There are few in the automotive industry whose impact can be measured by name alone. Yenko, Shelby & Shinoda are synonymous with legendary speed, design, and performance, but when it comes to today’s muscle cars, few stand out like Ken Lingenfelter.
Born with performance in his veins, Lingenfelter, the son of GM executive, spent hours tagging along with his father at the Fisher body plant. “I remember seeing the Mako Shark and the ’63 split window Corvette before anyone else, and decided right then, I was a Corvette man,” recalls Ken. “I was around 10 years old, and already knew I was a Vette guy for life.”
This may be an understatement.
Ken’s formative years kept father and son firmly entrenched in General Motors burgeoning performance market until a transfer to GM’s Tech center found a dyed in the wool Chevy loving teen deep in the heart of Ford country.
“I was kind of an outcast as you can imagine” says Ken with a shrug. “Here was this non-Ford guy at Dearborn High School driving a ’69 Camaro 396, 375 horsepower screamer every day. All of my friend’s fathers worked for Ford and drove Mustangs or Boss cars. I wasn’t hard to spot in the parking lot,” says Lingenfelter.
“I caught a lot of flack, as you can imagine and I was always challenged to a race” recalls Ken. “For the most part, I just shrugged them off…until I couldn’t resist anymore.” When undertaking any challenge, it’s best to know both your opponent’s capabilities as well as your limitations. No stranger to drag racing –Lingenfelter accepted the race.
“The guy drove a Boss 302,” Ken said with a knowing smile. “They are great cars, and formidable, without a doubt,” he continues. “But in a street race, especially a short one, they were no competition for that 396 Camaro. So, I smoked him.”
Lingenfelter of course likely had more than just 375 horses to propel him to victory, he had racing in his DNA. Ken’s relative was none other than John Lingenfelter – winner of 13 career national event events in Competition Eliminator, and the first driver in the class to break the 6-second quarter-mile barrier. “I knew I would beat him” said Ken. “I knew nothing could catch me,” trails Lingenfelter. “Except winning the race also won me suspension from high school.”
Nonetheless, Lingenfelter already made a name for himself.
Paving The Road
Like many all-American teens of the time, Ken worked his way through college behind a grill at the local Howard Johnson’s while squeezing every available spare moment into wrenching on cars. “I love cars” says Ken. “But, I knew in order to keep those dreams alive, I needed to do something else to pay the bills. So, I got a job at a title insurance company before graduation.”
It was this decision that set Lingenfelter on his professional path.
In 1978 Ken set out to start his own title company with just two employees. Diligence, commitment and hard work saw Lingenfelter grow to 3,000 employees before ultimately deciding to sell and pursue his car passion. “It wasn’t easy” says Ken, “but it was time.”
Similarly, Ken’s relative, and famous drag racer, John, steered a growing Lingenfelter performance engineering around the same time. “John was an incredible drag racer, and his performance business was doing things few had ever seen before. Sadly, John was involved in a serious crash while racing in 2002, never recovering.” He passed on Christmas day a year later.
“John’s brother asked me to take over the assets of the company” says Ken. “Again, it was time.”
If you’ve never met Ken Lingenfelter or had the good fortune to speak with him, the first thing you’ll notice is his genuine interest in speaking with you. “Ken is one of the few guys in our hobby who, if he called you at 2:00 in the morning and asked you to stand in traffic for him, you’d ask which direction” says longtime friend and host of the popular Chasing Classic Cars TV show, Wayne Carini.
Fittingly, Ken humbly touts his proudest achievement isn’t professional. Instead, being a husband and father to five adult children “who really aren’t interested in cars,” he says with a hearty laugh. “In fact, it wasn’t until about 2005 that I really started getting serious about collecting cars and even then, just a few that I liked.”
Ken likes a lot of them.
Lingenfelter continues, “Over the years, I’ve probably collected over 250 or so.” About 30% of those are exotics, “you just have to marvel at the design of these things.”
Another 30% are muscle cars. “These were the cars of my youth. You can’t have a collection without American muscle cars of yesterday and today.” And the rest, adds Ken, “are some of my and John’s old race cars. And, of course, the greatest cars ever built. Corvettes!
“I try to keep the collection fresh,” he says with a nod. “Honestly I think that’s just a reason to buy and sell,” admitting to a collector’s worst kept secret. Unlike many static collections however, Lingenfelter’s uniquely does good, even while standing still.
Making A Difference
“We’re not open to the public” explains Ken, “we host two large charity events a year benefiting the American Cancer society in April and Breast cancer in October. Additionally, we also open up fifty to sixty times a year on behalf of the Lingenfelter Foundation, supporting various children’s charities such as the Ronald McDonald house. We always have a lot of fun, and it’s all for a great cause.”
“There is no charge. All we ask is for a donation – whatever you wish to give” says Ken. “These events are a blast,” Lingenfelter tells us. “Great fun, great stories, and great folks, all together with a common interest in cars supporting an important organization. You can’t beat it.”
Lingenfelter houses something for everyone – as diverse of a collection as you will ever see. “You see all these Corvettes, Lambo’s, Ferraris, and one-of-a-kind cars, and you ask him what his prized possession is, and he points you past this grocery-getter looking Chevy Chevette to a Levi’s-edition denim-blue Gremlin? Are you kidding me?” says close friend Dave Kindig of Kindigit Designs and televisions Bitchin’ Rides.
“He could tell you just about anything he owns besides that car, and we would all shake our heads in agreement, but that’s Ken. That’s what makes him so special,” says Kindig. “He’s just one of the nicest, coolest guys you’d ever meet.”
A common refrain when it comes to the collection’s owner.
“I don’t buy cars to make money,” says Lingenfelter, who, for the record, concedes to Corvettes being his favorite with a particular ’63 split-window holding the top spot. “I buy them to enjoy.” A point Ken emphasizes often. “These cars need to be driven, I tell people all the time, go where your passion leads you. If you’re not passionate about the car you are buying, don’t buy it! This is a business, however, so there is a necessary element of profit required to maintain it successfully.”
Lingenfelter says emphatically of his collection, “I love driving them! Currently, both my wife Kristen and I enjoy our ZR1’s with my wife taking advantage of track days whenever possible. For me, I love winding up the engine and just listening to that exhaust sing.”
So what’s next for Ken? “I’ve always had a thing for XKE Jags” he says knowingly. “I’ve had half a dozen or so, but I’m always looking for a good one!” In the interim, Ken says he’s looking forward to attending his 42nd consecutive Indianapolis 500, catching up with old friends at Mecum and Barrett Jackson and being the best dad and representative of the automotive hobby he can be.
Whether professionally or personally, Lingenfelter has always set the bar. While many in the industry make a living by what they get, clearly Ken has made a life by what he gives.