Frank Thompson remembers seeing a Chrysler Airflow when he was about 10 years old. He was so taken with the design that he got out his big yellow pad and began sketching the car. Seventy-three years later, a gorgeous yellow 1934 Chrysler Airflow is one of the highlights of his collection of more than 25 vintage cars.
Thompson, 83, of Leawood, has been actively selling cars for 64 years and his passion for cars is as strong today as it was when he grabbed that yellow pad. He retired from ownership of Overland Park Dodge Chrysler Jeep five years ago but moved his vintage car collection into a spacious private garage. Because buying and selling cars is as much a part of his life as breath itself his garage has become a small business. He buys and sells a few vintage cars for himself and friends as well as selling late-model golf carts. (Most of the carts he sells are used for personal transportation, not golf, he says.)
In his early days, Thompson realized he could look at an ordinary car and visualize how to make it desirable with a few improvements. That was a key to his success with used cars decades ago and he does the same with vintage cars today. New tires, polished paint and a freshly detailed engine turn a so-so car into one buyers can’t resist.
While his passion for cars can be traced to his pre-teen years, his ability to transform cars into ones that people want is rooted in his early days at Laner-Leuenberger Pontiac at 4235 Troost Ave. Although he started in the parts department, he was mentored by Russell Leuenberger who recognized Thompson’s love for cars and thirst for knowledge. They had lunch nearly every day as Leuenberger taught Thompson the basics of the car business. “When he told me something I always remembered it,” says Thompson.
After Thompson fixed up a couple of the dealership’s used cars and sold them for a profit Leuenberger made him the used car manager. “I would lay out my clothes at night because I was excited about the next day. I always enjoyed going to work,” he says.
Thompson tells amazing stories about those early days in the car business. Being young and energetic, he would drive up Troost Ave. on his way to work, handing out business cards to people waiting at bus stops. Sometimes he even gave them rides to work.
He often spent his lunch hour in a parking lot across from the Chevrolet dealer, watching to see who was shopping for a car. He would write down their license number and call them later in the day, explaining he could put them in a Pontiac for less money.
When Pontiacs were so long they wouldn’t fit in many garages, Thompson found a contractor who would build an extension on the front of a customer’s garage. Some of these garages exist today.
Thompson said he kept half-gallons of ice cream in the dealership. When a wavering customer was leaving Thompson would hand them a container of ice cream. The customers would hurry home because they didn’t want the ice cream to melt, and that meant they didn’t have time to stop at another dealership. Later that evening, Thompson would call in hopes he could close the deal.
In 1968 Thompson set up the first used-car lot on Metcalf on the corner of 80th and Metcalf by converting a small house into a sales lot for Shortman Dodge. When Overland Park Jeep was built in 1973 he was hired as the used-car manager. He bought the business in 1981 and for 10 years it was the top performing dealership in the country.
Thompson has a fondness for Chevrolets and has pristine models from 1952, 1955, 1956 and 1957. He still has his dad’s completely original four-door 1951 with 40,000 miles and an immaculate 1938.
On a recent visit I found him tinkering with a 1957 Chevy sedan. He detailed the engine compartment, cleaned and painted fender-mounting bolts, removed the fender skirts, returned the dual-exhaust system to a standard single pipe and added accessory knock-offs to the wheel covers. The car is now back to original condition and waiting for a buyer who might not have given it a second look previously.
He also loves Model A Fords because they were great cars and still are 80 years later. He says they are easy to work on, run well and can be improved for today’s roads with hydraulic brakes, a four-speed transmission and better steering. He always has several in his shop.
From 1991 to 2001 Thompson and his wife, Babe, were involved with raising more than $1 million for cancer through a charity car auction. Today, they support several projects at St. Luke’s Hospital in addition to using his garage for numerous fundraising events.
When asked, Thompson admits that the highlight of his career was spending four hours talking about classic cars with Jay Leno when he was in town for last year’s Kansas City auto show.