weighs more favorably on Chevrolet’s side.”

Along with Pontiacs, Chevrolets have long dominated Garrett’s collection, which peaked at 64 muscle cars in 1996. But that’s not to say he’s been adverse to other brands. He still owns a 1963 427 Ford Galaxie XL convertible, and various lightweight Mopar super stocks have come and gone since the 1980s. Factory drag cars have always attracted his attention regardless of make. Perhaps even more beloved than his LS6 Chevelle was drag racer Dave Strickler’s “Old Reliable” 1963 Z11 Chevy, an NHRA champion that he sold for a then unheard of $300,000 in 1989. “Of all the vehicles I let go in my day, that’s the one I most wish I had back,” Garrett says.

Twice Garrett has sold off large parts of his collection, the first time in 1989 to help pay for his museum’s planned development. He needed the working capital, but he couldn’t bear to see his pride and joys roll away, so he priced them at about 30 percent more than they were worth at the time. “Damned if [the buyers] didn’t take ’em at that price,” he recalls. Many in the bunch were later bought back for less than he sold them for after the market dipped. But, to Garrett’s dismay, Old Reliable never has returned.

A second sell-off came about 10 years later after Garrett went toe to toe with the Internal Revenue Service. He sold his various Mopars then to help pay his taxes, but the sale unfortunately came before Hemi values began soaring into the stratosphere. Needless to say, he’s not bought any of this 13-car batch back. His collection today numbers 11 highly prized cars, including a ’57 fuelie Chevy and 1962 409 presently under construction at the hands of Garrett’s right-hand restoration man, Bob Hancock.

Garrett knows his stuff because he’s been there from the beginning, experiencing many of today’s coveted collectibles when they were new. For those who weren’t, all he can say is learn your numbers. Original parts are preferred, or at least date codes and such must match, he says.

Garrett recalls flying from Jacksonville, Florida, to Lubbock, Texas, back in the ’70s or ’80s to meet a man who swore he had the correct 409 block he was looking for. “He had an NOS block, all right, but it was a 409 truck block,” Garrett says. “I just turned around and left.”

That’s about as rude as it gets in Garrett’s book.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2007 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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