Bigfork resident Lyle Aklested grew his collection of classic cars over the years to a total of 120 cars, most of which sat in his Flathead V8 Ford Museum that he opened in 1980.
After sharing his collection with the public for nearly 40 years, Aklested is ready to say goodbye to his museum.
Aklested has a storied life. He flips through experiences in his mind, speaking about his time as a boxing referee for the United States during the Olympics to his lifelong career as a farmer in northwestern Montana.
But, one of his greatest passions lies in his car collection and the act of meticulously bringing every one up to spec. Growing up on a family farm in Conrad, he said it’s hard to remember the exact moment when he started becoming interested in cars but reflects on his first few projects — including taking the engine off his dad’s grain auger and putting it in a Model T frame to see if he could get it to run.
“Then I drug my grandfather’s 1918 Dodge out of the dump that he had … it would turn over. When I was a kid, 14 years old, or something like that, I got the thing running. My dad says ‘What are you going to do? You can’t get tires for it.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to take and shorten all the spokes on the Model T wheels.’ I’m sure they thought ‘what in the world’s wrong with that kid?’” Aklested said.
The museum’s name is strictly coincidental, he said. A 1951 Ford Flathead V8 was his first car. Despite the museum being in Flathead County, not even a mile from Flathead Lake, Aklested said the name comes strictly from his favorite engine. He said it was a very desirable car at the time in the 2950s, and made the decision to stick with Fords from then on out.
“I thought I’d be more knowledgeable on the Flathead V8’s and Fords and see what the history of them are, for them to change each year, with the engine and with a horsepower or even with the color of the engines, the upholstery— I really got hooked on the history of Ford,” Aklested said.
He built his first “hot rod” when he was 17 years old, a ’31 Pontiac.
“The old fish hatchery on the west side of Flathead Lake had it sitting out there and a lady from Idaho owned it. So I had written to her and asked her if she wanted to sell it. Yes, she did, and it was $8. That’s what I paid for my 31 Pontiac … and it just went from there,” Aklested said.
HIS LOVE of cars grew with his success as a farmer, which he avidly pursued. He started with a loan to buy all of the necessary equipment and machinery needed for his farm, working his way up financially to be able to eventually pursue things like his car collection. He started purchasing cars to fix up, one after another — and before he knew it, he was in need of a little more room.
“I built another building at my farm in Sweet Grass there, which held about 18 cars. Then finally I thought, well, I can’t do my restoring anymore in the shop with all the tractors and trucks and stuff like that,” he said.
Then he decided to build in Bigfork. He built one shop then a second and then he needed a bigger building again for his cars.
“And that’s how the idea of the Flathead V8 Museum got started,” he said.
Aklested curated his museum as his collection of cars compounded, also creating a section at the front which contained old tools and memorabilia. He said he enjoyed getting to share all of this with whoever wanted to stop in during the years the museum was active.
BUT A A few years ago things took a turn when a drunk driver drove through the front of his museum, totaling two cars and shaking Aklested, who decided it was time to look into closing its doors.
“It just killed my heart. If it was a business for me it wouldn’t hurt as much … But this is something that I had set up, that was my ‘Lyle’s man cave,’ that was my thing and so were the cars. We had it opened as a museum, you know, and tried to enjoy the cars with other people. When that happened, it just really did something to me,” Aklested said.
When it was time to start selling cars, Aklested didn’t even have to advertise. His aptly named museum drew its own attention, and he said he had been able to sell his cars to interested buyers all over the world. Which he said made him “feel very good.”
He said collecting cars felt like a pursuit he was never able to satisfy, much like his farming career where he avidly bought more and more farmland— he just kept buying cars. Most of these vehicles he chose to sell, but there are a few special ones he is planning on keeping.
“One of the vehicles I’m keeping is a 1958 Ford pickup. I restored it, put it in the colors of yellow and white, which are the colors that I had on all my trucks and everything when I was farming — I’d painted everything yellow and white. That’s gonna be my hearse,” Aklested said.
He said he is happy to see the building is such a good fit for Bigfork’s Whistling Andy Distillery, which is already setting up shop. They plan to open sometime this summer, and Whistling Andy Owner Brian Anderson said Aklested’s large, warehouse-like buildings were perfect for expanding their distilling operations and offering an expanded seating area for their customers.
Aklested said he’s enjoyed working with Anderson while he moves out and is happy a fellow Bigfork business was able to buy the building. It’s hard to say goodbye to a passion project like his massive car collection, but Aklested said it’s becoming more difficult to work on cars as he gets older.
“I’m 81 years old and you don’t walk as well, you can’t get up off the floor as well,” Aklested said.
But, Aklested doesn’t plan on putting the brakes on his love for his Fords just yet.
He’s in the process of building a new “Lyle’s Man Cave” at his and his wife’s new home in Ferndale. It isn’t as orderly as he would like it at the moment, he said, but plans on keeping around eight cars, some of which he still hopes to take to car shows.
The sign that used to hang on the front of his museum is now proudly displayed in his new shop.