Al Hagen’s voice echoed off the towering brick walls and concrete ceiling of his expansive collector-car showroom at 28th & Lyndale.
The big, industrial-looking building’s beginning as a bus-manufacturing plant was obvious — lots of room. Hagen’s family moved its auto-body business there in the early 1970s and Hagen took over a chunk of it in 1983 to sell collector cars, something he always wanted to do.
It was common to see cars of all ages, makes and models lined door-to-door in Yesterday’s Auto, parked near glowing vintage auto signs, gas pumps and other collectibles. Hagen has sold roughly 2,000 pieces of rolling history since the business began.
But in early October, the showroom was less crowded. Hagen only had two cars for sale: a yellow ’51 Ford and a silver ’82 Corvette. They were the last he would sell before remodeling the building for new businesses and turning Yesterday’s Auto into an appraisal-only operation.
“It’s just obvious that this space is worth way too much for me to be selling old cars out of it,” Hagen said, looking relaxed in jeans and a sweatshirt, sitting in his prized red 1940s barber chair. “This was a tough, emotional decision for me to make.”
That’s because Hagen has dedicated six days a week for the past 25 years to making his business work, and it’s become much more than a way to earn money. It is his life. His identity.
“This isn’t what I do. This is who I am,” he said. “Every day, there are people coming through the door. Usually a third or a quarter of them I know. I have this huge circle of acquaintances that this career has given me. Like hundreds.”
A family affair
Hagen comes from a long line of auto-industry workers. He’s the fourth generation involved in the field and Hagen’s Auto Body, next-door to Yesterday’s Auto, is run by two of his cousins.
The body shop opened as a small operation in 1950 and moved to several locations in Minneapolis before settling in the former Eklund Brothers Bus Company building.
Outside the business, Hagen and his dad were always collecting cars. Some they’d keep, others they’d enhance and sell.
In the early ’80s, Hagen decided to turn that hobby into Yesterday’s Auto. It was a new concept at the time, he said, because the collector-car market was virtually unknown. Back in the early ’80s, someone with an old car might have been perceived as a bit of an eccentric, he said.
“This was kind of a new phenomenon,” he said. “This collector-car deal was not what it is today or has been for even the last 20 years.”
The business started with about a dozen of the family’s cars and a few sold on consignment for friends.
Hagen said the early ’80s were good for selling collector cars because auto manufacturers were not producing vehicles that the American public was really clamoring for. Convertibles and performance vehicles were particularly hard to find in the new-car market of the day, he said.
But even though business was steady in those early years, it didn’t turn much of a profit.
“There’s a rule of thumb I heard that if you don’t make money in two years, you have to figure out something else,” Hagen said. “I don’t know if I made money in four years, but I was just committed to it. It’s what I wanted to do.”
The collector-car market continued to gain momentum and peaked a couple years ago, Hagen said, after car-themed television shows and the popularity of auctions helped bring up demand — and car values. Hagen said he didn’t have a clue that collector-car values would jump so much, or he would have hung on to some of the vehicles he’d sold over the years.
“There were Shelbys, you know ’66 (Shelby Mustang) GT 350s through here,” he said. “I sold one for twelve grand. Now, that’d be a $150,000 car.”
Hagen said the collector-car market is softer than it was a couple years ago, making now a good time to leave the business and develop his section of the building, something he’s mulled over for the past five years.
A new era
Auto appraisals have always been a big part of Hagen’s business — he does about 300 a year — and he plans to continue doing those under the Yesterday’s Auto banner.
He’ll keep an office in the basement of his building and new tenants will be on the main and second floors, which should be completely revamped by early next year. Fitness center Inner Strength Studio is slated to move into the top level, where Hagen used to store cars (a giant freight elevator got them up there). He hasn’t made a deal with anyone for the main floor yet, but said it would be redone as more of an office space.
A new staircase and entrance off Lyndale are also planned.
The changes are bittersweet for Hagen, and he’s not the only one who will miss the old space.
Marit Peterson has been the office manager at Yesterday’s Auto for the past decade. Last winter, all the cars in the showroom were cleared out so she could get married there.
“It’s a really significant place for me,” she said. “And my husband and I are both into vintage motorcycles and cars.”
Peterson, who also does appraisals part-time, said she’d be around to help Hagen make the transition to an appraisals-only business. But she recently passed the bar exam, so she’s ready for a new career.
Hagen and Peterson were the only full-time employees at Yesterday’s Auto, but it was often buzzing with customers, people stopping by to look and Hagen’s friends.
Todd Landon, a longtime friend of Hagen’s, met him through Yesterday’s Auto in the late 1990s when he had an appraisal done there. The two ended up building a racecar together and driving it in a 2,000-mile race in Mexico.
Landon was working on two other racecars in Yesterday’s Auto earlier this month.
But car fans aren’t the only ones in Hagen’s circle of friends. As a Lyn-Lake Business Association board member, he formed strong ties in the community.
“He’s been a good buddy,” said Valerie Powers, executive director of the Lyn-Lake Business Association. “One time, I couldn’t get my car started and I wanted to know if he’d lend me a really long extension cord so I could try plugging in the space heater and instead of doing that he closed down his entire business and brought me down and got my car started for me.”
Though appraisals will be Hagen’s new focus, he said he’d probably never stop selling cars.
“Why do I enjoy it? Why wouldn’t you, I guess. I don’t like the detail and the hard-nosed negotiating part of selling. I love cars and the really nice, really cool cars kind of sell themselves. I’m just the facilitator and that’s what I really enjoy,” Hagen said.
He recently scraped the hours off his building, feeling a little guilty. “I’ll still be in it on a smaller level and at my leisure,” he said. “But it’s been a good run. And I guess the last chapter is not written yet. Who knows, I might open up in some other form someday.”
Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367or firstname.lastname@example.org