It’s like looking at an old photo, Karl Drotning says, or hearing an old, familiar song on the radio. That’s the type of feeling he gets every morning when he steps into his home garage, cup of coffee in hand, memories flooding his head.
“It just puts a smile on my face when I see it sitting there,” says Drotning, 62, co-owner of Crystal Lake Automotive Inc. in Lakeville, Minn. “It takes me back to some really good times, some of my best times.”
The green paint is “a little off” from the original model—or rather, his original model—but besides that, it might as well be the same 1968 Chevy Biscayne Drotning bought in 1970, the year he first started dating his wife.
“We did a lot of driving in that car; that’s what we did all the time,” he says. “We would go 50 miles, get a cup of coffee and drive all the way back. I had to get a second job to afford all the gas.”
Drotning had to sell that first Biscayne in 1972 (“Something about having kids, starting a family—you know, that kind of stuff,” he says), but in the last five years, he’s restored another one, made to look like his original.
He found the car online and bought it for $9,000. It wasn’t in great shape—a busted-up front end, leaky steering column and odd oil pan setup actually made it undrivable—but it was better than what Drotning thought he could find for that price.
“We were going to need to do a lot of work to it, but that’s one of the main reasons I buy cars,” he says. “I like to putz on them. Some play golf for their therapy, I putz around on cars.”
The previous owner had used the Biscayne as a drag car, and an accident left it in the condition it was in. Drotning brought it into his shop and began plugging away.
Despite being in repair shops since he was 11 (he wasn’t exactly employed, they just “didn’t kick me out,” he says), Drotning never worked as a technician at any point. In fact, he was only 19 when he was promoted to a supervisor role. He started his shop, which does full-service mechanical and collision, in 1986.
So, enlisting the help of his employees from time to time, Drotning got the Biscayne “looking great” within four years of purchasing it—“a world-record turnaround for me,” he says.
“I have a ’66 El Camino I bought 16 years ago, and it’s been being ‘restored’ for the last 16 years,” he says with a laugh.
Drotning has roughly 25 cars in two separate garages that he’s worked on or will at one point or another; most of them do not run.
“As I said, I just like to putz on them,” Drotning says. “I guess I must’ve had a little extra motivation on the Biscayne.”
Drotning and his staff redid the entire frame from scratch, replaced the fenders, repainted the car and restored the interior. He replaced the 427ci big-block that was in it when purchased and swapped in a ’66 Chevelle 396ci, 360-horsepower engine that was initially destined for the El Camino. The four-speed gearing in the Biscayne is a little too low for that engine, Drotning says, so he’s planning to eventually swap that for a 454ci Chevy truck motor he recently picked up, another four-speed and an 11-inch clutch.
“It’s a little tricky to drive right now,” he says. “You’re in fourth gear by the time you cross the intersection.
“The car looks great, though, and the only goal now is to make it just be a simple car to drive. I want to be able to just turn the keys, put unleaded in it and enjoy it.”
Looking at the car in his garage, Drotning says it really does look almost exactly like his original one. And that’s the point to having it.
“I just love sitting out in the garage with some ’60s music on my radio and putzing on that car,” he says.
“Any time you have project cars, those projects never really end unless you sell it. That’s how it is with all my cars; I’m never done with any of them.
“I’m not sure I want to be done with this one at any point. I guess I have an emotional attachment to it.”