Classic Auto Mall

Where memories are made

There is never a better stroll down memory lane than
visiting Morgantown’s Classic Auto Mall.

by Cathy Coffman | photos by Bob Zwaan

Wait 'til you see this place

With more than 330,000 square feet of space, the former Manufacturer’s Outlet Mall, which sat dormant for several years, is now once again alive with classic cars — and the memories that go along with them. “Let’s put it this way,” says Howden, “People cannot visualize 300,000 square feet. But the building is eight acres. When Penn Station in New York City was built in 1910, it was also 8 acres. This building is the size of Penn Station.” Another way of describing the size of the Classic Auto Mall is that it is equivalent to six football fields.


More than cars

But the Classic Auto Mall is more than “classic cars.” It’s a museum, an auction, and a consignment house. It’s also home to some player pianos, some wooden carousel “horses,” and a giant, working Wurlitzer music box from a carousel, complete with the triangle still attached. And the best part, says Howden, is that the Mall is free and open to the public. “This really started as a labor of love between two people,” says Howden. “And there is no other single classic car facility that sells as many classic cars per month as the Classic Auto Mall.” But to hear Howden talk about it, he’s thrilled that visitors make the Classic Auto Mall a “destination” stop on vacation — even if they do not spend any money.


Howden’s business partner (who wishes to remain anonymous) has a collection of around 450 classic cars — some lovingly restored, and some “barn finds” (vehicles literally found in barns or garages and brought to the Mall in the exact state in which they were found). “He needed a place to store all these cars, and I had been working on a pet project — a business plan for just this type of car mall.”

“We had never met before,” Howden says of his silent business partner. “I worked on my business plan off and on for about five years; I had already been in the classic car/auction business in Lackawanna, PA.”

Howden notes that his business partner had been watching the empty mall space for about six or seven years. When a mutual classic car business associate of the two learned that the business partner wanted to buy the former Manufacturer’s Outlet Mall and turn it into a consignment outlet for other classic car enthusiasts, he insisted that the men meet. “He was looking for someone to make this place a business, and our mutual friend knew I had been working on just such a business plan,” says Howden.

“So I was in my office, and I received a call from my business partner,” says Howden. “He knew of me from auction sites. He wanted to know if I would be interested, and I told him I already had a business plan written.”

When Howden told his wife, Kathy, she balked at first — but then he convinced her by opining that since the Classic Auto Mall is about an hour from the Philadelphia airport, she’d be closer to water with a direct flight to Florida. Now she also works for the Mall.

Slow start, but not for long

The former Mall space did not need much work, says Howden. His business partner took possession of the building in September 2017 and they opened for business in January 2018. “We started a bit slow, but once we went to the Philadelphia Auto Show in January 2018, things started taking off,” notes Howden. The Classic Auto Mall had an amazing first year. The Mall consigned 417 cars in 2018 and sold 176. They are only halfway through year number two and have consigned close to 800 vehicles, selling 300. “That is some significant progress. Says Howden, “My motto is: ‘Run it as you own it; own it as you run it.’ So far, everyone is pleased…most of all my partner.”

Consignors free!

Again, the Classic Auto Mall is free and open to the public, but it’s also free for consignors to bring their cars to the Mall to sell. Anyone who has sold a car on their own can tell you that selling a vehicle can be troublesome. “There are so many pitfalls in selling your own car,” says Howden, “especially with classic cars, if you’ve rebuilt it yourself; that customer is going to tear you apart during the sale.” With the Classic Auto Mall’s business model, the consignor does not pay any upfront fees and only pays a 10 percent commission after his or her car is sold. Additionally, there aren’t any storage fees for the first 90 days. “Every day the inventory changes,” notes Howden. “And every week we bring in around 20 cars of new inventory.”

According to operations manager Ed Aharonian, 95 percent of the business comes from Internet traffic. “Someone will want a specific 1967 Ford Mustang and we will have the only one like it,” he says. “So they will travel from wherever they are after reading about the car on the Internet and either have it shipped back home or drive it away.” “The best compliment we get from a buyer,” adds Howden, “is that the car is a little nicer than you describe on your website. That’s the sweet spot.”

“When people come here for the first time and wrap their heads around this, they cannot really believe it!”


A walk down memory lane

What’s really great is the memories that the cars spark, he notes, “Everyone grew up with these cars, and the museum part of this business does relate to the general public. “We don’t have to have the rarest and the coolest cars out there,” Howden says. “For instance, we like having our main cars range from Chevy Camaros to Ford Mustangs — that’s what most people really want, and that car is going to evoke emotion. We want to attract everyone; we want everyone to enjoy the mall.”

“Our walk-in business in increasing because it’s a cool place,” says Howden. “Most classic and antique cars are stored in warehouses, and there is no reason to just go there unless you are interested in a specific vehicle.” The Classic Auto Mall is a unique property; it’s a sales floor and a car museum rolled into one, with a smattering of eclectic carousel components thrown in for good measure. On a recent visit to the property, there were several couples strolling together through the building on an early Wednesday afternoon. They were there for more than two hours, taking their time and visiting almost every car with care and purpose. “Remember that?” “Oh, I remember when we….” “This was my first car….” And so on.

For these couples, it seemed as if it was an afternoon well spent. Later that same Wednesday afternoon, the Classic Auto Mall held its weekly cruise-in and open house, and people were showing up early to get good seats. “When people come here for the first time and wrap their heads around this, they cannot really believe it!” says Aharonian. “When we go out to shows and try to explain this concept, people think we’re lying or we’re crazy!”

Full House

Every nook and cranny of the former Manufacturer’s Outlet Mall — which has four wings facing north, south, east and west — is filled with vehicles. Some are truly museum pieces and are roped off accordingly. When consignors and visitors walk in for the first time, they are surprised at the size and scope of the building and what it holds, says Howden. “They don’t realize how huge this place really is,” he says. When consignors come to check the Mall out, they realize that the building will be comfortable for the car that they are selling. “The building is really acclimated for the consignor first,” says Howden, “but it’s also a great attraction for guests as well.”

Sign that car!

In addition to getting the consignors’ car “showroom ready,” each vehicle receives a detailed write-up on the windshield sticker outlining its history, restoration (if any), and even the slightest dings. The write-ups are more akin to a small magazine article rather than a bullet-point list of features, and they are enjoyable to read. With literally millions in inventory, the Classic Auto Mall is not an inexpensive venture to operate. Howden will not discuss exact figures, but he notes that there are $4 million worth of vehicles in the east wing alone.

And the most expensive car for sale? A 1964 Shelby Cobra 289 for $925,000. But it’s really also about the memories, says Howden. “Even if you are not a ‘car person,’ you can walk down memory lane and see that car you got married in, see the car that your uncle had, that the cool kid had, that your first boyfriend or girlfriend drove.” “For me,” he continues, “it’s a dream come true. I don’t even feel like this is a job.”