Rubin: 65 Corvettes, and that isn’t even the cool part

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The most remarkable thing might not be the 220-mph Ferrari Enzo in Ken Lingenfelter’s fleet, or even the 1,001-horsepower Bugatti Veyron. It’s that his driving record is as clean as the Bugatti’s hood.

Lingenfelter, 64, loves cars. All of them. But the ones that go faster than practicality or common sense might demand ...

Those, he especially loves.

Among other things, that explains how he got expelled from high school. It’s also the reason he’s amassed the Lingenfelter Collection, 250 smoldering Corvettes, muscle cars and exotics — plus an AMC Pacer — that might, if started simultaneously, blow the roof off the spotless Brighton warehouse where about 170 of them lurk at any one time.

The 40,000-square-foot warehouse is not open to the public. Lingenfelter is operating a business, not a museum. Fortunately, the older and more successful he gets, the more he realizes that not even his 2014 Supercharged Chevrolet C7 Corvette Stingray can outrun things like autism or Alzheimer’s. And cancer?

Cancer has already tracked down his family. So maybe 50 times a year, he’ll let a charitable organization throw some sort of small fundraiser among the vehicles — and come April 29, everyone is invited.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Lingenfelter and his wife, Kristen, will be the genial hosts for an open house that raised $25,000 for the American Cancer Society last time around.

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” says Cheryl Donohoe of the ACS, and not just to collect money. There’s added value to being associated with rare cars and a rare glimpse of them, and to exposing thousands of people to potentially life-saving literature.

She saw checks last year for $100 and more, though there’s no specific entry fee; just make whatever donation your heart demands and checkbook will permit. Or if you can’t get there, wait until October and a similar event for the breast-cancer-specific Pink Fund.

There will be food trucks, a new attraction. There will be gawking. There will be a demonstration of proper polishing and protection. And there will be audience participation, in that historically people drive their own collectable cars to 7819 Lochlin Drive to show them off.

“I can’t get out of the building that day,” Lingenfelter says, and there is regret in his voice, because as noted he is a man who adores automobiles.

Fortunately, so was the last police officer to pull him over.

It was four years ago, he says, in a 25 mph Oakland County speed trap. He was driving a juiced-up Chevy SS Trailblazer with a none-too-subtle Lingenfelter banner across the top of the windshield.

“I can’t wait to see your driving record,” the officer told him. “I got the champion.”

He came back a few minutes later with a sheepish expression and a request. He would not sully Lingenfelter’s file, he said, on one condition:

“Show me what’s under the hood.”

The racing incident

As for the little incident in high school, you can make a case that it was genetic.

His father, Charles, ran a plant for Fisher Body. Sometimes he’d come home from work, eat dinner, and take Ken back with him to fool around in a lab.

By the time Ken was a junior, he was driving a 1969 Camaro with a 396-cubic-inch engine. A kid with a 302 Boss Mustang kept needling him, and after he put a shoulder into Lingenfelter in a hallway, it was game on.

Racing up the street in front of the campus, Lingenfelter blew the Mustang’s doors off. The audience, alas, included a vice principal.

“When you’re young,” Lingenfelter explains, “you do stupid things,” a category that includes both drag racing and challenging a 375-horsepower Camaro.

The expulsion was ultimately lifted, and graduation ended his formal education. At 22, he founded a real estate settlement company. By the time he sold Metropolitan Title to First American Corp. in 2003, it was generating annual revenues of more than $150 million.

At that point, Lingenfelter owned 50 cars. Then he hit the accelerator.

For fun and profit

Two important things to remember:

First, as Lingenfelter mentions several times, the cars are a profit center. When he says he paid $300,000 for the 1985 Ferrari 288 GTO and it’s worth probably $3.5 million now, he’s not bragging. He’s discussing an investment, albeit one he drives, as he does everything else in the facility.

Second, says John Jendza III of Harrison Township, “Ken buys what he likes.”

Jendza, 70, is a collector, writer and appraiser known in automotive circles as Top Hat John, honoring his choice of headgear. Currently between Corvettes — he has owned 14 of them — he answers the phone as he’s driving through Oklahoma in a 360-horsepower Ford Flex.

Lingenfelter, he says, is simply someone who has followed his passion further than most people are able to.

He owns 65 Corvettes and assorted Camaros because they speak to him. He appreciates automotive history, but that translates not to a Model T but to the single-seat 1955 Duntov Mule, considered by collectors to be the first V-8 ’Vette.

Lingenfelter paid $318,000 for the Mule at an auction in 2009. Sitting in the cockpit, with its lack of adjustable seat or steering wheel, he concedes that you wouldn’t want to drive it or other early Corvettes long distances — though at Daytona, designer Zora Duntov drove it a record-setting 163 mph.

“It’s an eclectic collection,” says Jendza, a frequent visitor. There’s an undistinguished Chevrolet Monza V-8 because Lingenfelter owned one in his youth, a rakish mid-engine Vector M12, and an Impala station wagon he bought from a surfer in California named Random Hazard.

“He’s as real as it gets,” Jendza says. “Unless you saw him driving, you wouldn’t know he was well-to-do.”

'The kindest ... people ever'

Lingenfelter’s standard uniform is jeans and a dress shirt, maybe with a quilted vest.

He and Kristen live in Brighton in a house with a three-car garage. Often as not, he’s driving a Cadillac Escalade SUV with big blown headers, “the fastest Escalade you’ll ever come across.” She has a Corvette Z06 and a Maserati and spends even more time romping at the test track than he does.

They met at a luxury car exhibit at the MGM Grand tied to the auto show. Dazzled to the point of shyness, Lingenfelter approached a car dealer friend to ask if he knew who she was with.

“Me,” the friend said, but blessedly just as pals.

Another friend at the event was riding Lingenfelter, in that shoulder-punching-buddies way, about Kristen being out of his league. The wedding was six years ago, and in line with Lingenfelter’s easy sense of humor, they made sure to invite him.

Kristen handles the apparel side of the business, which covers everything from hoodies to onesies. They’re finding a boom market for Lingenfelter Performance Engineering gear, thanks largely to the legacy of a different Lingenfelter.

Ken’s cousin John founded the company, whose mission is to take cars that are already hot and cool and make them hotter and cooler. John, a 13-time national champion drag racer, had a horrific crash in 2002 and died 14 months later.

Ken relocated the headquarters to Brighton from Decatur, Indiana, and added a 20,000-square-foot shop in Wixom where the company hosts summer Saturday get-togethers called Cars & Coffee.

From 8-10 a.m., a vendor sells doughnuts and caffeine. Enthusiasts bring their eye-catching cars. Donations of cash and canned goods go to Gleaners Community Food Bank, and some weeks the line forms at 6:30 a.m.

This is a Corvette Caballista in Lingenfelter’s showroom. He owns 65 Corvettes and assorted Camaros because they speak to him.

Hidden stories

The sleek 2008 Lamborghini Reventón, Lingenfelter says as he strolls the warehouse, was inspired by the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. Only two 1953 Corvettes were supercharged by McCulloch Motors, and nobody knows where the other one is.

Every car has a back story.

Every patient does, too.

Lingenfelter’s dad, a smoker, died of lung cancer at 71. His mother, JoAnn, made it to 85 before breast cancer took her. His sister, Karen Edwards, beat the same disease once, but it came back. She died at 63.

Had the American Cancer Society known, it might have contacted the Lingenfelters. As it happened, says Donohoe, the corporate relations director, “they found us.”

“They’re just the kindest and most humble people ever,” she says. They give the ACS a chance to do something unique, not just another dinner or fun run, and the hosts are on the premises, knowing this is what they’re driven to do.

“As time went on,” Lingenfelter says, “we realized our mission was going to be charity.”

They had money, five healthy kids between them, the collection and a growing sense of gratitude. About the time they lost his sister, five years ago, they realized the cars could be a vehicle for helping people.

All they ask of the organizations using the building is a donation of any size to their own child-centered charity, the Lingenfelter Foundation, and some help cleaning up.

All they ask of the guests is to respect the few velvet ropes and keep a steady hand with a beverage. The 651-horsepower Ferrari FF has all-wheel-drive, snow tires, a back seat and even cupholders, but you can’t take it to Jax.

“If you’re going to do this and you’re going to share it, you have to take some risks,” he says.

That’s the downside. The upside is that he feels duty bound to give people something new to look at on every visit, which means acquiring more cars.

Experience has taught him that everyone reaches the same checkered flag eventually.

He might as well do some good on the trip — and get there in style.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn